Hugh McGuire on the future of reading

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First aired on Spark (22/09/12)

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A book is not like a web page. You can't zoom in on a picture by swiping your fingers along the page. You can't click a footnote as if it's a hyperlink. You can just read it. But some people, like Hugh McGuire, think that the distinction between books and the internet is an arbitrary matter of technology, and destined to change. He spoke to Nora Young on Spark about what he believes is the dynamic future of the book.

"The moment of revelation I had was wondering why it was that we couldn't be applying principles of the open data movement to books," said McGuire. "Why is it that we're separating and cordoning off the information that's in books?"

McGuire thinks it doesn't make any sense to "cordon off" books, as he puts it. He's the co-editor (with Brian O'Leary) of a new book, Book: A Futurist's Manifesto, which is a collection of essays about how differences between the book and the internet will disappear in the future. He expects that some of the features common to our internet experience will become part of the reading experience of the future. "There are a couple of very obvious ones, like linking and commenting," he said. "Those are two of the fundamental processes that we have on the internet of connecting information."

Things are already headed in that direction, thanks to the rise of e-readers — for example, the Kobo and the Kindle both have commenting features. "But [so far] they're all in different silos," said McGuire. "So if you think of pointing to, say, a speech in Hamlet, in the e-book version there isn't one central place where that exists, whereas if you think about a New York Times article, there's one link, one URL, where that article is found. So I think that we're going to see, at some point, that e-books live on the web first, and then there will be all sorts of different outputs of them in different formats."

Another interesting idea discussed in Book: A Futurist's Manifesto is that of books having APIs. API stands for Application Programming Interface, which is a protocol for software to communicate with other software. So if books had APIs, a developer could build tools that would work with the book. "When you're thinking about books, what's important is all the things we do with them, not the shape or product packaging that they're in," said McGuire. "If you think about a book having an API, you start to imagine the kinds of things they might do, which would be very different for different kinds of books."

Like what for example? "Like pulling out all the geographic locations in a particular book and linking that to a map, or pulling out all the dates, or all the character names," said McGuire. "So you can think of books containing an awful lot of data which we could start to pull out and do things with."

Of course, these ideas are still in their early stages. "To some degree I don't think we know what that means yet, what that's going to be," said McGuire. "There's a whole world of exciting possibilities."