Our ebooks need a “commons”

July 27, 2012

books / culture / design

Like most folks on the web, I’ve been watching the ebook shift with great interest over the past few years. I don’t own a Kindle, but I do own an iPad with some Kindle books and some iBooks books and some book apps, and I find them valuable. I like being able to search for things, highlight things, take notes on things. I find myself using it almost exclusively for technology books, aside from the random freebies of other genres that show up on Amazon, but it works quite well for that.

Now. Like many designers, I’ve also been watching, with even more interest, folks like Craig Mod as they talk about design and culture of books and ebooks and publishing and so on. I find that truly fascinating, and it indicates just how far we still have to go in creating the experiences that enable people to read digitally, as they surely will, and do it well, as they may or may not.

One specific thing about this hit me today, and it’s this: our ebooks need, and can really have, a “commons,” and so far they don’t have one. Let me explain. Kester Brewin wrote a post about how ebooks “remove text from common sight” and it’s true, as they currently are they do. I can’t imagine someone walking into my apartment and picking up my iPad to see what books are on it. How would they know what apps I use to read? Which home screen those apps are on? What if I had a password on it? Not to mention that it’s just really awkward to pick up a somewhat personal device like that and start snooping around on it.

Ebooks, on the one hand, have tried to solve their problem of hiddenness a bit. Amazon has its methods for sharing Kindle notes. There are cool apps like Readmill, Findings, and many others that allow people to give others glimpses into what they’re reading, what they like, and so on. But it’s very early in that process.

On the other hand, no one has any objection to walking into my apartment and looking at my bookshelves, and nor do I have any objection to them doing so. I do it too; it’s a fascinating way to learn about the voices that have shaped a person, what interests them, and how they think. I love our bookshelves.

But here’s the thing: they aren’t all that good a system for sharing and creating a commons, either. We don’t have enough bookshelves, and we don’t have enough space for the ones we do have. We have a big shelf and a medium shelf full in our bedroom, two smaller shelves full in our living room, a desk full in our dining room, and random boxes and lone books floating all around the apartment. No one can, in actuality, walk into our apartment with that curious heart that I love so much, and actually find out much about my wife and me. They’d have to walk into our bedroom for that. And once again, that’s just really awkward.

So to some extent, I disagree with Kester that the lack of a common space for books is a problem that ebooks have and physical books don’t. Depending on the space in which a person lives, it may or may not be exacerbated by ebooks, but it certainly isn’t created by them. It’s possible that our daughter (to use Kester’s example of a child finding a love of reading from looking at books) will be able to grow up looking at our bookshelves to find interesting things to read, but it’s really unlikely because of the kind of spaces in which we live.

But here’s the thing: ebooks, if we as designers realize how important this is to the intellectual and cultural life of a society and groups within it, could do a great deal to solve this problem. Book designers, interface designers, and hardware designers have a fascinating opportunity to create apps, experiences, and even devices that show the equivalent of the book titles on our shelves to the folks who come into our lives, whether in digital or physical spaces.

I really like some of the apps that have already been created, but they’ll get better. Especially if companies like Amazon eventually work on their ebook systems in the better interest of society, even if it hurts their monopoly a little bit, we’ll be able to do this much easier. Sharing notes and such is already pretty easy, and it’ll get better. Lending will get better.

We’ll also be able to create new experiences for doing things with the material available to us, whether it’s shared or purchased or lended or something else. There will be sites and apps that provide companions to books that are actually useful, unlike most of the ones we’ve seen thus far.

At the moment this is the most exciting for me: I can imagine web-connected screens sitting on our walls in the near future, showing the books we’re currently reading, or the ten theology books that have impacted us the most, or the ten memoirs we love the most, or whatever, to everyone who walks into our homes. If they’re built well they should offer the same, and even more, opportunities for community, and for people to learn about us from what we read, that our physical shelves try to offer now.

This will have its own issues. It will have its opportunities for creating injustice and inequity that we who care about justice will have to fight against. We’ll have to make sure that such communal experiences are available to everyone, and that we don’t create more digital divides, and that we use this to tear down other divides. But there’s opportunity here too, and perhaps far more than there’s ever been with physical books.

And this is one of the best things about design today: the oft-unexpected opportunities when the digital can reach into the physical world, and the physical can reach into the digital world, and both become better.