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Links!!

Steven Johnson:

Accessing the e-book revolution: In 1467, Peter Schöffer and Johann Fust published a translation of St Augustine’s The Art Of Preaching. They were old colleagues of Johannes Gutenberg, the pioneer of modern printing. But their true claim to fame is that they were the first commercially successful printers, and this success stemmed in part from their relentless innovation with the world’s newest communications technology: the book.

One such innovation appeared in the 1467 edition, which was the first printed book to include an alphabetical index. Schöffer and Fust were not only competing by releasing new titles. They were changing what it meant to use and read a book.

Some of the first book advertisements – and indeed some of the first modern adverts anywhere – talked up their “better arranged indexes” as a selling point. The publishers of the The Art of Preaching claimed that their indexes, along with other new cross-referencing features, were “alone worth the whole price, because they make it much easier to use”. The phrase sounds like it could be from an advert for some 21st-century gadget: “Our books aren’t just informative. They’re also user-friendly!” The echo of today’s marketing language is no accident. Thanks to a series of interrelated technologies – but especially the web, the Kindle and the iPad – we are living through a radical reinvention of the tools and techniques of reading.

One of the most thrilling digital developments of 2010 was the arms race between e-book readers.... Apple’s iPad itself stands out as the most significant breakthrough... does more than any device before to consolidate book reading and web browsing. I remember sitting down with the iPad when it arrived this spring, and thinking that for the past 15 years we had been surfing the web on the wrong kind of machine.... The difference between our time and Gutenberg’s is, of course, the rate of change. It took almost half a century for the alphabetical index to become a standard; Arabic page numbers were not adopted until the 1500s. There were feature wars in the new platform of the book, but salvos were fired only every 20 years.

It may have taken a long time, but when all those features coalesced into the system of citation, indices, page numbers, footnotes, bibliographies and cross-references that we now take for granted, they helped usher in the scientific revolutions of the modern age. Entire ways of interacting with information became possible because we had agreed on how to describe where the information lived and how to point people towards it....

Where links abound, a rich ecosystem of commentary, archiving, social sharing and scholarship usually develops because links make it far easier to build on and connect ideas from around the web. But right now, books exist outside this universe. There is no standardised way to link to a page of a digital book. Books contain the most carefully crafted and edited text that we have – truly the richest source of information in the world – and yet all that information remains unlinkable. Google works as well as it does because people find interesting information on the web and link to it; Google then prioritises pages that attract a disproportionate number of inbound links. But if you find a fascinating passage in a novel or a book of history, there is no standardised way to link to it, which means that the rest of the web cannot benefit from your discovery.

Fortunately, a solution to this problem exists, one that merely involves a commitment to use technology that already exists. Call it the mirror web. If you create digital information in any form, make a parallel version of that information that lives on the web.... [T]his technique needs to become a new convention. When publishers create apps without web mirroring, we should be quick to condemn them.... The most radical premise behind this idea of web mirroring, however, is that it should apply to digital books as well. In future, every page of every book should have a shadow version of itself that lives on the web....

Today there is a real danger that this art of linking to things – an art that dates back to Schöffer and Fust and beyond – will grow less and less relevant in an unconnected world of apps and e-books. But there is also an opportunity here. We could choose to become better at making connections, bringing together in a new way the two most transformative textual platforms of the modern age: the book and the web.

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