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Via Siva, here is Ben Vershbow on the future of the book, as brought to you by Google and Amazon. First a long quotation, then a comment. More below the jump

Yes, they’ll give you the option of buying a book that lives its life on line, but like a chicken in a poultry plant, packed in a dark crate stuffed with feed tubes, it’s not much of a life. Or better, let’s evaluate it in the terms of a social space — say, a seminar room or book discussion group. In a Google/Amazon ebook you will not be allowed to:

– discuss
– quote
– share
– make notes
– make reference
– build upon

This is the book as antisocial software. Reading is done in solitary confinement, closely monitored by the network overseers. Google and Amazon’s ebooks are essentially, as David Rothman puts it on Teleread, “in a glass case in a museum.” Get too close to the art and motion sensors trigger the alarm.

So ultimately we can’t rely on the big technology companies to make the right decisions for our future. Google’s “fair use” claim for building its books database may be bold and progressive, but its idea of ebooks clearly is not. Even looking solely at the searchable database component of the project, let’s not forget that Google’s ranking system (as Siva Vaidhyanathan has repeatedly reminded us) is non-transparent. In other words, when we do a search on Google Books, we don’t know why the results come up in the order that they do. It’s non-transparent librarianship. Information mystery rather than information science. What secret algorithmic processes are reordering our knowledge and, over time, reordering our minds? And are they immune to commercial interests? And shouldn’t this be of concern to the libraries who have so blithely outsourced the task of digitization? I repeat: Google will make the right choices only when it is in its interest to do so. Its recent actions in China should leave no doubt.

Perhaps someday soon they’ll ease up a bit and let you download a copy, but that would only be because the hardware we are using at that point will be fitted with a “trusted computing” module, which which will monitor what media you use on your machine and how you use it. At that point, copyright will quite literally be the system. Enforcement will be unnecessary since every potential transgression will be preempted through hardwired code. Surveillance will be complete. Control total. Your rights surrendered simply by logging on.

I’m struck by the staggering passivity of Vershbow’s implicit model of the reader/user/consumer. Certainly, Google (in all its manifestations) is a form of social software, but it’s far from the only social software out there, or the only social software yet to be. I’ve blogged about this before; maybe the problem with Google Book Search isn’t so much that it’s internal working aren’t transparent, but instead that it doesn’t go far enough in creating interfaces to the rest of the world, interfaces that emerging reader and user communities can use to build new communities and conversations.

Certainly publishers are gripped by the cognitive limitations of the physical book, and they’re reluctant to let that go because, as Vershbow writes, “publishers want electronic books to behave like physical objects because physical objects can be controlled. Sales can be recorded, money counted.” But people like physical objects. We like the tangibility of books. The tangibility of books, their linearity, their relative fragility and durability, all are good things. Suppose, then, that the failure of the ebook market to take off isn’t about consumers’ unwillingness to read on a screen, and it’s not about DRM built into ebook readers, and it’s not about publishers hesistant to release titles in electronic form. Suppose that the failure of the ebook market is an affirmative signal from all of us that we really, affirmatively, like books the way that they are. If that’s right, then Google’s and Amazon’s electronic replication of the analog book in their digital plans means that my internet is half full, not half empty. The question isn’t really which baseline is the right one. Preferences are heterogeneous in lots of ways. The question is how to account for that heterogeneity in making policy prescriptions.

An update: Before posting the above, I might have read further into the future of the book blog, and I would have encountered Dan Visel’s post about object nostalgia, in which he blends arguments about originality and authenticity, on the one hand, and tangibility, on the other.

Update #2: Ben Vershbow replies with an excellent Comment. Thanks, Ben.

1 thought on “GoogleBooks”

  1. As you can see from the two posts — mine on Google ebooks and Dan’s on nostalgia for objects — we at the Institute for the Future of the Book are trying to grapple with this from all sides. I agree that physical books continue to exert a great pull, and that in certain respects they can never fully be replaced by digital innovations. As much as certain kinds of print books are likely to endure — perhaps for a long, long time — (and I personally hope they do) I think it is fairly certain (and perhaps this is where we differ) that the primary arena of intellectual discourse is moving online. And so we are going to want to be able to have online the sorts of bounded, structured intellectual experiences that books afford, although expanded to live fully in the networked, media-blending environment of the web. That assumption stated, I’m concerned that companies like Google and Amazon are defining the next generation of electronic publishing, all too willing as they are to comply with the stipulations of the current copyright cartel. My basic point is that the books they offer abrogate our right to read in a critical, engaged manner — or at least make it prohibitively difficult to do so.

    I in no way mean to imply an inherent passivity of readers — my ideal model of reading is in fact incredibly active and social (as I enumerate in the list of restricted behaviors). I do, however, fear that people are increasingly passive (or perhaps too busy) in the face of companies like Google, who are building the information architecture of our future. The picture I paint at the end with the mention of “trusted computing” is admittedly dire, but my intention is to draw attentions to the dozens of small shifts that are occurring, without much debate or discussion, in the area or privacy and readers’ rights, and which could soon add up to a situation that we don’t much like.

    You’re right to point out that Google and Amazon are not the only social software on the web, but who do you see out there that has comparable clout to make deals with the publishing industry? And with what seems like the impending deregulation of the network infrastructure and a move to tiered service, where big companies can pay for packets to be prioritized, it will be increasingly difficult for smaller alternatives to compete in the struggle for bandwidth. I think that in the coming decades we’ll be living a kind of dual existence, going constantly back and forth between print and digits. And perhaps, ironically, the combined effect of overreaching copyright law and broadband deregulation will sufficiently screw up the net that print media will enjoy a renaissance. But more likely we’ll just learn to live with the new constrictions, unless, that is, we vigorously debate the changes as they approach us. That’s what we’re trying to do.

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