Sunday, October 02, 2005

Why books suck

An essay. Click comments for the text.


Connelly Barnes said...

Why books suck

Consider the typical academic textbook. It is methodological and verbose. It lacks summary sheets, even when the relevant course information can be summarized on a single page. The textbook is turf: its creation is motivated by benefits to the author's reputation and salary. The textbook claims to promote science and learning while functioning within a highly egotistical framework.

These are irksome features of textbooks, but they're not showstoppers: they can be bypassed or ignored. What cannot be circumvented is this: Textbooks are not universally accessible on the Web.

Why is this a problem? Well, when I learn, I typically learn either through the classroom, or through the Web. The websites I use are diverse, but they have a commonality: easy access. You can call my method of learning "participation in open communities," "prodigal surfing of the Web," "instant gratification via Google," or whatever you like. That's irrelevant. What is relevant is that textbooks are really, fundamentally incompatible with the Web way of learning.

In the Web world, barriers are anathema. They're anathema to knowledge, to work, to efficiency, to new users, and to people who just want to fiddle around with things. I contribute to a free online encyclopedia (Wikipedia) and a free programming language (Python), not out of any particular charitable drive, but because these activities are efficient for me: they connect my knowledge, help me in school, familiarize me with new technology, and let me get work done with a minimal amount of effort.

The Web world discourages simultaneous redundant production by connecting and coordinating everyone. Yet textbooks are redundantly produced to an appalling extent: there are literally thousands of undergraduate introductory physics books. Each book is a complete new endeavour, created from a blank slate. And each book very much resists being adapted to the Web way.

So from the Web's perspective, textbooks are uneconomical. They represent an old way of doing things, a needless inefficiency, and a constant reinvention of the wheel. In terms of the Web's diet, textbooks are like empty calories: they are full of knowledge, yet are not publicly accessible, and cannot be built upon or improved in a distributed, collaborative fashion.

If the Web could be said to "want" something, it wants to allow every nontechnical user to download textbooks, extract chapters, recompile improved books, make informal translations, build book communities, and share books with each other, all effortlessly. This is a polemical claim, but it is simply substantiated: the Web optimizes exactly for this behavior. Redundant production is wasteful, so authors are encouraged to collaborate. Collaboration is easiest when there are low barriers to entry. People are discouraged from contributing if their creations will be locked away from the public. Thus the produced collaborative works often have liberal licenses, to guarantee the works' preservation and utility for future collaborators.

Other approaches are discouraged by the Web's economy. Non-collaborative works are more difficult to maintain, and require redundant effort and continued financial support. Books which are not freely available are seriously discouraged, since the Web's multinational, ephemeral discussion settings require the quick checking of citations and finding of facts. The average user will not want to find a credit card, purchase a book online, and back up the downloaded e-Book in order to find a snippet of information or ascertain the validity of a claim. In more general terms, the required purchase represents a barrier to the Web -- an inefficiency -- so users will look elsewhere to decrease the time, money, and effort necessary to find the desired information.

The Web is an optimization process which maximizes efficiency. In this process, free is better than non-free and collaborative is better than non-collaborative.

Today's books don't work for or with the Web. This is no revolutionary statement: rather, it is the observation that the Web's means of production is incompatible with that of the traditional textbook. There is nothing to be improve upon but the fundamental mode of production. For the Web, today's textbooks have no value as source material; they are simply an inefficiency. The books of the future cannot be built from the books of today, no more than a stream engine can be built from a horse.

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