It's funny how things connect up. Since I returned home from the CIP annual Symposium on UMUC's campus, I've been reading the copyright news with little enthusiasm. I see important things going on (like the brewing ACTA storm), but I am not inspired to comment. I just seem to bounce from one discouraging topic to another. Then this morning I was clearing out some email and noticed a message with a link to an Atlantic article, The Atlantic Online | July/August 2008 | Is Google Making Us Stupid? | Nicholas Carr. The article is about the way technology can affect the actual wiring of our brains. It is fascinating reading. I really enjoyed it and I'm sure you will too. About half way through, I came across this paragraph:
When the Net absorbs a medium, that medium is re-created in the Net's image. It injects the medium's content with hyperlinks, blinking ads, and other digital gewgaws, and it surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed. A new e-mail message, for instance, may announce its arrival as we're glancing over the latest headlines at a newspaper's site. The result is to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration.
Google Book Search is about absorbing the medium of books into the Internet. I was just talking with the new Deputy General Counsel at UT System Monday, Dan Sharphorn, about the future of books (one of my favorite topics) and especially, how that future will be funded if books are available for free on the Internet (that is, digital copies are free, but people pay for something else, such as a print copy, or maybe a subscription to a book service (like music subscriptions), or who knows what). That part of the discussion is very much about the subject of the talk I just gave at the CIP Symposium (Mass Digitization's Effect on Copyright Law, Policy and Practice), about the economics of copyright. But an equally interesting part of the discussion is recognizing that when you think about the future, it's not the assumptions about what new things (like new business models) will be there that are the hardest. Rather, the really hard part or tricky part is examining your assumptions about old things, specifically what old things won't be there.
If (well, when) the Web absorbs the medium of books, books are not going to stay the same. The idea of an e-book is pretty limited (and even that is overwhelming for some of our publishing friends). The idea of an e-book reader is pretty limited. If you eliminate the idea of a book as we know it from the possibilities for communicating with others, and then try to imagine how you would weave a story if all you had were the Web, just try that for a momentary thought experiment... How would you tell a story? And how would you relate the results of research if all you had were the Web and no idea about a thing called a journal article. (And don't just "invent" the journal article and the book all over again -- that's not what the experiment is about!)
I have been thinking about this in the context of expressing whatever research I do for my dissertation. I can't really think in terms of writing a formal 5 chapter paper thing that resides between two harder paper things called covers. On the other hand, I am very inspired thinking about how to make my research a part of the conversation on the Web, how to take advantage of what the tools offer, what the possibilities present. At some point, if I really want the PhD, all indications are that the profession (information studies) will require me to cull some small part of that and sandwich it between those covers. I am spending the summer thinking long and hard about that.
And what of copyright? How else might we encourage creativity if we just put aside entirely the idea that we "need" government intervention to encourage it in a world with friction-less world-wide distribution, where each of us helps to pay for the distribution system by our purchases of computers, software and Internet connectivity? James Boyle gave our opening keynote at the CIP Symposium, and enumerated and evaluated five criticisms of copyright law as it exists now, how badly it "fits" the Web 2.0 world. Keeping in mind how the Internet is changing the media it absorbs, is copyright likely to fit better in 10 -20 years or much, much worse?
The Atlantic article ends on a sort of cautionary note: "as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence." Author Nicholas Carr is trying to see the future of our minds in a world dominated by the ideas that are shaping the Internet experience, in particular, Google's ideas of science applied to efficient information organization. A very scary undertaking, seeing into the future, but one that we've never been able to resist.