It’s easy to forget that the world wide web as we know it today evolved from an early attempt to put books on the internet. When Tim Berners-Lee envisaged what would become the world wide web, it was with the idea of making academic papers and other documents widely available. To this end he devised a simple way of laying out text and images on a page, inventing what we now call Hypertext Markup Language or HTML.
Early HTML could define pages and paragraphs, bold and italicise text, embed images and lay out tables. A little more than 20 years later, HTML 5 includes media playback and animation, and the web has now become so ubiquitous that for most users it is indistinguishable from the underlying framework of the internet itself, but at its core the technology of the web remains little changed. Every web page, however sophisticated it may seem, is basically a digital book that we read on our computer through our web browser.
So when Hugh McGuire, founder of PressBooks and LibriVox, stated today that the book and the internet will merge, he was in one sense simply reiterating what is already the case. But from the perspective of people without the technical knowledge to see how closely entwined the book and the internet already are, it has the whiff of yet another doom-monger proclaiming the death of the book as we know it.
McGuire’s argument hinges on the recent emergence of ebooks as a serious contender to the print book as the dominant artefact of the publishing industry, with some suggesting that ebooks will make up 50% of the book market by 2015 thanks to the Kindle, iPad and smartphones. Ebooks are deliberately packaged and marketed to appear as much like traditional print books as possible, so many readers will be surprised to discover that ebooks are built around much the same HTML structure that powers the web. Every ebook, no matter how much like a print book it may seem, is a web page that we read on the simplified browser embedded in our e-reader of choice.
The distinction between the ebook/webpage, webpage/ebook is not a material one. In technological terms they are exactly the same thing. But when McGuire first mooted his argument on Twitter in April last year my response likely mirrors the response of many book readers, “Books are researched, written, edited, published, marketed … and hence paid for. The internet is ego noise, hence free.” The distinction many of us draw between a book and a webpage is one of quality and hence of value. The real question raised by McGuire’s argument is whether we continue to value ebooks as books, or as webpages. Books are something we pay for. Webpages are things we read for free. Which model will win out?
Unless you are one of the very small number of people whose fortunes rest upon the outdated business model of publishing, you should hope that the latter wins. Because this is about a much bigger issue than how writers and editors get paid for the valuable work they do. For hundreds of years we’ve been slowly expanding the reach of human knowledge, both in terms of what we know and how many of us know it. Today we take a resource like Wikipedia for granted – but compare it with the situation of only a few decades ago, when the majority of the population had lacked easy access to such knowledge. The benefits of expanding access to knowledge, both social and economic, are incalculable.
Now we stand at the threshold of possibly the most revolutionary advances in human history. The combined technologies of the internet – HTML webpages, ebooks, search technology, social media and many more – are very close to making all human knowledge accessible to all people for free. Even the short-term consequences of this advance are hard to envisage, and in the long term it has the potential to improve our future as much as the invention of the printing press improved our past and present.
Every time society advances, it faces challenges from those people economically and emotionally invested in the past. Undoubtedly stone age flint knappers were less than happy about bronze-age technology disturbing their business model. The medieval church was none too pleased about printing technology breaking their hegemony over knowledge, but we’d never have had the Enlightenment without it. Today the media-conglomerates, governments and educational institutions that profit from gatekeeping knowledge of all kinds are pushing the Stop Online Piracy Act, and even more draconian legislation to try and hold back the flood of free knowledge that threatens their power. Unless we want to stay in the knowledge equivalent of the stone age, and miss the next enlightenment the knowledge revolution promises to bring with it, we should all redouble our efforts to make sure they lose.
For centuries the book has been the highest symbol of knowledge. The object that has enshrined and preserved knowledge through history. The book is so inextricably linked with our concept of knowledge that for many people it is hard to separate one from the other. But for human knowledge to reach its full potential, we may have to let go of the book-as-object first, or open our thinking to a radically different definition of what a book is.
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