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Friday, December 1, 2000
By Paul Ford
With the advent of the web, there appear to be two parallel tracks for the development of content and ideas.
My friend K came back from a seminar on e-publishing sponsored by the writer's org PEN and said, "they can't think outside of books and browsers - the speaker from the New York Times said that he couldn't see anything better about e-books than print books..."
Are we moving to parallel publishing cultures? One one track, you have an active, moving discussion on the web, ideas by the pound, plenty of ferment, backed by hard-to-verify information, and chains of links reaching back, through weblogs and email messages, to arbitrary sources. The other track is the print world, where the standards are higher. Books are (often) researched, indexed, blurbed, marketed, and sometimes fact-checked.
The first attempt to straddle this divide is the e-book, the little PDA with a novel on it or the Adobe Acrobat file from Steven King with his latest short stories for sale. They strive to simulate books in the new framework; they set up a culture-of-print environment within the larger digital world of email, web sites, infrared beaming, and Napster/Gnutella. Even if they throw out a few token weblinks, there's nearly no way for the world to come back in, to comment, muck around, interlink, steal, or edit.
It's that mucking around, the wide range of opinions on given topics, that keeps the web interesting. E-books as they are now implemented, whether static files for download or in-the-palm book-sized computers, sometimes password-protected, no-printing-allowed, and encoded in proprietary-formats, cannot to play with all the other content on the web. In that case, why bother going digital at all?