The Place of the Book in an EPPO World

By | 2012/12/11

What is the role of the book in an Every Page is Page One world? The question is pertinent because I have just signed a contract with XML Press to write a book on Every Page is Page One.

Yes, I get the irony. But Every Page is Page One is not a statement about the universe. It is a statement about the Web, and about online systems that behave (or that users expect will behave) like the Web. On the Web, Every Page is Page One. The Web is, or is rapidly becoming, the dominant form of information exchange today, which means it shapes peoples habits and expectations for all media. But it is not the only form of information exchange, and it never will be.

We should note here that the Web serves a dual role in information exchange. It is both a medium in its own right (a hypertext medium of linked pages) and a delivery vehicle for electronic files containing other media (downloading movies or ebooks). When I say that the Web is an Every Page is Page One medium, I am referring to it as a hypertext medium, not as a delivery vehicle. Thus putting a PDF on a website for download is not using the Web as a hypertext medium, but as a delivery mechanism for a stand-alone electronic file. In the future, the Web may well become the sole delivery mechanism for every type of media, but there will still be a distinction between stand-alone media like books and movies delivered via the Web, and the hypertext media that is the Web itself.

In this context, the word “book” does not necessarily mean a thing made of paper (though as a child of the analog age, I will admit to relishing the thought of holding a paper edition of my book, when it is released). Book here means a long sustained narrative designed for linear reading. While the book I am writing will certainly draw from material from this blog, therefore, it will not be a collection of blog posts. It will be a book length exposition of the Every Page is Page One concept.

Still, the irony must be addressed: why a book about Every Page is Page One when I already have a blog about Every Page is Page One, and blogs are themselves an Every Page is Page One form, while books are not.

The blog has all sorts of properties that make sense in an Every Page is Page One world: it is accessible to search, and it supports comments, which means a post can become a discussion. It is a great example of the Web working as a colloquium. On the other hand, there is no particular discipline about it. Each post tends to be about whatever is top of mind for me on the day I wrote it, and a lot of it has little or nothing to do with Every Page is Page One; it is about tech comm in general.

So why a book? First, let’s observe that the writing of books about forms that are not books is common. There are books on screenwriting that are not screenplays. There are books on poetry that are not written in verse. There are books on writing short stories that are neither short nor stories. The best vehicle to describe a communications vehicle is often a different vehicle from the one described. (An interesting counterpoint is Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which is a comic about writing comics.)

But why a book about Every Page is Page One? The answer, I think, lies in a more general question: why a book about anything? It certainly isn’t about length. It isn’t the case that the bigger the subject, the bigger the book. As David Weinberger points out, Long form thought is not wide enough for deep thinking, big problems and big ideas require the counterpoint of many minds, not the monologue of one mind. A web of topics from many authors may be required to develop and do full justice to a big idea.

But in the development of thought, there is often the need for recapitulation. As fruitful as it may be, the web of many minds can become chaotic. It can fall into patterns of repetition. It can analyse endlessly and brilliantly, but it can have trouble with synthesis. There are points in the development of any argument when all concerned can benefit from a recapitulation which weighs all that has been said, sifts and sorts and synthesizes it. The recapitulation is not an end point. On the contrary, it is often a way to move the discussion forward by providing either a new point of departure or a new focus of debate.

The act of recapitulation has value for the author as well. However steeped we may be in a web of ideas, it is not until we come to set them down that we discover how they really fit together, or how they fail to connect. Recapitulation clarifies and refines the author’s thoughts even as they write them down. (It also provides a solid target to shoot at if the author fails to make the connections properly.)

Recapitulation is also useful to the learner, to the person who comes to the subject or problem long after the debate has begun. We seldom start our initiation into a subject with a program of sustained reading (thought there are exceptions to this) but after we have played around the edges for a while, we get to the point where we want to gain a broader understanding of what has been thought and said in the field, and for this purpose a recapitulation is in order. Thus after a certain period of tinkering and exploration, we reach for a book to get us more thoroughly launched into the the study of a field.

The theater used to be an almost universal medium for entertainment. Over the centuries, its prominence has been eroded by successive waves of new media. First the book, then the cinema, then television, then the Web all stole away large parts of the audience. Yet the theater did not disappear, any more than the cinema disappeared with the advent of TV, TV with the advent of the Web, or books with the advent of all of these. But what did happen was that the role of each media became more refined as new ones arose and stole part of the audience. Instead of being a universal media, each took on a more specialized role. Rather than being used for everything, each media specialized in the kinds of things it did best.

Books will not disappear in the age of  hypertext and Every Page is Page One, but their role will become more refined, less general. They will be used to do the things that they are uniquely suited to do. In the case of books, the thing that the sustained narrative of a single voice is uniquely able to do is the recapitulation. The recapitulation stands neither at the beginning nor the end of the study of a subject, but it is a necessary part of the development of knowledge, and the development of students, on any subject.

The time has come, I think, for a recapitulation of Every Page is Page One. I feel the need of it anyway, and I hope others will find it useful. And since the best vehicle for a recapitulation is a book, a book is what I shall write.




11 thoughts on “The Place of the Book in an EPPO World

  1. Ville Kilkku

    First of all, congratulations on your book deal!

    I do not fully agree with your analysis of the role of long form thought though.

    I do agree with you on two things: some books do serve the role you suggest and, on average, the unit size of scientific thought is likely to become shorter. I actually blogged about this, how the increment of science may become so small that a peer-reviewed article becomes an unsuitable medium, just last week.

    However, I do not believe it to be the case that piecemeal collaboration inevitably produces superior results. My background being in philosophy, I just cannot see how a collaborative effort tweaking small bits at a time could have produced works similar to Kant or Leibniz, or if we take some more recent examples, those of Frege or Wittgenstein.

    The level of holistic understanding required in these endeavors is well-suited for long-form thought, and all but impossible to capture piecemeal. This applies to many radical ideas, which require some fleshing out by an individual author before they make enough sense to be ready for improvement through collaboration.

    To give some more recent examples from various fields that I would be hesitant to categorize as (just) recapitulation, I am thinking of Bernoff’s and Li’s Groundswell, Liker’s The Toyota Way, and Dixon’s and Adamson’s The Challenger Sale.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment Ville.

      I don’t know that collaboration is the point here. The development of idea in the agora is often not the result of collaboration, but of conflict. Often it is conflict that drives the writer to the great synthetic work of genius. Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua is the example that springs immediately to mind.

      In Too Big to Know, Weinberger makes the point that Darwin spent the best part of two decades attempting to anticipate and answer every possible objection. Today, through open notebook science, he could have responded to actual objections. And his friends and colleagues could have chimed in to answer them as well. Conflict is the driver, not collaboration.

      In fact, Weinberger rather looks down on collaboration. He makes the point that a group of experts working together are all experts in the same way, and don’t tend to perform much better than one expert alone. But in an open forum, intelligent people with different expertise bring new perspectives that push the argument to new heights.

      Philosophy itself has, from the beginning, fashioned itself in the form of conflict. The thought of Socrates, which we know from the recapitulations of Plato, was framed as arguments with an interlocutor. Many other philosophical works through the ages have been framed in the same way, and the greatest of the, I would suggest, have not been created by the philosopher arguing with himself, but by the philosopher recapitulating the arguments he has had with real opponents.

  2. Myron Porter

    As you indicate, one of the strengths of a book is often singularity of vision. However, this aspect is also critical to the success of collaborative efforts. For instance, a modern big-budget film (movie) is usually the result hundreds of artists and craftsmen. Without the guidance of a unifying, vision, the result can be disastrous even when each contributor is doing his or her best. As with a a dinner recipe, the result is not the fine cuisine but one of “eat your own dogfood.”

    In other words, a strong and clear vision is important to many disciplines and formats. In fact, one reason why EPPO works is because of the clarity and focus of each page.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      That’s a good analogy, Myron. A movie set is characterized by the clash of many artistic egos, each driving the other to improved performance and insight. But if you just watched the daily rushes, you would not have a great movie-going experience. After the hubbub of the set has died down, and the actors gone home, the film editor gets to work in a dark room, cutting, splicing, and generally recapitulating to make a finished polished movie.

  3. Laurie Nylund

    Congratulations on the book contract! I will certainly pick it up when it comes out as I always enjoy your thoughtful posts.

    Personally, whenever I come across an interesting topic I want to know more about, the first thing I do *is* reach for a book. Googling can give you random pages with tidbits of information, blogs may explore a single aspect, but a book gives you the time and space to elaborate and expand.

    More important to me a book can be vetted (reviews and number of “stars” on site like Amazon and Goodreads and by reading through the comments (assuming they aren’t all the author’s friends) I can usually pick a great resource.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Thanks for the comment Laurie,

      I think people differ considerably in when they reach for a book. But I think the reason for reaching for a book is generally the same. It gives you the opportunity to retreat temporarily from the hubbub for a period of reflection and learning.

      The difference, in the age of the Web, I think, is that we no longer tend to have the view of a book being the only or final word on the subject. We know nothing is settled, nothing is agreed, and we know exactly where to go to get an alternate opinion. But that does not mean we don’t still want to retreat from the agora for a period of focused reading and reflection.

  4. Alex Knappe

    Sometimes, I feel I should try to work as a fulltime-prophet 🙂

    Shouldn’t we work as free authors then, selling our own books, making a fortune?

    Congratulations on the contract.

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Well, maybe. I haven’t done the making a fortune part yet. When I do though, I will give your prophecy full credit. 🙂

  5. M. Hunsberger

    Congrats! Looking forward to reading it 🙂 Does this mean you will be blogging less often?

    1. Mark Baker Post author

      Not sure how it will effect the blog. I’m certainly going to try to keep it up.

  6. Pingback: Book Outline — Every Page is Page One - Every Page is Page One

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