Monday, April 03, 2006

Evolution of books

"Biotechnology is governed by ethics committees, and rightly so. If some ultimate, sci-fi horror in which the books re-write themselves at will, destroying thousands of years of culture in a mad iterative process, is to be guarded against, perhaps – it may sound Orwellian – but perhaps an ethics committee to look after our cultural electronic heritage is needed." Sounds crazy? Chris Armstrong of Infoneognostic fairly often posts about e-books, and has written a couple of extremely interesting articles recently. In the first of these, rich with fascinating links, he discusses how publishers "add value" to books (he does not discuss journals, but it could apply) by allowing bookmarking and other social web interactions, and by building in dictionaries and encyclopaedias. But this is nothing, he says, compared with plans to enable readers and writers to "have conversations inside of books". Examples of "books talking to each other" include creating links inside and to each other, or organising and adding to an individual's collection. In the second article, Mr Armstrong looks at the social implications of this process, concluding with the arresting paragraph that started this post of mine. He discusses the technical possibilities of digital libraries in which books "read each other" ("already beginning to separate action and intelligence from the human brain"), as well as scenarios in which books report on the sites downloading them, or use being made of them, to allow automatic delivery of new books (again, I suppose this could apply to scientific articles, or any piece of digitised text). This is where the ethics come into it. By analogy with biotechnology, links added within or between books can be seen as like DNA modification, first the document (now) or the content itself (that's the futuristic bit) --- "so that we wake up one morning and discover that, worldwide, every Shakespeare, Blake or Hopkins had lost its essential English heritage (glister to glitter, tyger to tiger; windhover to – I don’t even want to hazard a guess, but vacuum cleaner seems likely!). " Hence the proposed code of ethics for this "cultural genome project" of book cloning. "Is instant access to a pre-digested, proto-analysed and ever-mutating version of the world’s literary culture beneficial? I doubt it. " Those who are thinking about or reacting to universal book-scanning projects in the shorter term may find it a stimulating intellectual exercise to try this type of imaginitve yet informed speculation. Not being very imaginitive, I had got as far as wondering what would happen if the current Wiki-mania were applied to one of these digitally scanned archives, but that's all about human intervention, not about the system self-evolving. There must be a novel in this, somewhere.