Our grim e-book future  APR 20 2009

Steven Johnson's Kindle inspired an "aha!" moment for him in the same way that the web did 15 years ago. And as with the web, Johnson believes that the Kindle and the e-book will change the way we read and write.

With books becoming part of this universe, "booklogs" will prosper, with readers taking inspiring or infuriating passages out of books and commenting on them in public. Google will begin indexing and ranking individual pages and paragraphs from books based on the online chatter about them. (As the writer and futurist Kevin Kelly says, "In the new world of books, every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages.") You'll read a puzzling passage from a novel and then instantly browse through dozens of comments from readers around the world, annotating, explaining or debating the passage's true meaning.

I recently used a Kindle for the first time and was really underwhelmed. I'd kind of wanted one but using it for few minutes turned me right off. The potential is definitely there, but the actual device is a bummer: too small, too slow, and too closed. Maybe using one for two weeks would change my mind...but I don't know. I'm skeptical of the future that Johnson sketches out for the ebook, and it's not just the Kindle.

When the web and the first browsers were built -- mostly by scientists, not by billion-dollar retailers or publishing conglomerates -- the openess that Johnson talks about as a metaphor for how ebooks will work was baked in: viewing source, copy/paste of text, the ability to download images, etc. All of the early web's content was also free (as in beer).

Aside from some notable exceptions like Project Gutenberg, e-books are currently only as open and free as the publishing companies (and Amazon and Google) want them to be. I think those two initial conditions change the playing field. Copy/paste/publish to your booklog without significant restrictions or payment? Sharing a passage of a book with someone who doesn't own that book, as verified through a third-party DRM system? Good luck! Readers will have to fight for those kinds of features. And perhaps we'll eventually win. But for right now, the bookloggers that Johnson speaks of are only two letters away from how the publishing industry might label them: bootleggers.

Read more posts on kottke.org about:
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