A few brief thoughts on information environmentalism


Over the past year I have seen my consumption of information slow down. I've gone from daily visits to Facebook, Twitter, FriendFeed, and LinkedIn to weekly or monthly visits. I found no real reason for the visits. It's not like I was contributing anything meaningful to a conversation, nor was I finding any useful information about friends and family.

At the same time I was uncoupling from social networks, I was also reading several books that I assumed were in opposition to my general outlook, but were worthwhile books that deserved a close read. Two of those books, Hamlet's BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age* and The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, were dealing with these issues as well. Both are worth reading if you're at all interested in how our culture views it's relationship with the web. But in both books, the authors took time to talk about how they found it hard to turn off the machine and had to impose internet-free or computer-free time at home. When I was reading this it struck me as odd. I understood the parallel of limiting TV consumption, but would we feel the same about book and magazine consumption? And do adults really need these limits? I understand why boundaries must be set for children and teenagers, but adults can't power down devices? Too much of a good thing....

This past weekend I was at the Chihuly exhibit at the MFA with my parents and wife. First impression- "ooh, pretty glass. Lots of pretty glass." Then we started noticing the flashes. People were trying to photograph the glass with their flashes turned on. Then we noticed that people were photographing every single display using their cameras and phones. Almost to the point where they were no longer admiring the pieces and spending their time taking photographs. It felt as if people were there to capture the art but without the experience. By the third room it was apparent no one was "being here now" and the photos were being used to capture the information so that they could process it later (I think my moment came when I noticed people were photographing the Navajo blankets that lined a wall. Blankets that can be found in thousands of homes across the United States (Been out to the Southwest? Have a blanket/ rug? A similar one was probably on the wall). The exhibit reminded me of the concept of information environmentalism, something Carr and Powers alluded to in their book, but never made a strong case for it, other than as a personal responsibility.

So what?

I guess I'm putting these thoughts down here because it's something that we need to keep in mind when writing blog posts and uploading photos and tweets. How much of this is necessary and how much is ephemera? How can we improve the signal to noise ratio? Should we improve the ratio or let more noise in? Who gets to decide and how are we going to store this in any meaningful way? And how will access be provided that cuts through the noise? If we are to take our consumption of information as part of a bigger ecology, are we destroying it with every tweet and new Facebook profile picture? Does it matter all that much? And is all this consumption actually speeding up the "process of dumbening?"

*Okay publishers, I know you can't really control Amazon's pricing on all editions, but the Kindle edition of the book is currently two dollars more than the bargain priced hardcover and almost three dollars more than the paperback. And that's with Amazon's discounts applied to list price.

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iRiver Story and Google Books

So Google has announced that iRiver is releasing a $140 device that will be connected to Google's E-book program.

So, is this the Google Books version of the Kindle?

Let's look at the specifications from iRiver's site:

  1. $140 for 2 gigs (Kindle is $114 with ads, $140 without for 4 gigs)

  2. USB

  3. SD card slot (Kindle no longer has SD slot)

  4. Wifi only (same as Kindle)

  5. 6-inch display (Same as Kindle)

  6. Keyboard (same as Kindle)

  7. displays PDF, Epub, TXT, FB2, DJVU, MS office files and image files (Kindle right now doesn't support Epub and uses MOBI, instead. Also provides audiobook support).

Some comments:

  1. It's only 2GB compared to 4GB for the same price

  2. The specs page is one of the only I've seen that outlines a comics viewer, but doesn't handle CBZ and CBR files.

  3. Using Adobe Reader Mobile so there's DRM control, but it's no different than most of the other non-Amazon devices

Here's my biggest concern- both iRiver and Google are promoting this device as the reader for their book store. It's being pitched as the easiest way to reader over 3 million books for free from the Google Book project. The epub version of those books are straight files from the OCR conversion of the PDFs. They have not been proofed and lead to a horrible reading experience. As much as I like the idea of having a reader that ties into one of the greatest online libraries in the world, that library's content is in PDF form, the text and Epub form are wretched. Geoff Nunberg has been rallying against Google's lack of quality control on these books for some time. Laura Miller also has an article in Salon from 2009 that looks at these concerns as well. I haven't seen a vast improvement in Google Books since these articles were published. Try searching for "Publisher's Weekly" in Google Books, there are several volumes that have been scanned and are available. Or just go find your favorite classic in a free version and look at the pure text version (Here's a link to the pure text version of a conversion of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, look at the table of contents in pure text form and think about how you would feel seeing this after paying for a reader to read this.)

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But that's what digital does!!

I worked with Peter Costanzo back when all this digital technology was a glimmer in Amazon's eye (a bit of an exaggeration, but someday they will be seen as the proto-digital days of books) so I'm interested in hearing what he has to say and what he's up to. After all he is one of the people leading the charge to make digital trade books better.

And know that he's working at F+W media with a very talented team and offering a behind-the-scenes look over at Digital Book World, I had to go over and read the article.

As interesting and enlightening as it was to see the sausage-making of digital books, there were two points I had an issue with.

The first point is just worrisome:
But here’s the thing (and why I personally have a love/hate relationship with eBooks). These enhanced versions of the Everything Learning Language books do look great, especially when the font is set to an average size. Make that font larger or smaller and all hell can break loose! If only we publishers could be present at those very moments to say to readers, “Stop, please, don’t do that, can’t you see it was perfect just the way you had it?!?” But alas, we cannot. However, thoughtful planning (and lots of programming) can go a long way to prevent most breakdowns in formatting… within reason.

As publishers and writers we don't have control over the text! We need to stop thinking like this! It will only hurt us in the long run if we continue to thing about a set page size. Want to make an e-book make sure it looks good on everything from a phone screen to an e-reader to a regular sized monitor. It's what web designers have been doing for years and there are several studies out there that argue against this kind of backwards thinking of controlling the reader. We don't. Which is why it's so important to institute quality assurance in the process of designing e-books. Something that I know Colleen Cunningham and her crew over at Adams Media are thinking about.

Oh, and lots of programming? Compared to what? Most formatting issues should be able to be handled with CSS and HTML, no programming needed (unless you're automating production, in which case, there's also lot of proofing of output.

And yes I'm a little over-sensitive about this issue in particular, since it sends up a red flag to me that the industry isn't really looking at this as a digital creation but as an offshoot of print. E-books are not the same as mass-markets where you can shrink the text and cut the margins. You need to do more!

The second point in Peter's article that got me was this line of thinking about interactivity:

Yes, we could’ve spent the programming time to include a JavaScript pop-up that would allow for some kind of entry field, but at what cost? And for which device?

I understand the real issue here- how can we make e-books interactive and still profitable? But the way the question is raised points to something else. Something very important for publishers to understand. There is not one e-book. You need to design to the device. iBooks, Kindle, Nook, Adobe Digital Editions all render things differently and have different levels of interactivity. You can not make one version and pass it off to all vendors. That's print, not digital. For a successful digital book you need to design for graceful degradation. Like a web site that handles HTML5 and IE6, e-books need to be developed the same way.

So, what do we learn? E-books are hard. E-book require more than a conversion of print into bits (and I want to emphasis Peter and Adams Media are at the forefront of this emerging way of reading, so if they are struggling with these issues, we're all struggling with these issue.) But the real highlight for me in the article is the Voltaire-ism that has become a mantra of web design and something I try to repeat as often as possible to my publishing students- Perfect is the enemy of good enough.

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