Post #5: The Networked Book

A new publishing model is emerging that might strike fear in the hearts of librarians and booksellers everywhere.  With barely any time to breathe after Wikipedia inspired insecurities took a seat at the table, I now hold before you the networked book.  Possibly some of you are wondering, what exactly is a networked book?  Alright, here goes….

pluma uploaded to Flickr on feb 19 2005 by eelend

A networked book is a text offered to the web community to read, edit, contribute to and discuss over time.  Essentially a networked book is another type of social Web 2.0 application, very similar in theory to wikis and Wikipedia, but with an eventual definitive text in mind.  But that doesn’t even need to be the case, really, since they are so new and people are hashing out the limits as you read this.  In fact, with a little poking around you will find several ongoing texts in the works, some utilizing a blogging framework, others wiki models, and some are like online magazines with hosted editing capabilities. 

The amazing thing about these social forums is how creative the web community is today, how open to public ridicule, revision and deconstruction.  But then, people who were paying attention from the beginning intuitively understood this idea of open source vs. proprietary networking. 

Many programming languages and servers used in producing content for the Internet are developed through networks of programmers using open source coding.  For example, Apache, MySQL, Perl, PHP and Python are all collaboratively edited.  An early example of this is Linux, a programming code which was developed as a counterpoint to UNIX, which was owned by and developed by Bell Labs.  Initially a free operating system distributed among universities, UNIX by the early 90s was a fairly expensive commercial platform for individuals to purchase.  Linus Torvalds in 1991, then a student at the University of Helsinki, and frustrated with the cost of UNIX, decided to begin programming what was to become the Linux operating system. 

Linux is a success story of what James Surowiecki calls the wisdom of crowds.  After Torvalds developed the initial core of the Linux operating system, it was made available to numerous interested programmers without restriction.  Soon Free Software Foundation’s GNU Project became involved, and by 1994 numerous user groups as well as Linux Journal magazine spontaneously began work on refining the user environment.  Linux 1.0 was launched in March of that year.  The term open source originated soon afterward, with the launch of the web browser Netscape Navigator, which was offered for free to the public in 1998

So, to risk redundancy and quote Tim O’Reilly again, here’s a bit of an interview from 2003:  “There’s so much now that if you start looking at the computer industry through the lens of how the Internet is changing everything, it makes you tell a very different story. So, for example, Open Source. I talk a lot about open source, but I don’t talk all that much about licenses; I talk about network-enabled collaboration because that fact is, I believe, an even deeper story than the software licensing story. Open source really grew up along with the Internet because it was about the way that developers could free-associate over the network. And so Linus could start something in Finland that could spread to the rest of the world. He could move to California and he could still work with this guy he had hooked up with in Wales, Allan Cox. You look at the Apache group, the core developers are from all over the world, or the Perl community. It’s really a very different model than the days in which if you wanted to start a company, you had to get a bunch of people into the same physical location.” 

(quoted from IT Conversations, a talk between Tim O’Reilly and Doug Kaye from 18 September 2003)

If you want to get technical about it, we’ve always had networked books;  just go back in history to the scriptoria of the middle ages.  Every time a text was queued up for copying, it was subject to revision, deletions and creative annotations.  It is very, very rare for any early text to be exactly the same edition to edition, no matter how hard a particular scriptoria might work toward that goal.  (I am thinking of Saint Columbanus’ work in France, and his later monastery in Italy, Bobbio)  Something has to be sui generis to achieve that kind of purity, like the Lindisfarne Gospels or the Voynich Manuscript.  One blog even suggested that the Talmud and the Bible are examples of networked, collaboratively edited books.

All of this takes me back to my undergrad years, when a good friend of mine spent a summer reading and annotating her copy of Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce.  It was a masterpiece of work which she subsequently lost, and I regret not being able to refer back to it today.  It’s too bad she wasn’t using FinnegansWiki to post her comments…

Part of me feels that these networked books will be much hyped, but that the commitment will be too large for them to catch on with ongoing communities.  A book here and there will catch fire, so to speak…but who knows?  Imagine networked poetry, or networked science…oh wait, some of that is already happening.  Code poetry has been around for over ten years, and Science Commons is hoping to encourage integrated global science and medicine collaborations. 

robot brain uploaded to Flickr on april 19 2005 by Will Pate, creative commons

I feel swallowed by the dust kicked up on the net, the collective sigh of relief people are sharing on the web in finding or founding their own networked communities.  Whether or not the networked book heralds a thunderclap or is a buzz word the meaning is clear.  Our intellectual environment is changing more rapidly than it was possible to prophesy, and as soon as the Japanese perfect those brain reading remote controls, or just a USB port to the brain…

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One Response to Post #5: The Networked Book

  1. [...] Quarterly and the Institute for the Future of the Book, intellectually a sort of follow up to an earlier post on Robotic Librarian about networked books. It’s a digital version of the Iraq Study Group [...]

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