Few days ago, Craig Mod, wrote a piece about his reading habits, about how digital ebooks got him excited for years, and then he slowly came back on paper. Craig’s critics to ebooks, to the whole ecosystem of digital books, are completely reasonable. If we have to rely on Amazon’s Kindle for storing our books, our notes, our clippings, we are right to be unexcited, and even worried. The ebook ecosystem is as closed as the web is open. Ebooks are not preserved, are often not owned (but licensed), we are still experimenting with business model in digital lending. The majority of libraries in the world don’t know how to preserve ebooks, or how to lend them. Publishers are worried, and few try to innovate. It’s not really news that the modern web has taken different paths from the vision of pioneers like Douglas Engelbart, J.C.R. Licklider, or Ted Nelson.
We’re incredibly far from the revolution which we were promised. We were promised the Memex. We were promised Xanadu. Nowadays, dreams of Borgesian-like digital libraries evaporate in sight of copyright laws, market disinterest, technology issues, publishers resistance.
The bright side is that we are at the dawn of digital reading. Not all is lost, fellow readers. There are few tools which can help us. They are not an ecosystem, but they are steps in the right direction.
An ecosystem emerges when enough relationships are there: when you have enough tools in a room, you start calling it a laboratory.
Clippings.io is one of these tools. Very simply, you can upload your Kindle clippings and annotations and have them online. You can export them, connect the account to Evernote, share on socials, edit them.
As much as I love it, the website is clearly beginning to tap the whole potential of digital text. I then decided to take the thing one step further.
Say hello to Babele.io (yes, I’m a bit Borges-obsessed, nevermind).
Babele.io is a Jekyll-based GitHub website, but that’s not the most important part (well, it is as you can look at the code, collaborate with others, have it both offline and online).
What I do is simple: I export my notes with clippings.io, then I mark them up in Markdown, adding a little line of code to make every quote a permalink. Then I publish.
Thus, what I have is a online repository of quotes I clipped while reading, and I can link each one of them, with page number and Kindle locations.
Out of Nelson’s discombobulation was born one of the most powerful designs of the 20th century. And Xanadu’s goals — a universal library, a global information index, and a computerized royalty system — were shared by many of the smartest programmers of the first hacker generation.
I use this as a personal weaponry of rational arguments to be used in in Facebook flames and general discussions.
We can now read on a device, clip while we read, put those clippings online as references. Aside of a quick, easy, few clicks procedure, what’s really missing?
As a wikimedian, I’m very interested in sharing knowledge. What I like the most about the web is that it’s a huge, and hugely complex, sharing platform. I love the simple fact that something I write can be helpful to others. But writing is hard: either on Medium or a blog or an article on Wikipedia, writing require time, skills, effort, commitment.
In economic terms, the knowledge sharing economy has high transaction costs. Wikipedia lowered the barrier enough to become the biggest collective achievement of the all history, but writing Wikipedia is not really easy.
I think the next big thing will be making reading a sharing act.
In 2013, I co-mentored a Google Summer of Code project for an annotation tool for Wikidata. The idea was simple enough: you are the web, reading an article on the New York Times. You find simple fact, as “Barack Obama was born in Honolulu.” You highlight the sentence, and the system recognizes the word “Barack Obama”, “was born”, “Honolulu”. The system reconciles these words with their Wikidata pages, and you confirm that those are the right pages. You click on Save, and the statement “Barack Obama was born in Honolulu” becomes a sentence translated in data, becomes understandable by a computer. Automatically, Honolulu becomes “place of birth” for the item “Barack Obama”, and all the Wikipedia in the world benefit from this piece of data, provided by a statement referenced by the New York Times.
As always, the devil is in the details, technology is not magic, and the prototype is still incomplete (if you have love to give, take a look here).
But the idea is still powerful. Incredibly talented people are working on annotations (hypothes.is), while some good projects failed in the past (Findings). Medium itself is doing an amazing work with highlights and comments and sharing.
What I really hope is that “business models” won’t forget open ecosystems, integrated with other open ecosystems like Wikipedia or Wikidata. This is, to me, a revolution yet to come, because it’s hard. But what if you could have a “Share on Wikipedia” button, as you have Facebook or Twitter buttons? What if we could have other open, collaborative platforms which store facts and quotes and references? What if we could link those facts with each other, creating logic paths for discussion and arguments? What if we could feed readers (both human and artificial) on these knowledge bases? Data is only the first step. Arguments, stories are next. Knowledge is interconnected information stored in people’s brain. We still need to figure out how to tap that in a really easy way.
Making reading a sharing act could be the right direction.