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 and confronted.

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.

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.

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.


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.


“turning photography into a communication medium”

Nick Bilton’s Bits blog post is a provocative look at the increasing use of images as a substitute for words in everyday language and communication.

“This is a watershed time where we are moving away from photography as a way of recording and storing a past moment,” said Robin Kelsey, a professor of photography at Harvard, and we are “turning photography into a communication medium.”

Looks like Mitchell Stephens’ 1998 The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word is turning out to be very prescient.

one year later . . . TOR is delighted to be 100% DRM-free

Julie Crisp writing in the TOR blog

“Protecting our author’s intellectual copyright will always be of a key concern to us and we have very stringent anti-piracy controls in place. But DRM-protected titles are still subject to piracy, and we believe a great majority of readers are just as against piracy as publishers are, understanding that piracy impacts on an author’s ability to earn an income from their creative work. As it is, we’ve seen no discernible increase in piracy on any of our titles, despite them being DRM-free for nearly a year.

. . . .

The move has been a hugely positive one for us, it’s helped establish Tor and Tor UK as an imprint that listens to its readers and authors when they approach us with a mutual concern–and for that we’ve gained an amazing amount of support and loyalty from the community. And a year on we’re still pleased that we took this step with the imprint and continue to publish all of Tor UK’s titles DRM-free.”

The Future of the Book is the Future of Society

I’m in Milan for the ifbookthen conference. Corriere della Serra (the leading Italian newspaper) asked me for an opinion piece they could publish in La Lettura, their weekly magazine, on the occasion of the meeting. This is what I gave them.
The Future of the Book
As someone who made the leap from print to electronic publishing over thirty years ago people often ask me to expound on the “future of the book.” Frankly, I can’t stand the question, especially when asked simplistically. For starters it needs more specificity. Are we talking 2 years, 10 years or 100 years? And what does the questioner mean by “book” anyway? Are they asking about the evolution of the physical object or its role in the social fabric?
It’s a long story but over the past thirty years my definition of “book” has undergone a major shift. At the beginning I simply defined a book in terms of its physical nature — paper pages infused with ink, bound into what we know as the codex. But then in the late 1970s with the advent of new media technologies we began to see the possibility of extending the notion of the page to include audio and video, imagining books with audio and video components. To make this work conceptually, we started defining books not in terms of their physical components but how they are used. From this perspective a book isn’t ink on bound paper, but rather “a user-driven medium” where the reader is in complete control of how they access the contents. With laser videodiscs and then cd-roms users/readers started “reading” motion pictures; transforming the traditionally producer-driven experience where the user simply sat in a chair with no control of pace or sequence into a fully user-driven medium.
This definition worked up through the era of the laser videodisc and the cd-rom, but completely fell apart with the rise of the internet. Without an “object” to tie it to, I started to talk about a book as the vehicle humans use to move ideas around time and space.
People often expressed opposition to my freewheeling license with definitions but I learned to push back, explaining that it may take decades, maybe even a century for stable new modes of expression and the words to describe them to emerge. For now I argued, it’s better to continuously redefine the definition of “book” until something else clearly takes its place.
A Book is a Place
In 2005 when the U.S. based Macarthur Foundation gave me a huge grant to explore how publishing might evolve as it moves from the printed page to the networked screen I used the money to found what I playfully named The Institute for the Future of the Book. With a group of young people, just out of university and coming of age in the era of the social web, we carried out a number of experiments under the rubric of “networked books.”
This was the moment of the blog and we wondered what would happen if we applied the concept of “reader comments” to essays and books. Our first attempt, McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory, turned out to be a remarkably lucky choice. The book’s structure — numbered paragraphs rather than numbered pages — required my colleagues to come up with an innovative design allowing readers to make comments at the level of the paragraph rather than the page. Their solution to what at the time seemed like a simple graphical UI problem, was to put the comments to the right of each of Wark’s paragraphs rather than follow the standard practice of placing them underneath the author’s text.
Within a few hours of putting Gamer Theory online, a vibrant discussion emerged in the margins. We realized that moving comments from the bottom to the side, a change that at the time seemed minor, in fact had profound implications. Largely because Wark took a very active role in the unfolding discussion, our understanding at first focused on the ways in which this new format upends the traditional hierarchies of print which place the author on a pedestal and the reader at her adoring feet. With the side-by-side layout of Gamer Theory‘s text and comments, author and reader were suddenly occupying the same visual space; which in turn shifted their relationship to one of much greater equality. As the days went by it became clear that author and reader were engaged in a collaborative effort to increase their collective understanding.
We started to talk about “a book as a place” where people congregate to hash out their thoughts and ideas.
Later experiments in classrooms and reading groups were just as successful eventhough no author was involved, leading us to realize we were witnessing much more than a shift in the relationship between author and reader.
The reification of ideas into printed, persistent objects obscures the social aspect of both reading and writing, so much so, that our culture portrays them as among the most solitary of behaviors. This is because the social aspect traditionally takes place outside the pages — around the water cooler, at the dinner table and on the pages of other publications in the form of reviews or references and bibliographies. In that light, moving texts from page to screen doesn’t make them social so much as it allows the social components to come forward and to multiply in value.
And once you’ve engaged in a social reading experience the value is obvious. Contemporary problems are sufficiently complex that individuals can rarely understand them on their own. More eyes, more minds collaborating on the task of understanding will yield better, more comprehensive answers.
Our grandchildren will assume that reading with others, i.e. social reading, is the “natural” way to read. They will be amazed to realize that in our day reading was something one did alone. Reading by one’s self will seem as antiquated as silent movies are to us.
The difficult thing however about predicting the future of reading is that everything i’ve said so far presumes that what is being read is an “n-page” article or essay or an “n-page,” “n-chapter” book,” when realistically, the forms of expression will change dramatically as we learn to exploit the unique affordances of new electronic media. Ideally, the boundaries between reading and writing will become ever more porous as readers take a more active role in the production of knowledge and ideas.
Clemens Setz, the author of the literary novel Indigo watched the conversation unfold as 40 students in a class at Hildesheim University outside Berlin carried out an extensive conversation with over 1800 comments. At a recent symposium Setz said that knowing his readers would be playing an active role in the margin will effect how he writes; he’ll make room for their participation.
Follow the Gamers
And lest, you think this shift applies only to non-fiction, please consider huge multi-player games such as World of Warcraft as a strand of future-fiction where the author describes a world and the players/readers write the narrative as they play the game.
Although we date the “age of print” from 1454, more than two hundred years passed before the “novel” emerged as a recognizable form. Newspapers and magazines took even longer to arrive on the scene. Just as Gutenberg and his fellow printers started by reproducing illustrated manuscripts, contemporary publishers have been moving their printed texts to electronic screens. This shift will bring valuable benefits (searchable text, personal portable libraries, access via internet download, etc.), but this phase in the history of publishing will be transitional. Over time new media technologies will give rise to new forms of expression yet to be invented that will come to dominate the media landscape in decades and centuries to come.
My instinct is that game makers, who, unlike publishers, have no legacy product to hold them, back will be at the forefront of this transformation. Multimedia is already their language, and game-makers are making brilliant advances in the building of thriving, million-player communities. As conventional publishers prayerfully port their print to tablets, game-makers will embrace the immense promise of networked devices and both invent and define the dominant modes of expression for centuries to come.
The Future of the Book is the Future of Society
“The medium, or process, of our time — electric technology — is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life.
It is forcing us to reconsider and re-evaluate practically every thought, every action, and every institution formerly taken for granted. Everything is changing: you, your family, your education, your neighborhood, your job, your government, your relation to “the others. And they’re changing dramatically.” Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Message
Following McLuhan and his mentor Harold Innis, a persuasive case can be made that print played the key role in the rise of the nation state and capitalism, and also in the development of our notions of privacy and the primary focus on the individual over the collective. Social reading experiments and massive multi-player games are baby steps in the shift to a networked culture. Over the course of the next two or three centuries new modes of communication will usher in new ways of organizing society, completely changing our understanding of what it means to be human.