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Tools of Change Notes: Keynote Address

Mike’s notes from the Keynote at the O’Reilly Tools of Change Conference 2/10/09

I’m not saying I agree with (or even fully grasp) all of these ideas, but I find them fascinating to think about.

Part 1: A Book is a Place…

by Bob Stein, Director of the Institute for the Future of the Book (“a think & do tank” focused on the evolution of intellectual discourse as it migrates from print to Web).

Bob gave us some history of the eBook. He had a video from 1980(!) of folks at MIT demoing a great great granddaddy of an eBook, including touch screen interactivity and video. I have no idea how it worked, but the onscreen text looked really good. Bob also showed some illustrations from 1981 predicting the Internet, eLearning, and wireless technology. He said that the key point everyone missed was that connecting people to each other was much more profound than connecting people to content.

The overall theme of the keynote was one of “social reading.” Books are much more social tools than they might seem. Usually we think of reading as a quiet, solitary act. It really is a social thing, but until now we couldn’t connect to the other people who created the content or are engaging with it at the same time as us.

Non-fiction authors become leaders of “communities of inquiry,” and that’s a good thing. Available knowledge has advanced so far that one person can’t know a subset of a subset of a subset of just about anything. Many eyes and many brains working on a problem will reach better solutions faster. The social phenomenon will result in richer, better books. Successful publishers will be those who will find ways to build and nurture vibrant communities of authors and readers.

Kids growing up now and in the future will think of reading as a fundamentally social, interactive experience. They will never know it as anything else.

Bob showed a concrete example of how the traditional “hierarchy of print,” with author over reader, has flattened. It’s a WordPress theme called CommentPress, that redefines the hierarchical nature of blog discussion. Usually core text is on top and the comments flow underneath. But CommentPress puts the comments next to the post, “transforming the page into a visual representation of dialog, and re-imagining the book itself as a conversation.” CommentPress was inspired by the simple observation that people have been writing in the margins of their books basically for as long as there have been margins.

So a book is a place…where people congregate.

Part 2: Literature as a Web Service

by  Peter Brantley of the Digital Library Federation

Peter’s ideas dovetailed with Bob’s, but were less detailed, with lots of quick-hit, bullet-point metaphors.

A book is a machine for conveying thought.

Books are networked commodities.

Publishing is less about the book than the people.

Books become the drivers for services.

Part 3: Digital Distribution and the Whip Hand: Don’t Get iTunesed with your eBooks

by Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing, and

Cory is a leading critic of DRM (digital rights management), believing that to the consumer, DRM is all cost and no benefit. He is a successful published author who allows all his books to be downloaded for free in various formats. I don’t know how many publishers or authors share his vision of a DRM-free world, but I haven’t heard anyone dispute the facts he cites with regard to DRM. He’s also a very funny and engaging speaker. If you have a chance to see him live, by all means do so.

(Again, I’m the reporter here. Imagine each sentence below starting with the words “In the speaker’s opinion…”)

Companies make the mistake of blowing their money on broken DRM, instead of focusing their efforts on getting the content into the hands of people who want it, to make them paying customers. DRM is a wasted effort because most pirates wouldn’t pay for what they “steal” anyway. Filesharing should have been perceived as a market signal to media companies, rather than a threat. They would have been much better off if they had embraced and used it rather than fought against it, and threatened and sued their customers.

DRM is futile for books, since scanning and retyping are so easy and fast.

(Aside: On display at TOC was a Kirtas APT BookScan machine, a truly impressive bucket of bolts, scanning bound books at a rate of about a page every 1.5 seconds. Makes you think.)

Content that pirates want, they will get. The only things that won’t be pirated are things no one wants. Cory cited the example of Spore by EA. It was a hugely popular game in 2008. It also had a draconian DRM (SecuROM) with the potential to punish legitimate customers. Users were limited to 3 installs with no de-authorization process. Three strikes and you’re out. Can you imagine if there was no de-authorization process for the Creative Suite? It’d be just a matter of time before a lot of us would be forced to beg for mercy, or re-purchase our applications (or storm the gates of Adobe with torches and pitchforks). In the Spore case, gamers sought revenge by pirating and carpetbombing Amazon with one-star ratings for a game they actually loved. Eventually, EA changed the DRM in Spore.

Cory also cited the tale of Overdrive, a DRM provider that stopped providing services to eBook seller Fictionwise, and affected 300,000 eBooks that people had bought.

If you’re a publisher or author, online retailers like Amazon won’t sell your product without DRM, even if you ask that they do so. Who’s in charge here? If someone locks up your stuff against your wishes and won’t give you the key, they might not have your interests in mind. Should a retailer and/or a DRM vendor be dictating to rights holders about what they can do with their content, and how it can be sold?

OK, that’s it for the Big Ideas, at least till I write up the Google Books session. Next up, XML in Practice.

Mike Rankin

Mike Rankin

Editor in Chief of, InDesign Magazine, and Author of courses on InDesign and Illustrator. Husband. Dad. Dog walker.
Mike Rankin

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5 Comments on “Tools of Change Notes: Keynote Address

  1. Fascinating. Thank you so much Mike.

    The first thing I went to was the CommentPress Word Press theme.

    Following links there, I ended up at a thought-provoking site, the Future of the Book blog (same people who came up with the WP theme).

    So many members of the InDesignSecrets community are involved in book publishing. I’d love it if you could share how your company, or you personally, are dealing with the issues/ideas that Mike is relaying from the conference.

  2. I’ve fought the DRM issue for years — on both sides. At first, it was like, “I would never do a book without DRM.” Then somewhere a few years ago, I just gave up. It’s too hard, too expensive, and too much of a pain for users. I think the turning point was seeing the success and goodwill around the Take Control eBooks. They’re great books, written and published by great folks, at a great deal.

    However, I don’t think you need to put comments up with the blog post to make it social. I mean, look at the great conversations that show up in comments in this “linear” blog.

  3. Anne-Marie,

    The CommentPress extension for WordPress might be interesting to explore to use on The CommentPress page looked very interesting!

  4. I am completely against DRM. It only punishes honest users. Look at music. They tried DRM and eventually removed it from itunes and just about everyother store. If someone wants to get something illegal they will, but everyone runs into road blocks as they use their own purchased material.

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