My old friend Patrick Tanguay asked me to write something for E-180 Mag (by the people behind the new education platform, E-180). I wrote about why books, and textbooks will always matter, even if the interface to books and textbooks might change. The core of the argument is:
Books, and textbooks are still at the core of our intellectual lives. Textbooks are the documentation of human knowledge, an encoded record of ‘all the things we believe someone should learn about a topic.’ They are in some sense the operating system for society, and even if we start to build better and more effective mechanisms to transmit the contents of books and textbooks, we still need, and always will need, a written record of “that which should be known.”
In university I studied Philosophy, and Engineering, in a program called Applied Mathematics. I loved studying philosophy; engineering less so. I found the engineering courses, mostly, dry, and I had trouble getting my term work done.
When the end of term came along, I generally had something like three engineering courses, and two math courses to learn in their entirety, as well as two or three big philosophy papers to write, coupled with the readings I needed to do to feed into those papers.
I usually had to ace my engineering finals (to overcome those mid-term bumps), and writing philosophy papers, no matter when it happened, always took soul-wrenching commitment.
The end of my academic term was an intense time. Intense and pleasurable too, a time when my mind was entirely focused on learning, to the exclusion of just about everything else.
And the conclusion is something along the lines of:
Books can learn from the web that huge value — for readers, for learning, for knowledge, for society — can be unlocked when we allow networked digital content to be itself, to do what it does well — to be liquid, moveable and multidimensional, to be reproducible, sharable, findable, and linkable. And most importantly, to be built upon.
My mother just asked what i thought about WikiLeaks … and finally I had an answer (my gut reaction from the beginning has been to support WikiLeaks, but i haven’t articulated that support till now):
1. There is nothing you can do about it.
The internet is designed to support anonymous dumping of masses of documents. You can “shut down” WikiLeaks, but it doesn’t matter: there will be any number of ways anyone with documents they wish to leak will be able to do so, including reams of similar projects that will pop up all over the world, smarter and better than WikiLeaks. Trying to stop WikiLeaks is a pointless exercise, unless you wish to give the state the right to designate people or organizations illegal at will, with no due process.
2. If you shut WikiLeaks with law, you shut the free press.
If you say that the government can prosecute people for publishing information that the government doesn’t want published – for “national security” or any other reason – then you no longer have a free press or free speech. If the government has the ability to outlaw public discussions on whatever topics they please, based on national security, the government then can control the speech of the press, private citizens, and any other kind of mixture of the two. This is what Lieberman’s SHIELD law proposes.
So: there is no point in trying to stop WikiLeaks, and if you do, you have to criminalize activities that are fundamental to our understanding of Western Democracy. There’s not really a middle road, as far as I can tell.
I’ve been meaning to write this post about truly connected books for ages. It’s up on O’Reilly Radar:
Ebooks to date have mostly been approached as digital versions of a print books that readers can read on a variety of digital devices, with some thought to enhancing ebooks with a few bells and whistles, like video. While the false battle between ebooks and print books will continue — you can read one on the beach, with no batteries; you can read another at night with no bedside lamp — these battles only scratch the surface of what the move to digital books really means. They continue to ignore the real, though as-yet unknown, value that comes with books being truly digital; not the phony, unconnected digital of our current understanding of “ebooks.”
Of course, thinking of ebooks as just another way to consume a book lets the publishing business ignore the terror of a totally unknown business landscape, and concentrate on one that looks at least similar in structure, if not P&L.
“This piece looks at how school textbooks are purchased in the US, and how a strange combination of Gerrymandering, industry consolidation, and book budgets are letting fringe special interest groups redact American history. I came across it in my research into the coming collision of tablet computing, education, and teachers’ unions.” (Alistair for Hugh).
“I’m a bit of a food nut, and I devoured (pun intended) books like Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking. But now Nathan Myhrvold of Microsoft has taken it to a new level entirely. His Modernist Cuisine is a five-volume compendium, a rethinking of L’Escoffier with modern science added in. They recently released this fascinating excerpt which shows the cutaways, high-speed photography, fiber optic cameras, and other techniques they used in the text. Of course, at $500 for the book, this 20-page PDF is probably the closest I’ll get.” (Alistair for Mitch).
“I love this kind of story. It appeals to my innate sense that in modern civilization we often break things when we try to fix them. This is about the Dutch traffic engineer, Hans Monderman, who brings safety to the roads by removing all the signs. I’m not quite sure what the wider message is, but I like it.” (Hugh for Alistair).
“Mitch and I are both newspaper and magazine junkies. We’re old-media maniacs wired for new media – and we’ve had hours – maybe days – of conversations about what a great news start-up would look like. We still don’t know, but every time a new and innovative take on news creation or consumption crosses my radar, I send it along to Mitch. Forthwith: The Accidental News Explorer app for the iPhone, which curates good content and throws in a dash of serendipity. I haven’t played with this app yet, but I expect Mitch and I will be arguing or complaining about it soon over lunch.” (Hugh for Mitch).
“This is a very charming and terrifying piece. It’s one of those moments that make you realize, ‘wow, technology has really changed and can we even call this stuff technology anymore?’ The truth of the matter is that we weren’t really doing much of anything with the Web back in 1996… and doesn’t that feel like yesterday?” (Mitch for Alistair).
“If you think it’s hard to shut-up Hugh and I when we discuss newspapers and magazines, you don’t want to be around us when we talk book publishing. It’s probably annoying to people who are just sitting near-by. While I ranted about Seth Godin‘s recent announcement that he would no longer be publishing books in a traditional fashion (more on that here: You Are Not Seth Godin), Tim Ferriss (the best-selling business book author of The 4-Hour Work Week) wrote this killer (and long) blog post about how books are created and sold. Tim always brings sparks and sharp wit to his content, and this Blog post is no exception.” (Mitch for Hugh).
Alistair for Hugh: Put on your tinfoil hats: they really are out to get you! This Washington Post piece on Top Secret America includes an interactive exploration of the off-the-books US military spending, showing how much money goes where. Not only is it entertaining fodder for conspiracy theorists, but it’s a great demonstration of how journalism can work well in the digital age: this isn’t something that can be easily vacuumed up via an RSS feed and repurposed by someone else. This is part of a 2-year investigative project by the Post, nicely wrapped in interactive applications and videos.
Alistair for Mitch: As the world agonizes over privacy and anonymity, triggered in part by Google’s CEO’s assertions that we should just get used to no longer being anonymous, the Wall Street Journal put together a great illustration of the most prevalent invasion of privacy, tracking cookies. Cookies are a much-maligned scapegoat for cyber-crime; without them, we wouldn’t have the dynamic web we enjoy today. But when cookies are used to share information across sites, they can be put to all kinds of nefarious uses. This interactive app puts tracking in plain sight. The surprise leader? Dictionary.com, which puts 159 cookies, 23 flash components, 41 beacons, and 11 first-party cookies – 168 of which don’t let visitors opt out – into your web browser. Really? Why do I need over 200 cookies to find out what paranoid means, anyway?
Hugh for Alistair: There’s been much talk about happiness and parenthood of late, with more studies showing that kids (supposedly) make you unhappy. I’ve come across the Last Psychiatrist blog a few times in the past couple of weeks, and each time come away thinking: reading time well spent. Here he cuts apart the premises upon which the happy/unhappy parent paradigm is built. Conclusion: ego overload.”
Hugh for Mitch: Mitch recently had to cancel a lunch with me because of a funeral. I’ve had two close friends (one real life, one online) die of cancer in the past three months. Death is a fact of our existence that we aren’t good at coping with in Western culture. This is an interview with Tony Judt, the prolific British/Amercian historian, from a few months back, when he was suffering a quick decline from Lou Gehrig’s disease, an affliction to which he succumbed this week. It’s funny, and smart and moving.
Mitch for Alistair: It’s sort of freaky that Alistair’s recommended link for me was The Wall Street Journal‘s look at cookies and online privacy, considering I had this Blog post from Doc Searls (co-author of the magnificent business book, The Cluetrain Manifesto) pegged for him. While Doc does his usual role of breaking through the chaff really well, it’s his own thoughts on the subject (and the amazing comments within the Blog post) that really makes this piece shine. Regardless of which side of the fence you’re on about this topic, this Blog post made me love Blogs and everything the Internet has done for society even more because of the open conversation.
Mitch for Hugh: This story will either make you marvel at technology or leave you shaking your head and paranoid about the coming singularity. In this Blog post from the Google Books people, they attempt to define what, exactly, a ‘book’ is (a topic near and dear to Hugh’s heart – if you’ve ever listened to our audio Podcast, Media Hacks), how to count/track the amount of books and – on top of that – how many books Google believes have been in the world (and – if you know anything about Google – it’s an exact number). A pretty fascinating read about books, publishing and the future.
Good news: in the new HTML5 spec, you don’t need Flash or another plugin to play audio files from standards compliant browsers. Instead, you can put your audio link between <audio> tags, and all should be well.
New releases of Safari, Chrome, Firefox, and Opera all support the audio tag.
Bad news: Safari, Chrome, Firefox and Opera all support the tag, but they don’t all support the same codecs – or kinds of audio files. Here, from HTM5 Doctor, is a list of current support:
You can solve the problem by offering all the codecs between the tags, so:
On August 10, 2005 I put up a website, called it LibriVox, and posted the following:
LibriVox is a hope, an experiment, and a question: can the net harness a bunch of volunteers to help bring books in the public domain to life through podcasting?
LibriVox is an open source audio-literary attempt to harness the power of the many to record and disseminate, in podcast form, books from the public domain. It works like this: a book is chosen, then *you*, the volunteers, read and record one or more chapters. We liberate the audio files through this webblog/podcast every week (?).
Five years later, it seems as if the answer is: yes. [more…]