2008 Volume 42, No.
Stephen Abram, past president of
the Canadian Library Association.
FUTURIST: In your talk on the future
of publishing, you brought up the notion that there are two roads:, the
road of trepidation, decline, extinction or the road of embracing the
future. Let's assume everyone wants to go with B. What's the next step,
for someone like a traditional book publisher?
Abram: What needs to happen is to
stop telling people and to start listening, to start
from the reader's the user’s, the experiencer's contact in. Then they
can start creating the products that actually match the behaviors of
their user base. In many markets, the traditional publishing formats
are misaligned with what needs to happen. So, for instance, if you're a
medical publisher, do you want your cardiac surgeon to walk into your
room before he does your surgery and say, 'I read the article last
night'? No. You want him to have had a thousand experiences putting his
hand in someone's chest and knowing what it feels like. It should be
just like an experience a car mechanic has where he can put his hand on
the hood of your car and say it's the manifold because he's seen it,
heard it, smelled it a thousand times. So, how do you create an
experience context where you put content that can be read into that
space? How can you create content that actually aligns with learning
behaviors? So, if you've got a publishing program to support the
doctor, and streaming media to show what's going on, this? is infinitely
superior when combined with text than just text. It means taking these
Web 2.0 environments and incorporating what we today call YouTube, but
really the whole streaming media package, the podcasting package,
knowing that certain people learn better by hearing it--such as
politicians; certain people learn better by seeing it, like surgeons;
certain people learn better, like lawyers; and there are
three-dimensional learners like engineers who? deal better with a visual
interface that assembles the information in front of them. So if you
work from your end-user in and you keep your mind open to the way they
do things, then it makes a big difference. If you're looking at K-12
learners, where they haven't been funneled into very narrow learning
styles or supporting very narrow learning styles, then you see that most
of the textbook publishing has moved to Bloom’s taxonomy of learning
styles and they're trying to use it all.
FUTURIST: Along those lines, a lot
of people--writers--would say, 'I don't know how good I look on camera,
don't even know how well I speak.' Nabokov himself once said, 'I
think like a genius, I write like a distinguished author, and I speak
like a child.' A lot of people would say that when you put in too many
mediums, it clouds the focus and it gets in the way of people being able
to exercise their expertise. This follows Andrew Keen's notion that so
much participation, so much inviting the user into the experience
creates a cacophony of people without information sharing uninformed
opinions. What can be done to ensure this remains a process of
authentic information creation, and what can be done to preserve
expertise in an environment where everyone can act like an expert?
Abram: There are two questions that
I hear: one is the uninformed opinion, which I'll address second. The
other is, 'how do we create this kind of stuff? I don't look good
enough, I don't sound good enough.’ Well that's why we have other
professionals, it's why we have actors. It's why we have good looking
people doing the news. There's nothing wrong with that. You need
writers to put the words in their mouths. When movies went to talkies,
think of all those silent film actors who totally failed because they
had squeaky voices.
FUTURIST: A “Singing in the Rain”
Abram: Now, as for people sharing
their uninformed opinions, that's part of the Internet as conversations.
It's hard to lie or be incomplete on the Internet--by that I mean, you
can put all sorts of stuff into Wikipedia and it gets corrected very
rapidly. Remember that wonderful Nature study that showed that Wikipedia
had the same error rate as Britannica. Britannica has what, 700,000
articles and Wikipedia has 8 million? I'm not against Britannica. It no
doubt has very high-quality content for the narrow, very small part of
the world it covers, but let's take an incredibly difficult and broad
topic like Islam. Look at the entry in Wikipedia for Islam and you will
find nothing but complaints about print sources on that where some
editor decided what would be an appropriate way to try to learn
something. Whereas the community-developed message on Islam in Muslim in
Wikipedia delivers a much better organized understanding--detailing
whether you're following Mohamed, Mohamed's brother Kadia, and how the
different facets of Islam develop. It doesn't have the warfare that it
had in the early days. I do worry about people spreading
misinformation. But I also believe that the role of society and peer
pressure seems to work to adjust the socially-driven Web. An informed
opinion means you're open to all points of view. Some people's
evaluation methodology for content is, is it the right point of view?
We've set up our education to have kids make their own judgments now,
instead of installing Point of View 1.0 into their heads.
FUTURIST: All of these points of
view create a broader perspective, but, in touching on something that
Douglas Rushkoff said...in many ways, the people doing the authoring in
the 21st Century are the programmers. This is to say, that the ability
to write Web applications has become more valuable than any particular
piece of verbal content carried on an application.
Abram: If you ask somebody like
Jimmy Wales, he would make a big distinction between the people who
wrote media wiki, like himself, and the people who are providing the
content. Which is more powerful? Infinitely more powerful? the people
providing the content, not the programmers. Now the programmers are
powerful in that they create the medium for content to be linked. But
once their work is done, it becomes a matter of incremental
improvements. At some point, another discontinuous change.
FUTURIST: Bottom line, you think it
will still be possible to make money from words later this century?
Abram: It's like what's happened
with music. Originally, you made your money from sheet music, then
performances, then you made your money from LPs, and now it's gone back
to making money from concert tours. More people in the nonfiction space
make their money from consulting, teaching. The books are objects that
are part of an ecology that includes performance, whether you're a
teacher, a consultant, a marketer. Why do I write a blog? I have
something to say, but I also have a context in which I say it, which is
my software company. I have an ecology I contribute to which is the
institutions I partner with to lead them into this next generation of
the way the world is going to work.
FUTURIST: Okay, let's talk about
that. It's twenty years in the future. I'm an author. That means I
either have someone else read my material or--if I look okay and read
okay--I read myself to make multi-media presentations.
Abram: Reading isn't going to go
away, but it's only one aspect. Probably, it will be some combination of
reading, visual conversations, lessons. Your authoring is contributing
to a corpus that is significantly larger than it is now electronically.
Most of the important stuff will have been converted twenty years from
now. We can convert the entire Library of Congress for $9 billion right
now, which, in terms of national priorities, is only 5 weeks of Iraqi
conflict. It's doable. It used to be undoable. The corpus, the ability
to create cultural context is going to change the nature of how culture
is expressed when you look at culture as a cultural activity. So 50% of
everything ever written in Chinese has already been converted and put
into a central vault. They're 5 years away from almost 100% of all
Chinese documentation and books being converted...
FUTURIST: That's a wonderful
Abram: When you look at what project
Alouette in Canada, which is doing all the Canadian stuff, the Open
Content alliance, the Google Digital Vault, the private sector vs.
public sector vs. charitable initiatives including the Guttenberg
project, the question is, is your tree falling in the forest more likely
to be heard because it's been digitized, and at what point twenty years
from now is it likely to be discovered? If it's digitized in such a way
that you can actually find it beyond free text, using taxonomic,
ontological search engines that actually find things, or behavioral
context, tagging context, or somebody discovered who you trust and you
say, okay, this person, who is an amazing person, really understands the
nanotechnology of creating artificial eyes, recommends this article from
1962, will we be able to find that sort of stuff? I think publishers in
the future are more likely to be guides. New publishing will be
discovered not in the published frame work but in things like reprints.
The entertainment object, like fiction, video, etc., is very different.
When we look at significant portions of the scholarly space they will no
longer publish, because they can get all the grant money they want. They
have no issues with tenor. If you're in the genome, nanotech, or any of
these bleeding edge disciplines, the twenty people who know what you
know are so far out there that looking in the published literature is 10
years out of date. If it's juried, it's so far back that no one really
cares. They're out reading blogs and sending out articles within their
own social space and community of practice that are electronic and
global. 20 years from now, that will be significantly more traceable in
a social context. We're seeing the beginning of it in these white-label
social networks, more developed in Facebook and Myspace and mixing in
Bebo because they're public social spaces, but when we look at Ning and
the private social spaces, the ability to put private conversation and
bring in public conversation and public content into that space, it's
fascinating......People are trying to deal with the moment right now.
interview was conducted by Patrick Tucker