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Towards a theory of digital companionship

Now that Nicholas Carr has declared the ebook revolution over, it’s time to get back to thinking about the interactions between print and digital media and how they mutually influence one another.

A few years back I wrote a piece about digital companions that accompanied a website I created to accompany my book, Dreaming in Books. In that piece I reviewed the various models of companionship that existed up to that point, including digitization initiatives, textbook supplements, book blogs, and digital peer-review. My own contribution, which I called a Booklog, was based on the idea of “deleted scenes” from DVDs, so that readers could see the variability and the contingency of the writing process. As I wrote:

In this case the archive is not extra information, but alternative information. The digital platform provides a different view of the book, not an amplification of it, the way a blog might. And it provides a different way of viewing the writing in books, not as something bound and complete, but as that which has a past and thus can have a future. In portraying the “evolutionary” aspect of the book, the booklog gestures toward possible alternative futures that the book could and still might undergo, either in the hands of the author or readers.

It’s been a long time in internet time since I wrote that and yet our understanding of digital companionship seems to have changed little. The problem, in my view, is that most of our thinking about digital publishing continues to be driven by a theory of “more” (when it’s not driven by replacement theory). And frankly, I think the Booklog had this problem, too. Robert Darnton long ago imagined how great it would be if we could publish digitally all the archival stuff that get cuts from a book, a dream that has (un)fortunately not paid off.  I barely have time to read a book let alone the extra research (or the bad parts that got cut!). The value of a book is the way it both synthesizes and distills. More is less these days.

So what would a theory of digital companionship look like that didn’t have this problem of supplementarity or even appendicitis (the useless add on)? Well, it would be useful in multiple senses of the term:

1. Navigation. The digital presence of a print artifact should change our understanding of that artifact. It should allow us new ways of navigating its contents, contents which are unhinged from their fixations in print formats (chapters, parts, even sentences). Are there new ways of aggregating or visualizing what is in a book beyond print conventions? Here we need new thinking about interface design, one geared towards the types of questions readers bring to (academic) books.

2. Manipulation. Rethinking the presence of a book online as an author is one important way of thinking about our work as a multiperspectival endeavor. But we also need to allow readers more control over the content, to let them do things with our books. As I’ve written elsewhere, our thinking about ebook interface design is overwhelmingly driven by the “page view.” It’s the worst of all worlds — the lost tactile and structural advantages of print without any of the computational potential of the digital. Publishers need to make the leap into allowing books to travel as data sets, allowing readers to use them in their research in new manipulable ways.

3. Circulation. Finally, the digital companion should be more like a translation device than a parasite — it should help the book circulate more fully through the digisphere. Here I’m thinking of new tools like Inkling, that divide books into slices to make them more search friendly, but any and all ways of making books more “social” will be key to their continued significance. As one commentator recently put it on Twitter, books are currently cemeteries where good ideas go to die. I don’t entirely agree with that, but I think most of us are aware of the way books can be information cul-de-sacs, for better or for worse. Books are centripetal media. We need their digital counterparts to pull them out into the world, not simply imitate them online.