The iPad: the end of copy-paste ‘commonplacing’?

Concerning Apple’s new iBook application for the iPad:

What I’ve done here is shown you what happens when you try to copy a paragraph of text. You get the familiar iPhone-style clipping handles, and you get two options “Highlight” and “Bookmark.” But you can’t actually copy the text, to paste it into your own private commonplace book, or email it to a friend, or blog about it. And of course there’s no way to link to it. What’s worse: the book in question is Penguin’s edition of Darwin’s Descent of Man, which is in the public domain. Those are our words on that screen. We have a right to them.

In this text, two possible futures for publishing texts are outlined, one in which the massive commonplacing possibilities of the Web are maintained and expanded, and one when it becomes impossible to copy-paste, as in the current versions of the iPad. (follow-up below by Jeff Jarvis)

This very interesting contribution by Steven B. Johnson, that you’ll have to read in full, starts with a history of commonplacing, i.e. the post-Enlightenment habit of scholars to keep their own collections of quotes and citations from what they read,

just about anyone with intellectual ambition in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was likely to keep a commonplace book. In its most customary form, “commonplacing,” as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations.

… a habit which has become ‘commonplace’ in the era of the Web 2.0 where is has become a $B200 business.

Yet that era may come to an end, and hence both the cultural and business value creation that it entails; instead we may have a “glass box” future, access to text that can no longer be worked with:

1. Commonplacing and value creation in the Web era

Steven Berlin Johnson:

“WHEN TEXT IS free to combine in new, surprising ways, new forms of value are created. Value for consumers searching for information, value for advertisers trying to share their messages with consumers searching for related topics, value for content creators who want an audience. And of course, value to the entity that serves as the middleman between all those different groups. This is in part what Jeff Jarvis has called the “link economy,” but as Jarvis has himself observed, it is not just a matter of links. What is crucial to this system is that text can be easily moved and re-contextualized and analyzed, sometimes by humans and sometimes by machines.

Ecologists talk about the “productivity” of an ecosystem, which is a measure of how effectively the ecosystem converts the energy and nutrients coming into the system into biological growth. A productive ecosystem, like a rainforest, sustains more life per unit of energy than an unproductive ecosystem, like a desert. We need a comparable yardstick for information systems, a measure of a system’s ability to extract value from a given unit of information. Call it, in this example: textual productivity. By creating fluid networks of words, by creating those digital-age commonplaces, we increase the textual productivity of the system.

The overall increase in textual productivity may be the single most important fact about the Web’s growth over the past fifteen years. Think about it this way: let’s say it’s 1995, and you are cultivating a page of “hot links” to interesting discoveries on the Web. You find an article about a Columbia journalism lecture and you link to it on your page. The information value you have created is useful exclusively to two groups: people interested in journalism who happen to visit your page, and the people maintaining the Columbia page, who benefit from the increased traffic. Fast forward to 2010, and you check-in at Foursquare for this lecture tonight, and tweet a link to a description of the talk. What happens to that information? For starters, it goes out to friends of yours, and into your twitter feed, and into Google’s index. The geo-data embedded in the link alerts local businesses who can offer your promotions through foursquare; the link to the talk helps Google build its index of the web, which then attracts advertisers interested in your location or the topic of journalism itself. Because that tiny little snippet of information is free to make new connections, by checking in here you are helping your friends figure out what to do tonight; you’re helping the Journalism school in promoting this venue; you’re helping the bar across Broadway attract more customers, you’re helping Google organize the web; you’re helping people searching google for information about journalism; you’re helping journalism schools advertising on Google to attract new students. Not bad for 140 characters.

When text is free to flow and combine, new forms of value are created, and the overall productivity of the system increases. But of course, when text is free, value is sometimes subtracted for the publishers who used to charge for that text. So let me make one point clear: recognizing the value creation of open textual networks is not argument against paywalls. I happen to think it is perfectly reasonable for online publishers to ask people to pay for the privilege of reading their journalism. If people are willing to buy virtual tractors on Farmville, or cough up two bucks for the Flight Control app on the iPhone, a meaningful number of people are going to be willing to pay for a well reported and edited newspaper or magazine. I don’t think erecting paywalls is some kind of magic cure that will instantly restore the newspaper business to the forty-percent margins they commanded back in the day when they had a virtual monopoly on local ads and classifieds. But there is nothing in the idea of charging for content that is in conflict with the value of textual networks. Search engines can still index the paywalled content, and there are a number of clever schemes out there —including the metered usage model that the Times is apparently going to roll out — that allow publishers to charge for content while still allowing that content to be linked to, excerpted, and remixed in new ways.

But there are worse things than paywalls.”

2. From the conclusion:

“The contrast here suggests to me that we have two potential futures ahead of us, where digital text is concerned, or that the future is going to involve a battle between two contradictory impulses. We can try to put a protective layer of glass of the words, or we can embrace the idea that we are all better off when words are allowed to network with each other. What’s the point of going to all this trouble to build machines capable of displaying digital text if we can’t exploit the basic interactivity of that text? People don’t want to read on a screen just for the thrill of it; even with the iPad’s beautiful display, reading on paper is still a higher-resolution experience, and much easier on the eyes. Yes, the iPad makes it easier to carry around a dozen books and magazines, but that’s not the only promise of the technology. The promise also lies in doing things with the words, forging new links of association, remixing them. We have all the tools at our disposal to create commonplace books that would astound Locke and Jefferson. And yet we are, deliberately, trying to crawl back into the glass box.”

3. Jeff Jarvis: why the iPad is Retrograde:

“The iPad is retrograde. It tries to turn us back into an audience again. That is why media companies and advertisers are embracing it so fervently, because they think it returns us all to their good old days when we just consumed, we didn’t create, when they controlled our media experience and business models and we came to them. The most absurd, extreme illustration is Time Magazine’s app, which is essentially a PDF of the magazine (with the odd video snippet). It’s worse than the web: we can’t comment; we can’t remix; we can’t click out; we can’t link in, and they think this is worth $4.99 a week. But the pictures are pretty.

That’s what we keep hearing about the iPad as the justification for all its purposeful limitations: it’s meant for consumption, we’re told, not creation. We also hear, as in David Pogue’s review, that this is our grandma’s computer. That cant is inherently snobbish and insulting. It assumes grandma has nothing to say. But after 15 years of the web, we know she does. I’ve long said that the remote control, cable box, and VCR gave us control of the consumption of media; the internet gave us control of its creation. Pew says that a third of us create web content. But all of us comment on content, whether through email or across a Denny’s table. At one level or another, we all spread, react, remix, or create. Just not on the iPad.

The iPad’s architecture supports these limitations in a few ways:

First, in its hardware design, it does not include a camera — the easiest and in some ways most democratic means of creation (you don’t have to write well) — even though its smaller cousin, the iPhone, has one. Equally important, it does not include a simple (fucking) USB port, which means that I can’t bring in and take out content easily. If I want to edit a document in Apple’s Pages, I have to go through many hoops of moving and snycing and emailing or using Apple’s own services. Cloud? I see no cloud, just Apple’s blue skies. Why no USB? Well, I can only imagine that Apple doesn’t want us to think what Walt Mossberg did in his review — the polar opposite of Pogue’s — that this pad could replace its more expensive laptops. The iPad is purposely handicapped, but it doesn’t need to be. See the German WePad, which comes with USB port(s!), a camera, multitasking, and the more open Android operating system and marketplace.

Second, the iPad is built on apps. So are phones, Apple’s and others’. Apps can be wonderful things because they are built to a purpose. I’m not anti-app, let’s be clear. But I also want to stop and examine the impact of shifting from a page- and site-based internet to one built on apps. I’ve been arguing that we are, indeed, moving past a page-, site-, and search-based web to one also built on streams and flows, to a distributed web where you can’t expect people to come to you but you must go to them; you must get yourself into their streams. This shift to apps is a move in precisely the opposite direction. Apps are more closed, contained, controlling. That, again, is why media companies like them. But they don’t interoperate — they don’t play well — with other apps and with the web itself; they are hostile to links and search. What we do in apps is less open to the world. I just want to consider the consequences.

So I see the iPad as a Bizarro Trojan Horse. Instead of importing soldiers into the kingdom to break down its walls, in this horse, we, the people, are stuffed inside and wheeled into the old walls; the gate is shut and we’re welcomed back into the kingdom of controlling media that we left almost a generation ago.

There are alternatives. I now see the battle between Apple and Google Android in clearer focus. At Davos, Eric Schmidt said that phones (and he saw the iPad as just a big phone… which it is, just without the phone and a few other things) will be defined by their apps. The mobile (that is to say, constantly connected) war will be won on apps. Google is competing with openness, Apple with control; Google will have countless manufacturers and brands spreading its OS, Apple will have media and fanboys (including me) do the work for it.”

2 Comments The iPad: the end of copy-paste ‘commonplacing’?

  1. Sepp

    It is disheartening to see Apple go in this direction of ever more control of text and other artistic expression. Their computers are good, but I can’t stand their penchant for closing us in to pay for every word we read, every music note we hear and every movie we enjoy. A ghastly philosophy, if you ask me, Mr Jobs.

  2. Kevin CarsonKevin Carson

    It seems Jobs’ vision is a return to pre-Web 2.0 days, when the Internet was an “information superhighway” of walled-garden proprietary content distributed by what amounted to a broadcast system with a lot more channels.

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