It's a quiet Saturday morning, and I've been leisurely cruising the sources I use to 'catch up' with people whose thought I enjoy. In this case, I came across a reference to a blog post by Steven Johnson, entitled 'The Glass Box and the Commonplace Book.' It's the transcript of the Hearst New Media lecture he gave on April 22, subtitled 'Two Paths For the Future of Text.' As usual, Johnson's written it (and, I'm sure, delivered it) lovingly.
What has, however, rousted me from my slothful and infrequent blogging is his point regarding Apple's iBook application on the iPad.
Take a look at this screen. This, as you all probably know, is 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.
The simple point regarding the ownership and use of information and the public domain is what stirs me. Those are our words on that screen. We have a right to them.
Like Johnson, I have no particular problem with paywalls, or compensating an artist for the ability to enjoy / consume that person's efforts. Reasonable limits to protect the rights of the author/composer/performer make sense to me, but I will also repeat Steven's position as one I consider my own:
But I also don't want to mince words. When your digital news feed doesn't contain links, when it cannot be linked to, when it can't be indexed, when you can't copy a paragraph and paste it into another application: when this happens your news feed is not flawed or backwards looking or frustrating. It is broken.
And, then a reason for optimism: Common-placing as a value proposition for authors and publications. He calls out the Pulitzer Prize winning ProPublica as an example.
A number of commentators have discussed the role of non-profits in filling the hole created by the decline of print newspapers. But they have underestimated the textual productivity of organizations that are incentivized to connect, not protect, their words. A single piece of information designed to flow through the entire ecosystem of news will create more value than a piece of information sealed up in a glass box.
And though this applies as well to the citizen journalist and blogger/commentator, the support of this role within the realm of professional journalism is tremendously important. He goes on to argue that the connectivity derived from the web is more powerful than its filtering and 'echo-chambering' effect.
The reason the web works as wonderfully as it does is because the medium leads us, sometimes against our will, into common places, not glass boxes. It's our job -- as journalists, as educators, as publishers, as software developers, and maybe most importantly, as readers -- to keep those connections alive.