The Technium

What Books Will Become

[Translations: Japanese]

A book is a self-contained story, argument, or body of knowledge that takes more than an hour to read. A book is complete in the sense that it contains its own beginning, middle, and end.

In the past a book was defined as anything printed between two covers. A list of telephone numbers was called a book, even though it had no logical beginning, middle, or end. A pile of blank pages bound with a spine was called a sketchbook. It was unabashedly empty, but it did have two covers, and was thus called a book.

Today the paper pages of a book are disappearing. What is left in their place is the conceptual structure of a book — a bunch of text united by a theme into an experience that takes a while to complete.

Since the traditional shell of the book is vanishing, it’s fair to wonder whether its organization is merely a fossil. Does the intangible container of a book offer any advantages over the many other forms of text available now?

One can spend hours reading well-written stories, reports, and musing on the web and never encounter anything bookish. One gets fragments, threads, glimpses. And that is the web’s great attraction: miscellaneous pieces loosely joined.

There ARE books on the web. Lots of them. I posted one of the first full books that was in print on the web in 1994. But because you pass no border to reach these pages, bookish material tends to dissolve into a undifferentiated tangle of words. Without containment, a reader’s attention tends to flow outward, wandering from the central narrative or argument. The velocity of shifting focus creates a centrifugal force which spins readers away from the pages of the book.

A separate reading device seems to help. So far we have a tablet, pad, and handheld. The handheld device is most surprising. Experts had long held that no one would want to read a book on a tiny few-inch wide glowing screen, but they were wrong. By miles. Many people happily read books on their smart phone screens. In fact we don’t know yet how small a book-reading screen can go. There is an experimental type of reading called Rapid Serial Visual Presentation that uses a screen only one word wide. Your eye remains stationary, fixed on one word, which replaces itself with the next word in the text, and then the one after that. So your eye reads a sequence of words “behind” one another rather than in a long line next to one another. The screen does not need to be very large.

Other new screens are making a home for books. Reflective e-ink is currently overthrowing the old publishing world. This technology is a sheet of white paper reflecting the ambient light around it, covered with dark text that can change. To the average eye, the text on this special “paper” (actually a plastic sheet) looks as sharp and readable as traditional ink on paper. The first generation of this black and white e-ink has made the Kindle a runaway bestseller.

In this substantiation of e-ink, the “book” is a tablet, a plank, which holds a single page. The single page is “turned” by clicking a button on the plank, so that one page dissolves into another page. A key feature of e-books on e-paper is that the font size can be individually adjusted. You want bigger type? Just dial it up and the entire book reflows into your desired form.

An e-ink page can be paperback-size, or it could be larger; the Kindle already comes in two sizes. As usage settles in, we are likely to see an e-book come with a recommendation: “This books is best viewed in a sized 3 tablet.” You’ll probably have more than one size 3 reader. Your favorite might be covered in soft well-worn leather, molded to your hand. The recommended reader for an arty magazine like Wired might be quite large. Perhaps it only rests on your coffee table.

But there is no reason an ebook has to be a tablet. Eventually e-ink paper will be manufactured in inexpensive flexible sheets. A hundred or so sheets can be bound into a sheaf, given a spine and wrapped with two handsome covers. Now the ebook looks very much like a book of old. One can physically turn its pages, navigate the book in 3D, and go back to an earlier place in the book by guessing where the spot was in the stack. To change the book, just tap its spine. Now the same pages show a different tome. Since using a 3D book is so sensual, it might be worth purchasing a very fine one with the most satin, thinnest sheets.

Personally, I like large pages. I want an ebook reader that unfolds, origami-like, into a sheet at least as big as a newspaper today. Maybe with as many pages. I don’t mind taking a few minutes to fold it back into a pocket size packet when I am done. I love being able to scan multiple long columns and jump between headlines on one plane. The MIT Media Lab and other research labs are experimenting with prototypes of books that are projected via lasers from a pocket device onto a nearby flat surface. The screen, or the page, is whatever is handy.


At the same time, a screen that we watch can watch us. The tiny eyes built into your tablet, the camera that faces you, can read your face. Prototype face tracking software can already recognize your mood, and whether you are paying attention, and more importantly where on the screen you are paying attention. It can map whether you are confused by a passage, or delighted, or bored. That means that the text could adapt to how it is perceived. Perhaps it expands into more detail, or shrinks during speed reading, or changes vocabulary when you struggle, or reacts in a hundred possible ways. There are numerous experiments playing with adaptive text. One will give you different summaries of characters and plot depending on how far you’ve read.

Such flexibility recalls the long expected, but never realized, dream of forking stories. Books that have multiple endings, or alternative storylines. Previous attempts at hyper literature have met dismal failure among readers. Readers seemed uninterested in deciding the plot; they wanted the author to decide. But in recent years complex stories with alternative pathways have been wildly successful in videogames. (And by the way there’s a lot of reading need in many games.) Some of the techniques pioneered in taming the complexity of user-driven stories in games could migrate to books.

Particularly books with moving images. We don’t have a word for these yet. Books with lots of still pictures we call picture books or coffee-table books or art books. But there’s no reason images in digital books must remain static. And no reason to think that are movies. On a screen we can marry text and kinetic images, one informing the other. Text inside of moving images as well as images inside of text. A few interactive diagrams produced by the New York Times and Washington Post have come closest to this marriage of word and movement.

This hybrid of movies and books will require a whole set of tools we don’t have right now. Presently it is difficult to browse moving images, or to parse a movie, or to annotate a frame in a movie. Ideally we’d like to manipulate kinetic images with the same facility, ease and power that we manipulate text — indexing it, referencing, cut and pasting, summarizing, quoting, linking, and paraphrasing the content. As we gain these tools (and skills) we’ll make a class of highly visual books, ideal for training and education, which we can study, rewind, and study again. They will be books we can watch or TV we can read.

When a table can double as the display of a book, and a book can be something we watch, we have to return to the question of what constitutes a book. And what happens to it once it is born digital?

The immediate effect of books born digital is that they can flow onto any screen, anytime. A book will appear when summoned. The need to purchase or stockpile a book before you read it is gone. A books is less an artifact and more a stream that flows into your view.

The current custodians of ebooks — Amazon, Google and the publishers — have agreed to cripple the liquidity of ebooks by preventing readers from cut-and-pasting text easily, or to copy large sections of a book, or to otherwise seriously manipulate the text. But eventually the text of ebooks will be liberated, and the true nature of books will blossom. We will find out that books never really wanted to be telephone directories, or hardware catalogs, or gargantuan lists. These are jobs that websites are much superior at — all that updating and searching — tasks that paper is not suited for. What books have always wanted was to be annotated, marked up, underlined, dog-eared, summarized, cross-referenced, hyperlinked, shared, and talked-to. Being digital allows them to do all that and more.

We can see the very first glimpses of book’s new found freedom in the latest Kindles. As I read a book I can (with some trouble) highlight a passage I would like to remember. I can extract those highlights and re-read my selection of the most important or memorable parts. More importantly, with my permission, my highlights can be shared with other readers, and I can read theirs. We can even filter the most popular highlights of all readers, and in this manner begin to read a book in a new way. I can also read the highlights of a particular friend, scholar or critic. This gives a larger audience access to the precious marginalia of another author’s close reading of a book (with their permission) a boon that previously only rare-book collectors witnessed.

Reading becomes more social. We can share not just the titles of books we are reading, but our reactions and notes as we read them. Today, we can highlight a passage. Tomorrow we will be able to link passages. We can add a link from a phrase in the book we are reading to a contrasting phrase in another book we’ve read; from a word in a passage to an obscure dictionary, from a scene in a book to a similar scene in a movie. (All these tricks will require tools for finding relevant passages.) We might subscribe to the marginalia feed from someone we respect, so we get not only their reading list, but their marginalia — highlights, notes, questions, musings.

The kind of intelligent book club discussion, as now happens on GoodReads, might follow the book itself and become more deeply embedded into the book via hyperlinks. So when a person cites a particular passage, a two way link connects the comment to the passage, and the passage to the comment. Even a minor good work could accumulate a wiki-like set of critical comments tightly bound to the actual text.

Indeed dense hyperlinking among books would make every book a networked event. Right now the best a book can do is to link to another book’s title. If another work is mentioned in passing or in its bibliography, an ebook can actively link to the whole book. Much better would be a link to a specific passage in another work, a technical feat not possible yet. But when we can link deeply into documents at the resolution of a sentence, and have those links go two ways, we’ll have networked books. This, by the way, was Ted Nelson’s original vision of the docuverse. (He also envisioned a micropayment and credit system built on top for a full literary economy.)

You can get a sense of what this might be like by visiting Wikipedia. Think of Wikipedia as one very large book — a single encyclopedia — which of course it is. Most of its 27 million pages are crammed with words underlined in blue, indicating those words are hyperlinked to concepts elsewhere in the encyclopedia. Wikipedia is the first networked book. In the goodness of time as all books become fully digital, every one of them will accumulate the equivalent of blue underlined passages as each literary reference is networked within that book and all other books. This deep rich hyperlinking will weave all networked books into one large meta-book, the universal library. Over the next century, scholars and fans, aided by computational algorithms, will knit together the books of the world into a single networked literature. A reader will be able to generate a social graph of an idea, or a timeline of a concept, or a networked map of influence for any notion in the library. We’ll come to understand that no work, no idea, stands alone, but that all good, true and beautiful things are networks, ecosystems of intertwingled parts, related entities and similar works.

Wikipedia is a book that is not only socially read, but socially written, famously so. It is still unclear how many books will be collectively written. Clearly many scientific and technical works will be constructed via decentralized collaboration because of the deeply collaborative nature of science. But the central core of most books will probably continue to be author by a lone author. However the auxiliary networked references, discussions, critiques, bibliography, and hyperlinks surrounding a book will probably be a collaboration. Books without this network will feel naked.

The complete universal library, all books in all languages, will soon be available on any screen. There will be many ways to access a book, but for most people most of the time, any particular book will essentially be free. (You’ll pay a monthly fee for “all you can read.”) Access is easy, but finding a book, or getting it attention will be hard, so the importance of the book’s network will grow, because the network is what brings in readers.

One quirk of networked books is that they are never done, or rather that they become streams of words rather than monuments. Wikipedia is a stream of edits, as anyone who has tried to make a citation to it realizes. Books too are becoming flows, as precursors of the work are written online, earlier versions published, corrections made, updates added, revised versions approved. A book is networked in time as well as space.

But why bother calling these things books? A networked book, by definition, has no center, and is all edges. Might the unit of the universal library be the sentence, or paragraph, or chapter article instead of a book? It might. But there is a power in the long form. A self-contained story, unified narrative and closed argument has a strange attraction for us. There is a natural resonance that draws a network around it. We’ll debundle books into their constituent bits and pieces and knit those into the web, but the higher level organization of the book will be the focus for attention — that remaining scarcity in our economy. A book is an attention unit. A fact is interesting, an idea is important, but only a story, a good argument, a well-crafted narrative is amazing, never to be forgotten. As Muriel Rukeyser said, “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.”

At the moment we are in a scramble to find the right container for digital books. Released from their paper shells, books seem to need more than the open vastness of the web. They like the viral compactness of a PDF, but not its rigid appearance. The iPad is sensual and intimate (like the content of books) but currently heavy in the hand. The Kindle has the advantages of focusing attention, which they like. The latter two containers charge for their convenience and interface, which feeds authors. Books can appear on any screen, and will be read anywhere it is possible to read them, but I think they will gravitate toward favorable forms that optimize reading.

In the long run (next 10-20 years) we won’t pay for individual books any more than we’ll pay for individual songs or movies. All will be streamed in paid subscription services; you’ll just “borrow” what you want. That defuses the current anxiety to produce a container for ebooks that can be owned. Ebooks won’t be owned. They’ll be accessed. The real challenge ahead is finding a display device that will focus the attention a book needs. An invention that encourages you onward to the next paragraph before the next distraction. I guess that this will be a combination of software prompts, highly evolved reader interfaces, and hardware optimized for reading. And books written with these devices in mind.

  • Doug L.

    Was not mentioning audiobooks an oversight or by design? Do they not fall into your definition of “book?” Over the last five years I have “read” over 120 audiobooks; I have read about 30 physical books, and 2 tablet books (on Kindle for iPad), in the same span. Long commutes, an enjoyment of long walks, and an iPod have given me the capability to re-become a much more prolific reader, as I was when I was younger and seemed to have much more time to read substantial things.
    The audio “container” is certainly another viable medium.
    I agree with most of your thoughtful analysis. However, I disagree that in the long run we’ll move totally to subscription services. Despite the success of multi-media children’s books on pads (my grandson loves Calaway’s “Miss Spider” on the iPad), I think Dr. Seuss, the Little Golden Books, and their ilk will always work best for small fingers (BTW I collect Suess). And growing up with pages and covers will engender a love for REAL books; the warm feeling that adults will always have for sitting down with something substantial and physical. I appreciate the utility of alternate containers, as noted above, but no matter how e-paper advances, I believe that there will be always be enough folks who love that feeling to keep a few traditional publishing houses in business.
    Or maybe this is finally an indication that, as much of a technology adept I’ve been, I’m finally old, and thereby old-fashioned!

    • Kevin_Kelly

      Omitting audio books was an oversight. I love them. I’ve audited several hundred so far. I’ve been meaning to post my list of favorites. THanks for the reminder.

      • Erik

        You also totally omitted the typographic aspects. Will all books look the same? No added esthetic value or even interpretation by placing the right typeface into the proper margins, with size and leading all carefully considered? The paper book found its perfect shape over 500 years. Should we now lose all the knowledge and love that went into that development? Mandy Brown writes (
        Great book design is invisible; it gives form to the text such that you could imagine the words no other way. It makes a graceful entrance, and then disappears as you read.
        And someone else wrote (which I cannot find amongst my hundreds of bookmarks now) that, on his Kindle, all his books looked the same and sometimes he didn’t know which book he was actually reading.
        Hara writes (in Designing Design):
        Throw a bunch of text into a block with no attention to line length or leading, or the volume and voice with which the text should speak, and it will repulse even the most dedicated of readers….
        If reading on paper persists, it will be for an attention to design—for a commitment to design that is as carefully crafted as the text itself.

        Perhaps the two forms of the book will happily coexist?

        • Agreed. I recently bought the hardcover of a book I really enjoyed “digitally”. It was a deep read that just felt better coming from that platform.

        • A future “selling point” of the paper book will precisely be it’s inbuilt “disconnection”, offering instant retreat into a concentrating solitude rising beyond the persistent hubbub of one’s distracted present (circumventable only by putting the paper book down to go check a screen).

          • Kevin_Kelly

            I agree with that, Avi.

  • Joe

    Great summary of some of the potential changes coming to books as they become unbound. I think the most important part is finding the right container that seamlessly creates a networked book without burdening the readers by requesting more attention.

    • Kevin_Kelly

      Yes, you said it well.

  • Joe

    I wonder what will happen in 20 or 30 years when we’ve all moved on to ebooks housed in the Cloud and our government—let’s contemplate the worst case—decides to deprive its citizens us of access to them. We’d have a revolution? Hardly. We are already so effectively cowed that criminal bankers can go on perpetrating their frauds without masses of people in the streets. Which brings up the further point that access to all these ebooks will be managed by corporations that have no fundamental interest in the free exchange of ideas—maybe even less interest than the government does. Personally, I prefer private control of private libraries, and hope the day never comes when we have no access to knowledge, only access to access.

    • Andy

      A Fahrenheit 451 for the digital world? It is a worrying scenario that certainly merits more thought.

    • Joe

      Criminal bankers? More like misinformed citizens who went out of their way to buy houses they couldnt afford. If you want to blame someone Joe look no further than your neighbors in their McMansions and their German cars who still only make $50k a year.

    • The question is: what use we make of knowledge?
      We need for personal growth? We need to socialize? We need to make money? We need to control others?
      From the answer depends the selection of access.

  • Some will find your “prophecy” regarding books as far-fetched. At times that I’ve attempted to predict the future of something, I’ve been reminded of how in the 50’s they said we’d all be flying personal helicopters by now. But fantasizing without any real basis or understanding of constraints and variables is quite different than projecting based on current trends and technology. So I think you hit the nail on the head with this post.
    I’m trying to share concepts that are similar between books by mashing up indexes here: I think it is something we’ll see more of.

  • Algot Runeman

    The networked book…I sincerely hope that the long form “book” you describe will NOT be the vehicle supported through interactive advertising “appropriate” to the current point in the story. Movies have famously built long looks at billboards or extended scenes of particular cars into the cinematography. Even when they don’t directly interrupt the story, they do distract. The author needs to control the incorporation of social links, not the advertiser.

    Beyond that, you paint an interesting picture of the book’s future. Thank you.

  • Roland Hjerppe

    Ranganathan´s five laws still seem to apply: Books are for use. Every book its reader. Every reader his/her book. Save the time of the reader. A library is a growing organism.

    • Kevin_Kelly

      I don’t get this one: “Save the time of the reader.”

      • Guest

        the fourth of Rangathan’s “laws of library science.” has to do with classification, a means of facilitating each book finding its reader, and each reader finding his/her book.

        • Kevin_Kelly

          I still don’t get what “saving the reader time” means.

          • Notnigella

            classification of books (via the Dewey Decimal system) saves the reader’s time, in that it facilitates quick access to books. you, the reader, can quickly find what you’re looking for, and begin reading it. i think we underestimate the difficulties that readers previously experienced trying to find that one book they needed, before the widespread adoption of the DD system.

          • Kathryn Greenhill

            Not only Dewey, but in any situation. If the choice is between a process that will cost the reader time or the library time (eg. data entry of borrower details to join, locating the returns chute near the door not the staff desk) then always choose that which saves the readers’ time. Choice between asking user to come into the library to get physical book or providing ebooks that user can get to from home? Save the time of the reader becomes – as it has for 80 years – a guiding principle.

          • Kevin_Kelly

            … now Amazon saves even more reader time.

  • Do anyone have information on which organizations or individuals are on the cutting edge of multimedia books?

  • H. B. Rains

    This is all well and good and good writing and thinking, indeed, but anyone who holds my eight year work of art in their hands, its leatherette cover soft and cool, its words the secret, the thing that binds, will have paid me. ( for the privilege of the read and the privilege to keep it or burn it ) My book may become simply a signed relic. If so, at least I own it.

  • ET

    What do you mean here:
    And no reason to think that are movies.

    A very interesting post – but why no hyperlinks and only only illustration?

    • Kevin_Kelly

      No links because I am in Norway in a hut, had to check out, in a hurry. I’ll add links later.

      Meant to say: “And no reason to think they are movies. “

  • I love it when you iterate through a multitude of different futures for text, especially the dense, highly-lin­ked meta-text network books will soon become. Reading informatio­n-rich historical novels, like the Aubrey-Mat­urin series, it was especially fun and helpful to have both the Wikipedia article, and the “Gun Room”‘s (http://www­.hmssurpri­ pages available on demand. Basically, it was reading a book with two aides: One is an encyclopedia that not only had articles about the book itself (story, timeline, characters, plot summary, and such), but also articles about all the ships, places, historical events, people, and tools that were described in the books. The second is essentially a highly-concentrated companion to the novels, with historical documents, letters, terms explained, and fan art. Something similar is available for the LOTR & Potter books, and to a smaller extent with any novels that have even a small following. The experience of reading in this way was extremely satisfying, especially along the axis of *depth.*

    How much more excellent/­convenient­/brilliant will it be to have access to informatio­n like that right in the text. And the layers of commentary that could build up over the years will be especially valuable. Eventually, each book will be more like wiki than anything else, with the boundaries between books dissolving.

  • I’ve been reading some books using the Kindle app on my Xperia Mini Pro; a fairly small screen, and low resolution by the standards of modern phones. I’m thinking I might actually prefer it to paper books, which shocks me because I adore paper books.

  • JohnnyPat

    Awesome post. My only point of contention: the subscription model. Don’t we already have an example of this not becoming the dominant model in the music industry? Itunes far exceeds Napster in terms of usage, I assume. There is something to be said for the want to own something. That fact that I own all the books on my shelves and downloaded onto my Nook won’t change if I lose my job or face a reduction is disposable income for whatever reason. With a subscription, my access is based on how long I can afford it.

    • Anon

      > With a subscription, my access is based on how long I can afford it.

      Yes. This is a very important point and entirely overlooked in the article. Also.

      1.) I do not think a (monthly, or otherwise) subscription model would work. There is simply no reason why the companies should be honest and renumerate the authors based on the correct number of clicks/access. First they will say that they renumerate the authors based ona times a book is accessed, then afterwards they will say that doesn’t count it must be times accessed at least a certain minimum duration, etc.

      2.) Also, from what is happening in the ebook-markted right now, it’s going into an entirely different direction. They want us to pay for each ebook multiple times, based on device. Buy it for Kindle, pay. Want it on your Sony Reader as well? Pay again. Want it on paper? Pay. Pay, pay, pay. In reality it’s not about books and free access to knowledge, it’s about a very tiny minority (managers, CEOs) making a shitload of money using the work of other people (the authors).

      3.) Kindle/Amazon/Apple also do everything so that you can not lend a book or music record to a friend anymore.


      This is how I feel, so long as I have a job and can afford the next disposable device and a subscription for content I’m fine. I live in Asia with a free apartment, no car and a minimum of work hours and money.

  • Roscotiger

    Good God! I hope you are wrong. Ignorance proceeds.

  • The only aspect that I don’t agree with is the “one-word-at-a-time” technology. Our brains process words in groups. Even when we think we are reading one line, we’re viewing words on another. I had a teacher who could speed read by simply looking at the center of each paragraph of text.

  • Very inspiring post. I particularly like your suggestion of an easier way to connect ideas between books though – I am an avid book reader and I do that manually right now and i’d like to have an easier way to do that.
    Still I believe the difference of a book or a e-book reader today is that it focuses our attention. Hyperlinked texts don’t – we tend to jump from page to page following our interest and inspiration. It is another type of experience. Not necessarily better or worse, but different. More creative. Needed but no the same as reading a book.
    I believe we’ll always need to be able to devote time to the deep attention that books or other media with no choice of direction command. For the sake of developing deep understanding of a particular area.

    • Toby Downton

      I believe that such technology would be sufficiently advanced so as to allow the reader to turn the hyperlinks off (and then back on again) at will, thereby allowing the deep attention you mention.

      • Kevin_Kelly


  • Elisa Sanacore

    Interessante. Io penso che la domanda che dovremmo farci sia: cosa voglio?
    Al di là di ciò che la tecnologia permette, ciascuno di noi deve sapere cosa vuole e cosa non vuole per potere scegliere liberamente e consapevolmente e non dovere accettare passivamente ciò che il “sistema” propone. La lettura sociale e la scrittura sociale deve essere una possibilità non l’unica forma.
    Voglio essere sempre libera di decidere se fare una lettura sociale o se ritirarmi in un luogo solitario a leggere. Voglio essere sempre libera di decidere se fare una scrittura sociale o se stare da sola con il mio quaderno o pc a scrivere.
    E soprattutto, se scrivo per professione voglio che le cose che scrivo vengano pagate e non solo condivise in creative commons.

  • “The [iPad and Kindle] charge for their convenience and interface, which feeds authors.”
    True, and how will authors be “fed” in the days of a universal library, accessible to all who can aford the subscription?

    • Bob

      They obviously won’t/wouldn’t be. But nobody is willing to admit this.

    • AnthonyC

      Money is collected, via subscription fees, as a common pool.
      Money is distributed from the pool to authors based on number of reads or some other criterion.
      Much like how cable television pays networks today.

    • Kevin_Kelly

      Similar to the way studios are fed via Netflix subscriptions.

  • Sylliu

    This is really interesting, but I think there will always be a place for an individual storyteller’s voice. From the pre-literate era when people got their stories orally to today, there have been certain people who told a story in a more gripping or mesmerizing or lyrical way than others, and there have been people willing to make the extra effort or pay a premium to hear or read the story from those particular people.

    In a world of networked and annotated text, Wikipedia-style, I worry that that uniqueness could get lost in the ether. Or maybe because everyone will have access to “publishing,” everyone’s individual voices could be heard, but it may be that much harder to find the storytellers one wants to hear.

  • If reading (and writing) in web is all no-pay, this means that we not pay the contents but only advetising.
    The popular notion is that everything is a gadget. I’m not pleased about this.
    If I made ​​the effort to write a book or any other product, I wish this was paid. I don’t like the creative commons applied to everything.


      We will pay as our feedback will be a form of social capital. We are the product on the web actually.

  • Josh

    This discussion bears an interesting – perhaps unnerving – parallel to Gordon Dickson’s “Final Encyclopedia.” All the tools are in place…

  • As I’ve been thinking about this article for the last few days, I keep wondering what the standard way to find a passage will be, when not directly linked. Saying to another human, “It’s on page 54,” is very easy and direct. So is sharing a link to that part of the stream. When text is considered as a stream, however, human to human directing of attention to a particular point in the stream gets a bit cumbersome. And because the stream of text will be poured into each digital format in a way that paginates differently each time, using page numbers is out.

    • Kevin_Kelly

      That’s a good point. When we are editing, we editors talk to authors about “paragraph 8, line 3″ but that is cumbersome. I think you will simply point to or copy the passage in question. Why quote otherwise?

      • I was thinking that paragraphs could be numbered in metadata, and be referred to that way. This metadata number could be visibly printed on non-digital copies, providing a look-up method.

        Amusingly, this harkens back (a bit) to the chapter-and-verse method of the Bible, Bhagavad Gita, and other holy books.

  • Just got around to reading this.

    A really good article/post and especially liked your discussion points about flexible screen technology, something I believe will change how much more smartphones will be used for reading in the future.

    The future is coming and nothing will stop the changes it will have on publishing and reading.

  • tomyorke79
  • The best networked book I have experienced to date, the books of the bible –

  • The best networked book I have experienced to date, the books of the bible –

  • Weirdly I have had the very same e-ink pages book idea mulling around in my mind for the last few weeks but you have expressed it absolutely eloquently:)

  • Beautifully written! Completely true that digital media today are reshaping the way we are fed stories. No doubt that books are no longer simply associated with the typical hard cover and binding, but now the simple flick of a finger of a virtual page. I work as a student assistant for DML Central at the UC Humanities Research Institute. I’ve learned so much of how digital media is doing big, positive things in society, particularly building communication. And I think that you set a perfect example of how simply reading a virtual book can lead to sharing and connecting with others instantly.

  • Vladimir

    Interesting commentary on what the future may hold. I’ve been mulling over this for a while. Especially with regards to your statement “But why call it a book?” It’s a valid argument to pursue, but the core of the discussion needs to switch to talking about ‘narrative’ instead of book. Book have been vehicles for delivery of these narratives, and while the vehicle may change, the narrative doesn’t, until it does… Before books there were scrolls, before them, etc. I have more here:

  • PassionateMind

    Hmmm. Lots of food for thought in this one. :o) I liked the overall feel Kelley gave of an incredible flight of imagination into the future, flowing upward and outward into the vastness of possibility, then spiraling back downward again, finishing neatly with a single challenge to face and conquer.

    And as for why a book, a “self-contained story, unified narrative and closed argument has a strange attraction for us”? I believe it’s because when we read such a work, we see into an author’s mind. We hear their voices, experience their thoughts and imaginings, and fall under their spell. I read partly for companionship . . . and to come to know great minds. The cloud can’t ever compete in that arena; too many voices compete there.

  • Adaptive Text: The Book Deserves To Come Alive

  • Hi there. Really interesting article. I think if we look closer than the next 10-20 years we are going to see perhaps the most significant change in how we experience and read literature. It’s an exciting time to be either (or both!) a writer or a reader. The digitization of books really marks the biggest change (and potential opportunity) for publishing since the invention of the printing press!

  • Jerson

    millions of kids in the third world country can’t afford a book, so they end up not reading. What’s the chance of someone poor buying a tablet or Kindle, lets concentrate on getting every kid on this planet books they can read for free…instead of wasting time and money so that we can just a have a comfortable way of reading..

  • Ien

    “The real challenge ahead is finding a display device that will focus the attention a book needs.”

    That device is already whatever you want it to be.

  • r_macdonald

    Wonderful ruminations on the evolution of books, Kevin!

    I was particularly impressed with your imagining a future integration of video & books.  I think there are remarkable opportunities for gracefully merging the media to enhance opportunities for revealing compelling stories and enabling scalable means deeper engagement.  You rightly note such hybrids will require new tools, including those for parsing the meaning of highly granular video elements.

    The vision of a Semantic Web and its applications of structured data offer some useful models for designing such hybrids.  VideoSurf has made significant strides in image analysis enhancing their consumer facing video search engine.  Speech to text algorithms can be applied to video, albeit with their strikingly inexact rendering. 

    Interestingly, Kevin, accommodations to empower the hearing disabled to better appreciate TV, closed captioning, have given us all a treasure trove of highly granular metadata to which semantic entity parsing engines can be applied. 

    I think Linked Data treatments of video captioning and the text of books will allow the experience of each to be better melded and coupled with the vast resources of the Web; enabling potentially exquisitely scaled and highly personalized opportunities for discovery, engagement, sharing and distribution.

  • I included a link to this piece in a post that shares the results of a poll I conducted on people’s preferences for paper or digital books. Since folks here might be interested in those results, here’s a link:

    Courtney Hunt
    Founder, Social Media in Organizations (SMinOrgs) Community

  • KevinMeath

    We are stumbling forward in this general direction, using a book subscription model (print or ebook) for a niche tribe interested in well-curated, well-edited, reliable, economical material that shows up the first of each month.

  • A very inventive vision Mr Kelley.  I especially liked the concept of the binding of flexible e-pages.  It reminded me of the interractive book from “The Diamond Age”

  • The Professor

    Any book that has survived the ages has, at some point in its history, been HIDDEN.  Ebooks cannot be hidden (access requires communication) and therefore will eventually be destroyed (burned? censored? altered?) by an external entity.  Buy paper because you can HIDE paper.

  • AviSolomon

    I stumbled across this remarkable plethora of designs of what books can become:

  • Good information. And i alway like to read the quality content. And i am really happy to found this information on your blog. Thanks for sharing this opportunity to leave a comment.

  • Sheilaarnold39

    Very interesting ideas.  What will happen to the well-done and greatly illustrated children’s books?  The thought that we wouldn’t have Dr. Seuss, or “Henry’s Freedom Box” or those small hardback covers brings some dismay for me.  How will we help our children to love reading so that these new ditigal formats actually survive.

  • Tickikue



    What scares me is that if this level of control is gained that information in books can and will be easily manipulated when the information is deemed sensitive.