As the year nears its end, Beyond the Book is looking back at the last twelve months of our programs. In this edition of our three-part review for 2018, CCC’s Chris Kenneally picks out clues on the future direction of publishing.
Throughout the year, digital transformation enjoyed a remarkable run in usage, turning up in every corner of the publishing industry – from pre-publication manuscript workflow to digital reading and data gathering on sales and consumer habits. Not only publishing is stuck on digital transformation. Around the world, dozens of conferences on digital transformation for every field are held every month.
Digital transformation usually takes two roads. We can choose to have more digital products, services, and formats, or we can become digital organizations fit for survival in the fully digital world. Before a London Book Fair audience in April, John Newton, CTO and founder of Alfresco, told publishers that the explosion in content was about more than quantity or volume.
“Total volume of content goes up with the total capacity of storage on the planet right now, which continues to grow exponentially. What’s happening, though, is that content is getting richer, has greater context, and is just more involved in more processes,” said Newton, who has enjoyed one of the longest and most influential careers in digital transformation and content management.
“Over time, this [digital transformation] process has just gotten faster. And it isn’t just the publishing industry. Government is a huge publisher of information, and they’re doing it in such a way that information is becoming more actionable as well, serving citizens more effectively. Also, financial services are streamlining entire processes – moving not just money and not just transactions, but all the information that clients need to make intelligent decisions about their investments.”
Amazon and other Internet businesses have already turned media and retail upside down. In 2018, they began to turn those worlds inside out as well. On a Christmas Eve visit to a crowded Amazon Books in Manhattan, award-winning, music industry journalist Cherie Hu realized that Amazon had flipped the table on the analog environment of traditional bookselling.
“I live a couple blocks away from the Amazon Books store [in New York City],” she said. “The way that I chose a book in that physical bookstore [was] because of the way the store is formatted, and that was the same way I would choose a book on Amazon, which is by looking at the user ratings. I was fascinated by how the physical experience was imitating the digital experience.
“What Amazon does in their bookstore is to take certain features from their website and print that out on a card and place it underneath every single book. Underneath every single book, you’ll see a rating out of five stars. For select books, if 95% of users rated it more than four stars, you’ll also see that piece of information. There’s a whole shelf dedicated to books that have been reviewed more than 10,000 or 15,000 times, if you’re interested in tapping into what more people are talking about these days.”
Artificial intelligence is a trendy, catch-all term for software applications and algorithms that approximate or impersonate human activities including thinking and problem solving. In the media world today, “AI” can compose music as well as generate reports on financial results and baseball games. While these may sound or look much the same as similar works by humans, the media that AI is able to produce in 2018 is distinguished by an absence of expression or intention. Putting this idea another way, the “robot” music composer lacks soul – and this has important legal implications.
“Copyright was set up from 1710 for creators to take possession of the rights in their work. The law has a human person in mind,” notes David Davis of Copyright Clearance Center. “Now, a program does not have an intent. You set it up and let it go. You may wind it up like a toy, and it marches around the room, but a robot is not trying to express anything. It is functioning. It is not expressing.
“We can say this screenplay or these works of music are the intellectual property of the people that wrote the program, or maybe even the people that are using the program,” he continued. “If the artificial intelligence was aware of itself and was trying to express a point, at that juncture, we would have to say the copyright goes to the AI. We’re a long way off from that, but it’s interesting to think about.”
Frankenstein is a novel whose composition resembles the famous creature itself – a stitched-together assemblage of Gothic horror, Romantic philosophical reflection, and science fiction published in 1818 by 20-year-old prodigy Mary Shelley. Frankenbook, launched online in January 2018 as part of Arizona State University’s celebration of the novel’s 200th anniversary, is a collection of contemporary scientific, technological, political, and ethical responses to the original Frankenstein text.
The innovative publishing platform that hosts Frankenbook is PubPub, among the first experiments to escape the lab at the Knowledge Futures Group, a collaboration of the MIT Press and the MIT Media Lab. The KFG mission is to transform research publishing by incubating and deploying open source technologies meant to build a new information ecosystem, according to Terry Ehling, Director for Strategic Initiatives with MIT Press.
“We would like to serve as a test kitchen, an incubator, and a staging platform for the development and launch of open source publishing technologies and aligned open access publications,” she said. “The open source approach not only reduces the precarious dependency that most nonprofit academic publishers have on costly outsourced technologies and a limited network of commercial vendors, but it also provides a foundation for greater insourced experimentation and innovation.
“I think this is really a way for us to control our future,” she added. “We are no longer technology-informed, we are technology-driven. [Up to this point,] much of that technology resides outside of our control.”