Social Reading: An Opportunity

I recently posted the following notes regarding the potential of social reading to a publishing listserv which focuses on the evolution of reading and writing as it moves from printed pages to networked screens.

Three years ago, a secondary school teacher in New York asked the students in her Spanish literature classes to read their assignments in SocialBook, a reading platform that enables small groups to carry out threaded conversations in the margins of a text. The teacher retired last spring, but three students who started with her in 2011 and were about to enter their senior year persuaded her to keep a part-time position so they could read Don Quijote with her in SocialBook. The school agreed and wow half-way through the text the three students and their teacher have made more than 2,500 comments — helping each other understand difficult passages, discussing a wide range of historical and literary questions raised by this seminal novel, and even creating a rich glossary of terms and concepts that are unfamiliar to contemporary Spanish speakers.

Social reading skeptics, before you discount this anecdote — because it is just that, a singular example, not backed up by data — please consider the following:

A few years ago I showed SocialBook to the CEO of a major publishing house, who responded confidently that his customers weren’t interested in social reading.

His certainty reminded me of conversations in 1992 when a well-known computer scientist who had seen Voyager’s Expanded Book Series called to suggest I try to raise a small fund from the publishing industry to develop what he called the dynabook, and would have been the first digital tablet. Alas, the unanimous response from every CEO was “Are you kidding, people will never choose to read on screens.”

The thing is that they were right about how most people regarded the idea of reading on a screen. What they didn’t see, however, was that the prevailing opinion was going to change over time as hardware improved. And at that moment, the publishing industry gave up its opportunity to be in front of the shift from paper to screen.

Had you asked everyone who tried the first ebooks, the vast majority would have said they didn’t like the experience, confirming the industry-wide skepticism. However, if you focused on the few who liked readingJurassic Park or The Hitchhiker’s Guide on their PowerBooks (Apple’s first notebook computer), the potential was apparent. Two early stories involved the wives of early adopters, who purchased their own first computers after seeing their husbands reading in bed with the lights off. One described a hilarious sight — both lying in bed with their laptops on their chests, turning the page by lowering their chins and pressing on the mousepad. Other people talked about the joy of hands-free reading and the ability to do full-text searches. The enthusiasm of the people who liked the experience was a much better indicator of potential than the disinterest of the people who didn’t. Why? Because many of the stumbling blocks — e.g. awkward form factor, very poor resolution and brightness — were temporary problems that were overcome as the technology improved. And the things people liked were only going to get better.

Early reaction to social reading platforms has followed the same pattern. Most people dismiss it out of hand and don’t even deign to try it. Significantly, the people who try it, but dislike the experience, rarely complain aboutthe idea in the abstract. Rather they talk about the many limitations — both technical and design-related — that are largely a function of a primitive platform that will improve dramatically.

When people like SocialBook, they talk about the value of collaboration. For example, Students at Hildesheim University read Clemens Setz’ Indigo, a difficult literary novel published by Suhrkamp, in SocialBook. At a symposium held to discuss the experience, students noted that the commentary in the margin became crucial to their reading experience, and that the notion of content expanded to include their discussion as well as the author’s words. We consistently hear that students work harder to understand what they are reading with SocialBook. Part of this is peer pressure, but it’s also that they quickly learn that thinking out loud is consistently rewarded as ideas are deepened and enriched by the interaction with others.

Although these examples are in the realm of education, there’s every reason to believe that the value of social reading applies much more broadly. In this context, it may help to consider social reading as umbrella term, representing a continuum of behaviors.

For example, Amazon’s underlining function, which identifies passages marked by a number of readers, is a form of social reading. As far as I know, very few people turn this feature off. Not only is it interesting to know which passages other people consider important, but we tend to read and reflect on those passages more carefully. Cookbooks and travel guides have already gone social, with huge amounts of reader commentary enriching each entry. Or consider the always-present comment stream on news articles.

And as social reading platforms evolve, we’ll start to see exciting new elements — expert glosses that can be swapped in and out, live author readings taking place in the book itself, stories that depend on user-collaboration in the margin. Books are well on their way to becoming places where things happen when people meet up in the margins.

As someone who published the first “enhanced books” and appreciates the value of expanding the notion of the page to include audio and video, I believe the future of the book will be defined by its evolving social component. It’s not that audio/video enhancements and interactivity aren’t of value. They are. But, realistically, human interaction in the margins will over time provide a much broader range of valuable “enhancements” than ones that authors/editors/publishers could ever provide on their own.

Keep in mind that notes in the margin can include audio, video, and graphics as well as text, and eventually should be able to run complete interactive simulations.

If I had access to the Genie’s lamp, I would rub it vigorously in the hope that the publishing industry might grasp the potential of social reading and use it to transform the landscape. Putting social front-and-center provides the basis for a publishing ecosystem which would be out from under Amazon (and Apple’s) thumbs. Building a publisher/author/editor/reader-centric platform is not an overnight proposition. It will take five to 10 years to grow and gain dominance. But it’s possible and needn’t be hugely expensive to build. Conceptually all the pieces are there, and technically many are in place. They just need to be knitted together intelligently and strategically.

I’ll follow this up soon with a discussion of what the ecosystem I’m proposing looks like and how it might be developed.

__________________

The following is my response to the discussion the original post generated over the course of the day. 

1. The comments in the listserv thread that emerged tend to confuse two different forms of social reading — conversations about a book and conversations inside a book.

The first is similar to a water cooler discussion which ranges all at once around any aspect of a book. These conversations tend to veer off quickly into subsets and tangents. Examples of this category are the interactions on Goodreads or on listservs fall into this category. The second are conversations which take place inside the book, allowing readers to focus and go deeply into issues raised by specific bits of content. Both of these have value, but they are different. By the way, SocialBook allows for both, as readers can make general comments to address broad themes or raise important new and related ideas generated in the course of the read.

Another important issue is whether the discussion is open or closed. In the main, conversations among people who know and trust each other have a much higher signal-to-noise ratio than those that occur among strangers. There is wisdom in the crowd, however, so the tricky thing is to give people access to the broader conversation without compromising the small group discussion.

2. A common concern raised in regard to social reading is the potential for distraction. This is important, and good social reading implementations need to enable readers to change their preferred “view” at any time. Here’s a link to screen shots showing how SocialBook resolves this.

Significantly someone suggested that blog-style commenting which puts comments below the main text might be preferable to using the margins. The problem with comments below is that it restricts the discussion to the water cooler type as you can’t associate comments with specific bits of text. Also, comments below tend to reinforce the hierarchy of print with the author on high and the reader down below. With the conversation taking place in the margin, the author and reader are much closer to occupying the same space which tends to emphasize the collaborative nature of the effort.

Several people suggested that you might build a social reading platform using Twitter. Maybe but, again, Twitter lends itself to second-screen type general discussions, not the deep discussions that are possible with threaded conversations tied to specific bits of text.

3. One of the most interesting questions raised was whether to classify social reading as intrinsic to consumption. My answer is an unqualified yes. In the digital era media consumption is shifting from private to social. Full stop. That doesn’t mean that there needn’t be opportunity and space for private reflection, good social platforms will allow readers to adjust their view as needed.

4. There were several comments decrying the comment stream accompanying YouTube clips. But rather than use this failure as ammunition against social reading, it might be more useful to try to understand the reasons why comments in YouTube don’t work. One reason is that YouTube doesn’t enable small group discussions and the other is that you can’t easily focus on specific parts of the video. In other words you’re stuck in a water coolor discussion with people you don’t know. When implemented properly, people can have wonderful conversations in the margins of films. SocialBook works as well with full-length films as it does with novels. Here’s a link to an example.

5. In answer to the several people who questioned whether social reading might work outside of education or within the novel, here is a link to a vigorous discussion which took place among seven readers in the margins of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook in a precursor of SocialBook.

In honor of Tim Cook’s coming out

In 1994 Apple agreed to bundle $500k worth of the Who Built America CD-rom with all computers purchased by schools and libraries. In January of 1995 we got a note from Apple saying they were discontinuing distribution in response to complaints from schools in Oklahoma and California about the CD-Rom’s open portrayal of homosexuality and abortion,. We wrote a press release accusing Apple of censorship. The release was picked up by Time and The Wall St. Journal among others. Apple stonewalled until something wonderful happened. They reversed their decision and resumed distribution. The reason for the change of heart — internal dissension. Apple employees all over the world, but particularly in Europe, were deeply disappointed by Apple’s cave-in to homophobic dissent and made it known throughout the company.

This is a 2-minute promo video. Remember, when you look at it, that the piece was created 23 years ago when 800×600 was the maximum resolution and quicktime windows were the size of post-it notes.

The following is a statement by the American Social History Project, the authors of Who Built America (originally published by Knopf) and now available as a text book from Macmillan.

IS THE INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY ONLY OPEN TO “EDUCATIONALLY
APPROPRIATE” HISTORY?

As members of the board of directors of the American Social
History Project (ASHP) we want to bring to your attention the
recent attempt by Apple Computer to censor the Project’s WHO
BUILT AMERICA? FROM THE CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION OF 1876 TO THE
GREAT WAR OF 1914 (WBA), a CD-ROM conceived and written by Roy
Rosenzweig, Steve Brier and Joshua Brown, and published by the
Voyager Company in 1993.

In January 1995, after distributing more than 12,000 copies
of WBA in the previous month as part of its “Apple Educational
Series: Elementary and Secondary Reference” bundle installed in
computers sold to schools, Apple informed the Voyager Company
about unspecified complaints regarding material in the disk
discussing homosexuality, birth control, and abortion between
1876 and 1914. Voyager refused Apple’s request to make the CD-
ROM “educationally appropriate” by removing all references to
these subjects. The material that Apple wanted censored
represents a small number of historical documents and oral-
history interviews, the equivalent of 40 pages and 15 minutes of
sound out of more than 5,000 pages of text and four and a half
hours of sound. The inclusion of the history of gay Americans
and birth control is part of a comprehensive social history of
the period that covers a wide range of experiences and
perspectives. On January 31, 1995, Apple notified the Voyager
Company that it would no longer distribute WBA to schools.

Ironically, Apple’s decision occurred only three weeks after
the American Historical Association awarded WBA the biennial
James Harvey Robinson Prize as “the most outstanding contribution
to the teaching and learning of history in any field for public
or educational purposes.” In addition, since its publication in
1993, WBA has been praised in major newspapers and in computer
trade and scholarly publications for its innovative application
of multimedia to education and rigorous scholarship. For
example, Walter S. Mossberg wrote in the WALL STREET JOURNAL:
“Once in a while . . . a truly exciting, high-quality electronic
book turns up to reveal the real potential of electronic
learning. My latest nomination to this CD-ROM Hall of Fame
is . . . WHO BUILT AMERICA?”

Apple’s new restrictions threaten the intellectual and
educational efficacy of electronic information, from interactive
programs to the Internet, an arena that has been heralded for
providing greater opportunities for accessibility, expression,
and diversity.

In response to publicity being given to this case in various
media, Apple has apparently backed away from its initial stance
and now maintains it is re-evaluating the status of WHO BUILT
AMERICA? In that light and in the light of the company’s
previous reputation for respecting human and civil rights,
comments from scholars and educators might have an important
effect on Apple’s decision. We urge you to write Apple CEO
Michael Spindler to resist pressure from those who want to censor
the past (e-mail: spindler@applelink.apple.com; address: Apple
Computer, Inc., 20525 Mariani Avenue, Cupertino, California
95014).

Please send a copy of your correspondence to any of the
three authors: Roy Rosenzweig (rrosenzw@gmu.edu), Steve Brier
(sbbhc@cunyvm.cuny.edu), or Josh Brown (jbrhc@cunyvm.cuny.edu).

The Voyager Company can be reached via Braden Michaels,
Voyager, 578 Broadway, Suite 406, New York, N.Y. 10012, tel: 212-
431-5199, fax: 212-431-5799, e-mail: michaels@voyagerco.com.

Signed

Ira Berlin, Department of History, University of Maryland
Loni Ding, Department of Ethnic Studies, University of
California, Berkeley
Eric Foner, Department of History, Columbia University
Carol Groneman, Department of History, John Jay College, CUNY
Leon F. Litwack, Department of History, University of California,
Berkeley
Patricia Oldham, Social Science Faculty, Hostos Community
College, CUNY
Silvio Torres-Saillant, CUNY Dominican Studies Institute at the
City College of New York

———-

CHRONOLOGY AND INFORMATION ABOUT WHO BUILT AMERICA? PROVIDED BY
THE VOYAGER COMPANY:

* September-October 1994: Apple approaches Voyager about the
possibility of purchasing copies of WHO BUILT AMERICA? to give to
schools (K-12) buying certain Apple computers. Voyager and Apple
agree to terms.
* December 1994: Apple bundles more than 12,000 copies of WBA
with computers in the first month of a year-long program.
* January 1995: Apple calls Voyager to say that it has received
complaints about WBA because of the CD-ROM’s discussion of
homosexuality, abortion, and birth control at the turn of the
century. Apple asks Voyager to make available a version with
these subjects edited out. Voyager refuses but offers to send
schools that don’t like WBA any CD-ROM from the Voyager catalog
(school’s choice). Voyager also proposes that WBA be bundled
only with computers for high-schools, colleges, and libraries.
Apple rejects both of these suggestions.
* January 31, 1995: Apple informs Voyager that it will no longer
include WBA in the K-12 bundle, and asks Voyager to name a
replacement title. Apple makes clear that any replacement must
not mention homosexuality, abortion, or birth control.

ABOUT WHO BUILT AMERICA?

WHO BUILT AMERICA? is a new “electronic book” on CD-ROM.
Conceived and written by Roy Rosenzweig, Steve Brier and Josh
Brown (visual editor) and published by the Voyager Company in
collaboration with the American Social History Project, it
includes more than four and a half hours of audio (oral history,
actuality sound, and music), 45 minutes of archival film, more
than 5,000 pages of historical documents, more than 700 pictures
as well as dozens of graphs, maps, and many other features.
Among the special features of the “book” are:

FILM: More than twenty film clips, including the early silent
film classic, “The Great Train Robbery,” immigrants arriving at
Ellis Island, candidates campaigning for the presidency in 1912,
women suffragists marching down Fifth Avenue, and more.

ORAL HISTORY: More than thirty interviews with immigrants,
sharecroppers, Native Americans, coal miners, and others. Hear
survivors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and eyewitnesses to the
1906 Atlanta Race Riot.

MUSIC: More than two dozen songs from the period, including
protest and labor songs, black spirituals and work songs, hits
from Tin Pan Alley, country music, and brass band tunes.

ARCHIVAL AUDIO: Rare recordings of Booker T. Washington, Andrew
Carnegie, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, William Howard Taft,
and others as well as humor from early vaudeville stars.

DOCUMENTS: Thousands of pages of primary documents, including
letters home from immigrants, congressional testimony, newspaper
accounts, court decisions, famous essays, fiction, poetry, and
sociological studies.

IMAGES: Hundreds of exquisitely reproduced pictures include
cartoons and advertisements from newspapers, magazine
illustrations, paintings, and rare documentary photographs,
including the work of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine.

Letter from Mathias Döpfner, CEO of Axel Springer

The following is a remarkably nuanced letter from the head of one of Europe’s largest publishers recognizing that the grossly unequal balance of power is a problem that needs to be understood.

An open letter to Eric Schmidt from Mathias Döpfner

Dear Eric Schmidt, In your text “Die Chancen des Wachstums”(“The Opportunities forGrowth”) in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, you reply to an article which this newspaper had published a few days earlier under the title “Angst vor Google”(“Fear of Google”). You repeatedly mention the Axel Springer publishing house. In the spirit of transparency I would like to reply with an open letter to highlight a couple of things from our point of view.

We have known each other for many years, and have, as you state, had lengthy and frequent discussions on the relationship between European publishers and Google. As you know, I am a great admirer of Google’s entrepreneurial success. In just a few short years, starting in1998, this company has grown to employ almost 50,000 people worldwide, generated sixty billion dollars in revenue last year,and has a current market capitalization of more than 350 billion dollars. Google is not only the biggest search engine in the world, but along with Youtube (the second biggest search engine in the world) it also has the largest video platform, with Chrome the biggest browser, with Gmail the most widely used e-mail provider,and with Android the biggest operating system for mobile devices. Your article rightly points out what fabulous impetus Google has given to growth of the digital economy. In 2013, Google made a profit of fourteen billion dollars. I take my hat off to this outstanding entrepreneurial performance.

In your text you refer to the marketing cooperation between Google and Axel Springer. We were also happy with it. But some of our readers have now interpreted this to mean that Axel Springer is evidently schizophrenic. On the one hand, Axel Springer is part of a European antitrust action against Google, and is in dispute with them regarding the issue of enforcement of German ancillary copyright prohibiting the stealing of content; on the other hand, Axel Springer not only benefits from the traffic it receives via Google but from Google’s algorithm for marketing the remaining space in its online advertising. You can call it schizophrenic–or liberal. Or,to use one of our Federal Chancellor’s favorite phrases: there is no alternative.We know of no alternative which could offer even partially comparable technological prerequisites for the automated marketing of advertising. And we cannot afford to give up this source of revenue because we desperately need the money for technological investments in the future. Which is why other publishers are increasingly doing the same. We also know of no alternative search engine which could maintain or increase our online reach. A large proportion of high quality journalistic media receives its traffic primarily via Google. In other areas, especially of a non-journalistic nature, customers find their way to suppliers almost exclusively though Google. This means,in plain language, that we –and many others –are dependent on Google. At the moment Google has a 91.2 percent search-engine market share in Germany. In this case, the statement “if you don’t like Google, you can remove yourself from their listings and go elsewhere”is about as realistic as recommending to an opponent of nuclear power that he just stop using electricity. He simply cannot do this in real life –unless he wants to join the Amish.

Google’s employees are always extremely friendly to us and to other publishing houses, but we are not communicating with each other on equal terms. How could we? Google doesn’t need us. But we need Google. And we are also worlds apart economically. At fourteen billion dollars, Google’s annual profit is about twenty times that of Axel Springer. The one generates more profit per quarter than the revenues of the other in a whole year. Our business relationship is that of the Goliath of Google to the David of Axel Springer. When Google changed an algorithm, one of our subsidiaries lost 70 percent of its traffic within a few days. The fact that this subsidiary is a competitor of Google’s is certainly a coincidence.

We are afraid of Google. I must state this very clearly and frankly, because few of my colleagues dare do so publicly. And as the biggest among the small, perhaps it is also up to us to be the first to speak out in this debate. You wrote it yourself in your book: “We believe that modern technology platforms, such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple, are even more powerful than most people realize (…), and what gives them power is their ability to grow –specifically, their speed to scale. Almost nothing, short of a biological virus, can scale as quickly, efficiently or aggressively as these technology platforms and this makes the people who build, control, and use them powerful too.”

The discussion about Google’s power is therefore not a conspiracy theory propagated by old-school diehards. You yourself speak of the new power of the creators, owners, and users. In the longterm I’m not so sure about the users. Power is soon followed by powerlessness. And this is precisely the reason why we now need to have this discussion in the interests of the long-term integrity of the digital economy’s ecosystem. This applies to competition,not only economic, but also political. It concerns our values, our understanding of the nature of humanity,our worldwide social order and,from our own perspective,the future of Europe.

As the situation stands, your company will play a leading role in the various areas of our professional and private lives–in the house, in the car, in healthcare, in robotronics. This is a huge opportunity and a no less serious threat. I am afraid that it is simply not enough to state, as you do, that you want to make the world a “better place.”The Internet critic Evgeny Morozov has clearly described the position that modern societies need to take here: This is not a debate about technology and the fascinating opportunities it presents. This is a political debate. Android devices and Google algorithms are not a government program. Or at least they shouldn’t be. It is we the people who have to decide whether or not we want what you are asking of us –and what price we are willing to pay for it.

Publishers gained their experience here early –as the vanguard for other sectors and industries. But as long as it was simply a question of the expropriation of content (which search engines and aggregators use but don’t want to pay for), only a few were interested. But that changes when the same thing applies to people’s personal data. The question of who this data belongs to will be one of the key policy issues of the future.

You say in your article that those who criticize Google are “ultimately criticizing the Internet as such and the opportunity for everyone to be able to access information from wherever they happen to be.”The opposite is true. Those who criticize Google are not criticizing the Internet. Those who are interested in having an intactInternet–these are the ones who need to criticize Google. From the perspective of a publishing house, the Internet is not a threat, but rather the greatest opportunity in the last few decades. 62 percent of our corporate profit today comes from our digital business. This means that we are not talking about the Internet here,but only about the role that Google plays within it.

It is in this context that of the utmost importance are competition complaints submitted four years ago by various European publishers’ associations and Internet companies against Google at the European Commission in Brussels. Google is a prime example of a market-dominating company. With a seventy-percent global market share, Google defines the infrastructure on the Internet. The next largest search engine is Baidu in China with 16.4 per cent –and that’s because China is a dictatorship which prohibits free access to Google. Then there are search engines with market shares of up to 6percent. These are pseudo-competitors. The market belongs to a single company. Google’s share of the online-advertising market in Germany is increasing from year to year and is currently around 60 percent. For comparison: The Bild newspaper, which has been considered as market-dominating by the German Federal Cartel Office for decades (which is why Axel Springer was not allowed to buy the TV company Pro Sieben Sat.1 or regional newspapers), has a 9 percent market share of printed advertisements in Germany. By comparison Google is not only market-dominating but supermarket-dominating.Google is to the Internet what the Deutsche Postwas to mail delivery or Deutsche Telekom to telephone calls. In those days there were national state monopolies. Today there is a global network monopoly. This is why it is of paramount importance that there be transparent and fair criteria for Google’s search results.

However, these fair criteria are not in place. Google lists its own products, from e-commerce to pages from its own Google+ network, higher than those of its competitors, even if these are sometimes of less value for consumers and should not be displayed in accordance with the Google algorithm. It is not even clearly pointed out to the user that these search results are the result of self-advertising. Even when a Google service has fewer visitors than that of a competitor, it appears higher up the page until it eventually also receives more visitors. This is called the abuse of a market-dominating position. And everyone expected the European antitrust authorities to prohibit this practice. It does not look like it will. The Commissioner has instead proposed a “settlement” that has left anyone with any understanding of the issue speechless. Eric, in your article you talk about a compromise which you had attempted to reach with the EU Commission. What you have found, if the Commission does decide on the present proposal, is an additional model for Google of advertising revenue procurement. There will not be any “painful concessions”but rather additional earnings.

The Commission is seriously proposing that the infrastructure-dominating search engine Google be allowed to continue to discriminate against its competitors in the placement of search results critical to success. As “compensation,”however,a new advertising window will be set up at the beginning of the search list, in which those companies who are discriminated against will be able to buy a place on the list. This is not a compromise. This is an officially EU-sanctioned introduction of the business model that in less honorable circles is referred to as protection money–i.e. if you don’t want me to kill you, you have to pay me.

You know very well that this would result in long-term discrimination against and weakening of any competition. Meaning that Google would be able to develop its superior market position still further. And that this would further weaken the European digital economy in particular. I honestly cannot imagine that this is what you meant by compromise. But I do not want to reproach you and Google for this. You, as the representative of the company, can and must look after its interests. My criticism is directed at the European Competition Commission. Commissioner Almunia ought to reflect once again on whether it is wise, as a kind of final official act,to create a situation that will go down in history as a nail in the coffin of the already sclerotic European Internet economy. But it would above all be a betrayal of the consumer, who will no longer be able to find what is most important and best for him but what is most profitable for Google –at the end a betrayal of the basic idea behind Google.

This also applies to the large and even more problematic set of issues concerning data security and data utilization. Ever since Snowden triggered the NSA affair, ever since the close relations between major American online companies and the American secret services became public, the social climate –at least in Europe –has fundamentally changed. People have become more sensitive about what happens to their user data. Nobody knows as much about its customers as Google. Even private or business emails are read by Gmail and, if necessary, can be evaluated. You yourself said in 2010: “We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”This is a remarkably honest sentence. The question is: Are users happy with the fact that this information is used not only for commercial purposes –which may have many advantages, yet a number of spooky negative aspects as well –but could end up in the hands of the intelligence services and to a certain extent already has?

In Patrick Tucker’s book The Naked Future: What Happens in a World that Anticipates Your Every Move?, whose vision of the future was considered to be “inescapable”by Google’s master thinker Vint Cerf, there isa scene which sounds like science fiction, but isn’t.Just imagine, the author writes, you wake up one morning and read the following on your phone:“Good morning! Today, as you leave work, you will run into your old girlfriend Vanessa(you dated her eleven years ago), and she is going to tell you that she is getting married. Do try to act surprised!”Because Vanessa has not told anyone yet. You of course are wondering just how your phone knew that or whether it’s a joke, and so you ignore the message. Then in the evening you actually pass Vanessa on the sidewalk. Vaguely remembering the text from the phone, you congratulate her on her engagement. Vanessa is alarmed:“‘How did you knowI was engaged?’she asks. You’re about to say, ‘My phone sent me the text,’ but you stop yourself just in time. ‘Didn’t you post something to your Facebook profile?’you ask. ‘Not yet,’she answers and walks hurriedly away.  You should have paid attention to your phone and just acted surprised.”Google searches more than half a billion web addresses. Google knows more about every digitally active citizen than George Orwell dared to imagine in his wildest dreams in 1984. Google is sitting on the entire current data trove of humanity like the giant Fafner in The Ring of the Nibelung: “Here I lie and here I hold.”I hope you are aware of your company’s special responsibility. If fossil fuels were the fuels of the 20th century, then those of the 21st century are surely data and user profiles. We need to ask ourselves whether competition can generally still function in the digital age if data are so extensively concentrated in the hands of one party.

There is a quote from you in this context that concerns me. In 2009 you said: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”The only sentence that is even more worrying comes from Mark Zuckerberg when he was on the podium of a conference with you and Iin the audience. Someone asked what Facebook thinks of the storage of data and the protection of privacy. And Zuckerberg said: “I don’t understand your question. If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear.”Ever since then I have thought about this sentence again and again. I find it terrible. I know that it was certainly not meant that way. Behind this statement there is a state of mind and an image of humanity that is typically cultivated in totalitarian regimes–not in liberal societies. Such a statement could also have come from the head of East Germany’s Stasi or other secret police in service of a dictatorship. The essence of freedom is precisely the fact that I am not obliged to disclose everything that I am doing, that I have a right to confidentiality and, yes, even to secrets;that I am able to determine for myself what I wish to disclose about myself. The individual right to this is what makes a democracy. Only dictatorships want transparent citizens instead of a free press.Officials in Brussels are now thinking about how the total transparency of users can be avoided by restricting the setting and storage of cookies on the Internet (with which it is still possible today to find out which website you clicked on at 10.10 a.m. on 16. April 2006), in order to strengthen consumer rights. We do not yet know exactly how this regulation will turn out, any more than we know whether it will do more good than bad. But one thing is already certain–if it comes to pass, there will be a winner: Google. Because Google is considered by experts to be the absolute leader in the development of technologies which document the movements and habits of users without setting cookies.

Google has also made provisions as far as the antitrust proceedings in Brussels on fair search are concerned. It is expected that the whole procedure will be decided in Google’s favor. But if not, it would also be safeguarded. Concessions and restrictions that have been wrung out in lengthy proceedings, limited to Google’s European domains, would be ineffective in an agreement because Google is able, using Android or Chrome, to arbitrarily determine that the search will no longer be carried out from a web address but by using an app. This means that Google will be able to withdraw from all the commitments it has given,which to this day are still bound to the Google domains such as google.de.Will European politics cave in or wake up? The institutions in Brussels have never been so important. An archaic question of power is to be decided. Is there a chance for an autonomous European digital infrastructure or not? It is a question of competitiveness and viability for the future. Voluntary self-subjugation cannot be the last word from the Old World. On the contrary, the desire of the European digital economy to succeed could finally become something for European policy, which the EU has so sorely missed in the past few decades: an emotional narrative.

16 years of data storage and 16 years experience by tens of thousands of IT developers has established a competitive edge which can no longer be offset with economic resources alone. Since Google bought “Nest”it knows in even more detail what people do within their own four walls. And now Google is also planning driverless cars, in order to compete in the longterm with the car industry from Toyota to VW. Google will then not only know where we drive our cars but how we are occupying ourselves when we are in the car. Forget Big Brother –Google is better!

Against this background it greatly concerns me that Google –which has just announced the acquisition of drone manufacturer “Titan Aerospace”–has been seen for some time as being behind a number of planned enormous ships and floating working environments that can cruise and operate in the open ocean. What is the reason for this development? You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to find this alarming, especially if you listen to the words of Google founder and major shareholder Larry Page.

He dreams of a place without data-protection laws and without democratic accountability. „There’s many, many exciting and important things you could do that you just can’t do because they’re illegal“, Page said back in 2013, continuing „ …we should have some safe places where we can try out some new things and figure out what is the effect on society, what’s the effect on people, without having to deploy kind of into the normal world.“

Does this mean that Google is planning to operate in a legal vacuum, without troublesome antitrust authorities and data protection? A kind of superstate that can navigate its floating kingdom undisturbed by any and all nation-states and their laws?

Until now the concerns were the following: What will happen if Google continues to expand its absolutely dominant market power?Will there be even less competition? Will the European digital economy be thrown back even further compared to the few American super corporations? Will consumers become even more transparent, more heteronomous and further manipulated by third parties –be it for economic or political interests? And what impact do these factors have on our society?

After this disturbing news you need to ask yourself: Is Google in all seriousness planning for the digital supra-state in which one corporation is naturally only good to its citizens and of course “is not evil”? Please, dear Eric, explain to us why our interpretation of what Larry Page says and does is a misunderstanding.I am aware that the problems which are caused by new digital super-authorities such as Amazon and Facebook cannot be solved by Google alone. But Google could –for its own long-term benefit –set a good example. The company could create transparency, not only by providing search results according to clear quantitative criteria, but also by disclosing all the changes to algorithms. By not saving IP addresses, automatically deleting cookies after each session,and only saving customer behavior when specifically requested to do so by customers. And by explaining and demonstrating what it intends to do with its floating group headquarters and development labs.

Because the fear of growing heteronomy by the all-determining spider in the web is not being driven by any old analog dinosaurs, who have not understood the Internet and are therefore afraid of everything new. It is rather the digital natives, and among them the most recent and best-informed, who have a growing problem with the increasingly comprehensive control by Google.

This also includes the fiction of the culture of free services. On the Internet, in the beautiful colorful Google world, so much seems to be free of charge: from search services up to journalistic offerings. In truth we are paying with our behavior–with the predictability and commercial exploitation of our behavior. Anyone who has a car accident today,and mentions it in an e-mail, can receive an offer for a new car from a manufacturer on his mobile phone tomorrow. Terribly convenient. Today, someone surfing high-blood-pressure web sites,who automatically betrays his notorious sedentary lifestyle through his Jawbone fitness wristband, can expect a higher health insurance premium the day after tomorrow. Not at all convenient. Simply terrible. It is possible that it will not take much longer before more and more people realize that the currency of his or her own behavior exacts a high price: the freedom of self-determination. And that is why it is better and cheaper to pay with something very old fashioned–namely money.

Google is the world’s most powerful bank–but dealing only in behavioral currency. Nobody capitalizes on their knowledge about us as effectively as Google. This is impressive and dangerous.

Dear Eric Schmidt, you do not need my advice, and of course I am writing here from the perspective of those concerned. As a profiteer from Google’s traffic. As a profiteer from Google’s automated marketing of advertising. And as a potential victim of Google’s data and market power. Nevertheless–less is sometimes more. And you can also win yourself to death.

Historically, monopolies have never survived in the longterm. Either they have failed as a result of their complacency, which breeds its own success, or they have been weakened by competition –both unlikely scenarios in Google’s case. Or they have been restricted by political initiatives. IBM and Microsoft are the most recent examples.

Another way would be voluntary self-restraint on the part of the winner. Is it really smart to wait until the first serious politician demands the breakup of Google? Or even worse–until the people refuse to follow? While they still can? We most definitely no longer can.

 

 

Sincerely Yours

 

Mathias Döpfner

Pixel Dust: Illusions of Innovation in Scholarly Publishing

Important piece by Johanna Drucker in the latest Los Angeles Review of Books

“The stumpers for innovation like to describe books as “linear” and argue that analog formats constrain the reader. Since the days of the CD-ROM and hypertext, we’ve been sold, as a great advantage of the digital, an explosion of the design constraints of the conventional book. The problem with this story is that it is historically wrong and theoretically misguided. Texts were never linear; their structures of repetition and refrain create meaning that builds across the temporal and spatial unfolding in their composition. What seems like the strict linearity of the physical book — or of the unrolling scroll of antiquity — should not obscure the multivalent properties of a text. The Song of Songs, the Bhagavad GitaGilgamesh, and theIliad are hardly linear. Their poetical and philosophical complexity is structured into their language, not their letter-by-letter sequence. The invention of the codex in the third and fourth centuries of the Common Era brought a random-access device into active use, and the spatial as well as temporal dimensions of the form make for multiple paths and points of entry. The medieval European codex was a complex apparatus specifically engineered to support discontinuous reading, not linear in the least.”

a high school teacher summarizes her experiments with technology over the past 20 years

Sol Gaitan, a high-school teacher in New York  presented this paper at a conference in Cuba — Research Foundations for Understanding Books and Reading in the Digital Age: E/Merging Reading, Writing, and Research Practices

If you read only a bit, try the section below in bold (emphasis mine)

Children of the (Touch)screen: A Genesis

Thousands of words have already been written about the prevalence of social networks in the life of adolescents, the changing reading habits of a world connected to the Internet, the attention deficit that this “brave new world” is producing, and the impact of all of this on learning. However, a world exists beyond the Internet. We live in it and have an impact upon on it. Because I am a teacher who lives in both worlds, I believe in the need to connect the two, using the same tools that students use for pleasure.

The advances of technology in the Digital age have permeated every area of society, from interpersonal communication to the way information is disseminated. Today’s children, even toddlers, have an attraction to the screen that was not imagined at the dawn of technology. They manipulate sophisticated software, search the Internet, play games, and download information without being aware of the cognitive processes involved.  Notions of technology such as CDs or DVDs are disappearing. As a seasoned teacher of children and adolescents, I have witnessed this transformation and I firmly believe that I have the moral obligation to prepare them for the world they will be part of as adults. I have been using technology in the classroom since 1993 and have witnessed rapid changes in students’ attitudes toward technology, from its beginnings to their intuitive use of it today. Many of my adult peers, on the other hand, still tend to regard technology as a useful intruder that permits the uploading of grades or assignments and instant communication in the place of work or as a tool for shopping, an instant way to check the news, read periodicals and get directions. Many have become users of Facebook in their private life. Still, most educators are reluctant to explore ways of using technology for teaching, beyond applications many times imposed upon them by their institutions, such as Blackboard or electronic books. Some use blogs and wikis, but other networked applications are usually the realm of those who grew-up in the last decades.

More than 30 years have passed since Nam June Paik coined the terms “Electronic Super Highway” and “the future is now.” Notwithstanding, our educational system continues to impose schedules devised during the Industrial era, a time when it was expected that most students would work in the factory line. We live and teach in a very different moment – a moment we should embrace with the understanding that it is in constant flux. As Sebastian Mary, a young British writer puts it: “many of us live now in a networked, post-industrial era, where many of the things that seemed so certain to a Dickens or Trollope no longer seem as reliable. And, perhaps fittingly, we have a new delivery mechanism for content. But unlike the book, which is bounded, fixed, authored, the Web is boundless, mutable, multi-authored and deeply unreliable” (Mary, 2007, para. 7).

This is precisely what I find so exciting about using technology, but also what makes me extremely careful. Computers are not a substitute for books, and smartboards are not a substitute for blackboards: they serve very different purposes. I have come to this realization throughout the many years I have used technology, both in and outside of the classroom. I will never substitute out pencil and paper for a computer, but I will always take advantage of what technology has to offer that cannot be replicated by other means. With that in mind, over the years I have created multiple e-assignments for my classes at the Dalton School in New York City, from Spanish I in the middle school to Hispanic Literature in the high school, a course in which the students produced e-books.

Because I was an early adopter of these technologies, the story I have to tell illustrates how people, in this case our future adults, experience information as readers and writers. I have evolved with technology, from the first application of hyperlinks before the commercialization of the Internet, to the use of social media as a tool for reading and writing in a formal literature class.

In 1993, I used Hypermedia Navigator, software developed at Dalton, which relied heavily on Hypercard and the notion of hyperlinks. I wanted my students to have access to text and media information with a mouse click. It was a painful, long process of digitizing text, music, and images and turning them into hypercards, in a world where digital searching tools did not yet exist. The final product was an electronic annotated edition of Federico García Lorca’s Poema del cante jondo (1921)perhaps the most musical book there is, which allowed my students to actually hear the music inside that beautiful book. Back then, they approached this book with curiosity, albeit tentatively. After that experiment, however, they wondered about the other ways in which that book could ever be read. That was a triumph of technology use for serious reading. Some years later, I “transferred” that book into TK3, a new authoring/reading environment created by software publisher Night Kitchen, which allowed me to re-create Poema del cante jondo without any programming on my part, and with the addition of rich media. As technology continued to advance, in 2008, I used Sophie, a multimedia authoring program created by the Institute for the Future of the Book, which was designed by the same IT team behind TK3, to bring my edition of Poema del cante jondo to the present. Sophie included time-based events, and offered the possibility of integrating social networking into the experience of “reading” the book. The experiment was not completely satisfactory with respect to the interaction I expected among my students because they found the software difficult to use and because, in hindsight, social networking was not as prevalent in their lives as it is today. However, the new version of the book was beautiful and inspiring, and much better than the two previous ones.

Over the years, my goal in applying various technologies to this book has been to introduce my students to one of the most beautiful poetry collections regarding music in relationship to the peoples who produced it, in this case, the peoples of Andalucía. Thanks to Sophie, my students could explore the direct influence of the different music styles that comprise cante jondo on García Lorca’s poetry. They also were provided with the tools to annotate several sections of the book. Sharing with the class proved quite difficult due to the issues that arise from using software that is in the Beta stage. I made the decision to pioneer this software with my class, because after having created the first version of an e-book in the most painful way (especially since I am not an IT person), no other product offered me what Sophie did. Unfortunately, Sophie has not advanced at the pace needed for my class, but I still hope for its future.

After that intent and without the promise that Sophie’s social component offered, I adopted CommentPress. CommentPress was originally developed by Eddie Tejeda at the Institute for the Future of the Book, as an open source theme for the WordPress blogging engine that allows readers to comment paragraph by paragraph in the margins of a text, turning a document into a conversation. CommentPress is different from blogs or e-books because it provides a dynamic reading environment, where a piece of text can be annotated, as marginalia, or can be commented on by its readers by means of notes next to the text. Blogs support linear conversation, but CommentPress allowed readers to pull out multiple strands of text to start their own discussions. I used it with fixed documents. I have written assignments on many Spanish and Latin American authors using CommentPress. One of them was on Gabriel García Márquez’s collection of short stories Los funerales de la Mamá Grande (1962) and his novella, El coronel no tiene quien le escriba (1961). We used both printed books and CommentPress, as students still wanted to hold a book in their hands. I wrote an essay using primary and secondary sources to illustrate how the evolution of the history of Colombia is at the core of García Márquez’s development as an author. I asked the class to comment on that essay based on what they had learned after reading his short storiesI also added a section of guiding questions, and a section with excerpts from the collection. My expectation was that the students would post comments to my text, but they seemed to prefer to go to the guiding questions and comment there. I believe they felt more comfortable with a familiar format of question/answer. After the class read El coronel no tiene quien le escriba, I asked them to enter comments to my essay as the culmination of the project. CommentPress allowed me to evaluate their work within the context of their whole experience and as they developed knowledge and understanding, something that a final paper does not necessarily do. Furthermore, the posting of comments helped students to know where they stood regarding assessment, because I used their posts in lieu of in-class essays. This rendered the evaluation process transparent since students were in intimate contact not only with their individual progress, but also with that of the whole class.

I valued enormously the fact that CommentPress extended the classroom beyond its physical confines. Because class discussions are central to Dalton’s philosophy, students are quite accustomed to participating in class, so a student argued that she already shared her thoughts in class, and that she preferred to work on a paper in the privacy of her home rather than on a blog. Her argument was disputed by others who saw great learning advantages in the possibility of pondering the works of an author while they were reading at home and having the chance to share their ideas with their classmates, and with me, then and there. However, there was never a dialogue. They posted their thoughts as individual students, more like fulfilling a class requirement.

I jumped at the opportunity to try a new approach to reading when Bob Stein, the instigator behind most of my experiments using technology, presented SocialBook to me. SocialBook places great importance on the social networking aspect of a blog, but avoids the verticality of blogging by providing a more expansive and immediate conversation within the book. This software is in development, and my class and I were very excited to be part of this experiment. Through Bob Stein, we were in constant contact with the IT developers (Astea Solutions) in Sofia, Bulgaria, who paid great attention to our feedback. We used SocialBook to read large portions of the two parts of Don Quijote de la Mancha, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (Vol 1, 1605/Vol 2, 1615). I loved the fact that we were reading the book that changed forever the way humanity writes, using software that may change forever the way humanity reads. The icing on the cake, as a teacher and early adopter, was to witness the nature and quality of the conversation that went on. Students were addressing each other by name, creating amazingly interesting threads, quoting from different parts of the book and from each other’s comments, and linking to some obscure medieval texts to illustrate and support their arguments. In all the years I have been using technology, this time I felt on par with my students and their times. This year the experiment has been even more rewarding. The quality of class discussions has ascended to a level that I had never experienced before. Students have become intimate with the texts they are reading in a unique way because they are doing a closer reading than when they read a paper book, since they are sharing their thoughts with the class. The unique thing is that they are truly interacting with each other while reading, highlighting segments that can vary from a sentence or a verse in a poem, to a paragraph, which was not the case with blogs. As a result, they bring that experience to the classroom and our discussions revolve around an ongoing conversation that takes the class home and home to the class in a seamless way. Homework has then taken on a lovely hue because we use it as the pivot of our class.

One argument I have used with those students who expressed uneasiness at using a networked assignment is that we are using their favourite tool for communication. They all agree that social networking, text messaging, and some email, are the way they connect. Why then, do they object to having this applied to their learning experience? There is a feeling that an academic blog demands a “serious” approach and a certain degree of formality, and students also feel that they must comment. With SocialBook we decided to follow a less formal, though no less rigorous, approach to a text. We also decided to enter a minimum of comments per assigned reading, since they write in Spanish, which does not come to them with the same degree of easiness and freedom as English. What I find fascinating is that the medium has conquered them. Without realizing it, they follow their natural urge to share their opinions with their friends without counting how many times they post a comment. This has made their Spanish more fluent and relaxed, while their level of discourse is extremely sophisticated both in class and on SocialBook. And all of this is happening in an organic way. What else could a teacher hope for?

badly quoted in the NY Times this morning

Here’s the note i sent to David Streitfeld who wrote the piece.

David,
Over the past thirty years i’ve gotten used to misquoting hatchet jobs by the press, but yours was one of the snarkiest quotes out of context i’ve encountered.
As you know from our discussion, I wasn’t complaining about being asked about the future of the book but against the lazy and thoughtless posing of the question where the asker hasn’t bothered to do any prep. I didn’t record our discussion but i’d be quite surprised if I didn’t mention to you that I have learned over the past many years to turn the question around to make an important point about historical context by asking if the questioner is interested in the future as in next year, five years from now, 20 years from now, a century or longer.
b.

SocialBook in Action

Although it’s been under the radar for nearly two years, we’ll be opening up the beta program soon, so I thought it might be a good idea to post some screenshots of Socialbook in action. The results so are stunning.

SocialBook it seems is a terrific example of an emerging class of applications that might be called “[collaborative] thinking processors” as opposed to reading environments or word processors. SocialBook’s structure enables multiple perspectives to be brought to bear on a problem. It’s an exciting real-world proof of Alan Kay’s dictum that “point of view is worth 80 IQ points”

These screenshots are from classroom use, and education is an obvious starting point, but there are other experiments — with private reading groups and at also at the enterprise level (see the Voyager Japan screenshot below) which indicate that social reading is compelling across a wide spectrum of use.

Conversation inside Oroonoko in an upper level British literature survey class; 85 students divided into three sections.

oroonoko 2

Students at Hildesheim University read their way through a contemporary literary novel. Over 1750 comments by the time they finished. Students report that the commentary became an intrinsic component of the reading of the text.indigo

This frame shows students in two different classes engaging in a conversation via the public community tab. The purpose of the “community tab” is to give readers access to the wisdom of the crowd without compromising the high signal-to-noise ratio of the discussion taking place within a group of people who know each other well.

yerma

Students discussing Pedro Páramo. The entire feature-length film is divided into chapters in SocialBook. Comments can be inserted at any point.pedro paramo 2

and last, a screenshot from Japan where SocialBook was used by Voyager Japan to gather and review entries in a contest for project proposals.

VJ