A look at Bob Stein, The Institute for the Future of the Book, and the concepts of Collective Understanding and Social Reading.

Content creation is the most interesting aspect of the supply chain because it uniquely possesses the ability to impact the way society perceives and understands literature. A notable forerunner of change in the past decade is Bob Stein, his think and then do tank The Institute for the Future of the Book, and the concepts of collective understanding and social reading. The work of Stein and his organization has highlighted new ways to produce content and has changed the idea of what a book is, who has a voice in the content and what happens to said material after all the opinions have been integrated into the piece. The work of Stein and his group will have a profound impact on the structure of the book.

Born April 20, 1946 in New York City, Robert Stein received a degree in psychology from Columbia University and a Master’s in Education from Harvard. (Wikipedia). Stein has been an innovator of the publishing community since the 1980s. His work with The Voyager Company was a leader in transmitting classic and contemporary films to the then-current Laserdisc format. After his work with Voyager he founded Night Kitchen, a group dedicated to developing “authoring tools for the next generation of electronic publishing.” (Institute for the Future of the Book, People). A lot of the work he began with Night Kitchen was continued at the Institute for the Future of the Book, according to his biography on the organization’s website.

While Stein was at the forefront of electronic publishing throughout the 1990s, his creation of The Institute for the Future of the Book in 2005 is by far the most interesting aspect of his work. The Institute for the Future of the Book was established in 2005 by Stein with a grant from the Macarthur Foundation. The goal of the venture was to “determine how publishing might evolve as it moves from the printed page to the networked screen” (Stein).

The mission of the group is rather simple, “The printed page is giving way to the networked screen. The Institute for the Future of the Book seeks to chronicle this shift, and impact its development in a positive direction.” (Institute for the Future of the Book, Mission). A point the group hones in on while describing their work is about the networked space the new age of books exists in and describes that, unlike the printed book, the networked book is never finished, “As such, the Institute is deeply concerned with the surrounding forces that will shape the network environment and the conditions of culture: network neutrality, copyright and privacy. We believe that a free, neutral network, a progressive intellectual property system, and robust safeguards for privacy are essential conditions for an enlightened digital age.” (Institute for the Future of the Book, Mission).

Backtracking, the concept of what is or isn’t a book is interesting and is at the heart of how books will be constructed and published in the upcoming future. Is a “real book” paper, glue and Ink or is it words on a screen? That debate rages on in current society. Stein, in an article housed on the London School of Economics and Political Science, gave his definition of a book. He describes it as a space more than an object:

“Over the past thirty years my definition of “book” has undergone a major shift. At the beginning I simply defined a book in terms of its physical nature — paper pages infused with ink, bound into what we know as the codex. But then in the late 1970s with the advent of new media technologies we began to see the possibility of extending the notion of the page to include audio and video, imagining books with audio and video components. To make this work conceptually, we started defining books not in terms of their physical components but how they are used. From this perspective a book isn’t ink on bound paper, but rather “a user-driven medium” where the reader is in complete control of how they access the contents. With laser videodiscs and then cd-roms users/readers started “reading” motion pictures; transforming the traditionally producer-driven experience where the user simply sat in a chair with no control of pace or sequence into a fully user-driven medium.” (Stein).

The initial and, to this point in my research, most interesting endeavor they undertook was to look at the theory of collective understanding and the act of social reading and how they applied that to various projects. The application of the projects were tied to reader comments. As Stein has described in numerous sources, during the time of the institute’s formation blogging was coming into prominence and they wondered what would happen if they added comments to things like essays and novels. In doing so they changed the structure of commenting, allowing readers to comment on the paragraph rather than the page and shifting the commenting feature to a sidebar next to the paragraph.

Before mentioning the projects of the Institute for the Future of the Book has undertook in their existence, it’s important to look at the aforementioned two concepts the group, and Stein, has made note of throughout the research. Collective Understanding and Social Reading are two theories or ideas that the group and Stein utilizes in their projects. Collective Understanding, as explained by Dictionary Reference, refers to “a cooperative enterprise or unit, such as a collective farm”. (Dictionary Reference). Many of the combined efforts that will be exposed were initiated with this type of approach. Social Reading, according to OpenBookmarks.org, refers to “everything that surrounds the experience of reading electronic books”. (OpenBookmarks). The process of saving, sharing and emailing your reading is social reading – as is receiving recommendations based off of previous experiences from stores or search engines.

According to the most recent update of the Institute’s website, the institute has had 15 known projects. The first acclaimed piece was Gamer Theory, by McKenzie Wark. The intent of the book was to “set out to explore the possibility of a new textual form in social web media: a middle space, somewhere between the sprawling public discourse arena of the blogosphere and the collaborative knowledge factory of Wikipedia. A framework for extended, critical inquiry around a central idea or itch.” (Gamer Theory, About). What they had hoped to find was if giving the reader and the author the same content at the same time in the same space would develop a modern form of writing. The things they found out was substantial:

As it turns out, input from readers on the original site did have a very real impact on the book’s development. First off, we realized that we’d outsourced the proofreading; people didn’t hesitate to point out typos and misspellings or glaring syntax errors. But most of the feedback proved to be more substantive: criticisms, queries, references, and also meditations, and testimonials by gamers about game play. Some places were positively humming with chatter — a full-blown conversation in the manuscript’s margins … they played a significant role in his subsequent revisions. (Gamer Theory, About).

Stein also had many things to say about the findings of Gamer Theory and how that applied to concept of collective understanding mentioned earlier. In “The future of publishing will be shaped by a more dynamic social reading experience” Stein writes:

Within a few hours of putting Gamer Theory online, a vibrant discussion emerged in the margins. We realized that moving comments from the bottom to the side, a change that at the time seemed minor, in fact had profound implications. Largely because Wark took a very active role in the unfolding discussion, our understanding at first focused on the ways in which this new format upends the traditional hierarchies of print which place the author on a pedestal and the reader at her adoring feet. With the side-by-side layout of Gamer Theory‘s text and comments, author and reader were suddenly occupying the same visual space; which in turn shifted their relationship to one of much greater equality. As the days went by it became clear that author and reader were engaged in a collaborative effort to increase their collective understanding.” (Stein)

Another interesting project along similar lines that the group undertook was CommentPress, which essentially was the attempt to make the layout used for Gamer Theory available to the public. The WordPress plugin is available as a free install and can be utilized on any WordPress platform. The page describes CommentPress as:

“CommentPress is an open source theme and plugin for the WordPress blogging engine that allows readers to comment paragraph-by-paragraph, line-by-line or block-by-block in the margins of a text. Annotate, gloss, workshop, debate: with CommentPress you can do all of these things on a finer-grained level, turning a document into a conversation. It can be applied to a fixed document (paper/essay/book etc.) or to a running blog.” (CommentPress).

One of the newer interesting projects from the organization is Social Book, a social media platform designed to read books with your friendss and offer your notes on whatever you may be reading. The really interesting aspect to the site is the ability to create groups for a specific book and be able to manage whatever conversation you have. The description of the page highlights this fact, “You’ll have to try it to see how different this is than trying to engage in a conversation in a Wiki or GoogleDocs or seeing that 537 people have highlighted the same passage in your Kindle reader.” (Social Book, Welcome). The website works with the currently existing Livemargin and allows anyone to read and edit anything as a group.

The work of Stein and the Institute have seen tangible results since it was created in 2005. Their line by line editing structure innovations have seen implementations in things like Microsoft Word’s track changes and comment sections, Google Docs live editing feature and blogs like Grantland that post their footnotes in a similar side bar fashion. The University of Texas features a social reading platform they sell to teachers to use in their classrooms – their site, called Ecomma, offers analytics and ways for students to engage others as a means of furthering their own personal grasp. One of the most popular social reading sites, Goodreads.com, currently has somewhere between 250 thousand and 500 thousand users, 70 percent of which are women, according to Findthebest.com.

Stein gave an interview to documentarian Sean Prpick who gave an interview to the Canadian Broadcasting Company on a piece about the future of the book (the actual future of the book, although Stein’s group was obviously mentioned) and spoke about Stein, the clout he has within the publishing community and how he perceives the future of the book. The article gave light to some very interesting bits of information about the publishing community. Prpick writes on Stein’s clout: “One expert, Bob Stein, a founder of the New York-based Institute For the Future of the Book, is a pretty influential guy and the big publishers are eager to talk to him. He’s met the leaders of most of the top companies and he says, for the most part, they’re older boomers with retirement in sight.” (Prpick). Prpick continues: “With just a few years left before they retire they’re saying, he says, ‘As long as I can keep the beast alive on my watch.’ In other words, they’ll do what they can to keep things going for just a few more years.” (Prpick). The takeaway point comes from how Stein perceives the industry going forward. Prpick writes:

“His vision extends even farther out to the horizon. He also thinks the major form of literary expression could be multi-player gaming. In other words, a distinguished author might lay down the spine of a narrative and put it on the Web. To “read” the story, you would join the author and other players online and work out the story collectively as you proceed through the “game.” Now, just as an aside, “book” isn’t the right term for a future in which so much writing won’t have a physical version, “game” isn’t the right word for interactive immersive communication environments. But for lack of better terms, we still call them books and games, although we have to set aside decades and even centuries of connotations and perceptions to be able to see what’s possible.” (Prpick).

Prpick mentioned others he consulted within his documentary research that did not think the book publishing landscape would morph so drastically that the conservative book would not become extinct in the coming years. But it is undeniable that the things Stein is talking about will have some sort of position in the transition to a new age of books.

Bob Stein and his Institute have done some very interesting work. They’ve given the reader the ability to break the wall that separates them from the author and have given them a voice in the construction of the pieces of art they look to consume. According to a somewhat recent article from Business Insider, one in five people own a smartphone worldwide and one in 17 own a tablet. Their research shows an almost exponential increase in smartphone ownership from the course of 2009 to 2013 and gives reason to believe those trends will only increase. That being said, with everyone possessing the platform in which to read a networked book, it would make total business sense that publishing communities make, or at least be willing to make, more complex digital material. While Stein and the Institute have done interesting work, their most interesting impact is on the horizon.

Throughout all of this research it seems as if no one really knows what will happen with the book. Stein seems to be on the side of people wanting to push the creative envelope and push the book to the limits of what it and creative expression could potentially be. But, on the other side of Stein, there are the droves of people who love and feel secure with their paperback James Patterson regurgitations and have no desire to see the book evolve into something they would have to relearn, much like the heads of the Big Five publishers. Everything is in Stein’s favor. With the excess of digital platforms, the constant need for social network interaction and the rate in which young authors have been publishing ebooks it feels very logically sound that Stein will be able to see his future




Works Cited

Saffo, Paul. “The Radical” Digerati. Edge.Org. n.d. web. 5/29/14

The Institute for the Future of the Book. The Institute for the Future of the Book. N.d. web. 5/29/14.

Stein, Bob. “The future of publishing will be shaped by a more dynamic social reading experience” London School of Economics and Political Science. N.d. web. 5/29/14.

“Robert Stein (computer pioneer)” Wikipedia. Wikipedia.org. 6/4/13. Web. 5/29/14.

“CommentPress” Institute for the Future of the Book. Institute for the Future of the Book. N.d. web. 5/29/14.

Prpick, Sean. “The future of the book” CBC books. CBC. 2/26/13. Web. 5/29/2014.

“Welcome” Social Book. Livemargin. N.d. web. 5/29/14.

“About this book” Gamer Theory. Institute for the Future of the Book. 4/23/2007. Web. 5/29/2014.

“Collective” Dictionary Reference. Dictionary.com. n.d. web. 5/29/14.

“Social Reading” Openbookmarks. Booktwo. 5/2014. Web. 5/29/14.

Heggestuen, John. “One In Every 5 People In The World Own A Smartphone, One In Every 17 Own A Tablet [CHART]” Business Insider. Business Insider Inc. 12/15/2013.

“How many people use Goodreads social networking site?” Find the Best. Find-the-best.com n.d. web. 5/29/14.

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