The book of the future

In the continuing discussion about the future of books, Infotainment Rules points us to Galleycat‘s discovery of a Library Journal interview with Ben Vershbow of The Institute for the Future of the Book, where he’s working on a project called Sophie:

This summer, it will release the first version of Sophie, an “all-purpose tool” for creating multimedia texts. Like the institute itself, Sophie’s mission is both simple and complex: to help authors easily create books that use any medium…. It’s a key goal, because the future of the book lies in the hands of authors first. Give them the tools they need to deliver dynamic, digital books, and dynamic digital books will flourish.

From the Q&A with Vershbow:

Q: You write about the “social life” of books, and I know you don’t mean where books go to hang out and cross-reference. What do you mean?

A: Well, to a certain extent, I do mean that books will be able to go hang out and cross-reference. I think digital libraries will be in constant communication with each other, sharing patterns of use, exchanging user-created metadata, building maps of meaning out of the recorded behaviors and interests of readers. Parts of books will reference parts of other books. Books will be woven together out of components in remote databases and servers. So, in some ways books will have a life of their own. But you’re right, what I’m getting at primarily is the social life of readers and authors that will exist around and inside of books.

Q: How do you see that developing?

A: Soon, books will literally have discussions inside of them, both live chats and asynchronous exchanges through comments and social annotation. You will be able to see who else out there is reading that book and be able to open up a dialog with them. You already see evidence of this in Wikipedia’s “discussion” pages and revision histories where the writers and editors negotiate the collaborative development of articles. Wikipedia is a totally new kind of book in that it is never static, always growing. It has boundaries, but these boundaries are always shifting and are highly porous. We also see social interaction in the reading and interpretation of texts-on blogs, for example, discussion forums, social bookmarking sites, Amazon reader reviews, and thousands of nonpublic venues like [discussion lists] and email. Again, this sort of interaction is not inherently new, but the Internet allows it to be recorded, aggregated, and woven together in astonishing new ways that defy geography and time.

Q: Is blogging a good example of this?

A: In many respects, the blogosphere is a society of readers, all publishing their notes and reflections in real time and linking to fellow readers….

At the institute, we talk about “the networked book.” This involves many of the things we’ve talked about already-the book as a place, as social software-but basically we’re talking about the book at its most essential, a structured, sustained intellectual experience, a mover of ideas-reinvented in a peer-to-peer ecology. The structure part is crucial, though. Whereas the web is a massive, diffuse array, more like a library than an individual book, a book provides some sort of shape, even if that shape is malleable and the boundaries porous, even if the edges of books overlap. A good future of the book is one that combines the best qualities of physical books with the best qualities of the network….

Q: What future for the print book? Is it even conceivable that future generations will eschew the benefit of multimedia?

A: It’s really impossible to predict exactly what will happen to print books. Of one thing, though, I am pretty certain: the main arena of intellectual discourse is moving away from print to networked, digital media. That doesn’t mean that certain forms of print books will not persist. In fact, the mass migration to computers and the Internet in some ways serves as a foil for print, dispensing with its more circumstantial uses and highlighting its most essential virtues. There are certain kinds of books I’m convinced will cease to exist on paper: directories, reference works, textbooks, travel guides, to name a few. But deep, linear narrative works read for pleasure like novels, biographies, and certain forms of history may persist in print for some time. Then again, this could simply be a generational question. People raised with high-quality electronic reading devices, using only multimedia electronic texts in school and forming little or no attachment to dead-tree media, may consider paper books at best fascinating antiquities, at worst, inert, useless things.

I want visit their laboratory!