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The browser and the book


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Which is the more advanced technology, the web browser or the book? From a talk at Idea 2007.

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The browser and the book

  1. 1. 1 The browser and a book is the content of a presentation I first gave at IDEA 2008, a gathering of information architects.
  2. 2. 2 TRENDS Here are a few trends that I’ve noticed in today’s marketplace: Mobility. People are just starting to get used to the idea that the internet can be portable. It used to be that we had to go to the internet – now we can keep it in our back pocket or wear it around our necks. A cornucopia of devices, led by the iPhone, seeks to capture this mobility market. The traditional PC is exploding into a fragmented set of portable devices with different goals and uses. Micro-content. As mobile devices fracture into multiple categories, so does our collective attention. We are now in the age where we share photos of what we had for lunch and broadcast our current location and desires. Social nets. We broadcast our location to our tribe, or portions thereof: a group of friends who may be nearby, for example. Impatience. Along with our increasing desire to connect and our fragmented attention comes impatience with any kind of learning curve. We expect things to work instantly, intuitively, and increasingly see a user’s manual as a sign of a badly designed product.
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  4. 4. 4 We can guess about the future but sometimes it pays to study the past. The book as we know it today is a very stable technology which has survived with very little change for the past 500 years. The book at right was published by Aldus Manutius in the 15th century. Perhaps we can still learn from the book.
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  6. 6. 6 The challenge of capturing information from the world around us is an old one. We’ve tried many approaches over the years, and the web browser is merely the latest in a long chain of approaches to information display. The challenge is the same for any display technology: Somehow to represent the complex, dynamic “real world” in a meaningful and useful way.
  7. 7. 7 COGNITIVE DIMENSIONS Any device or technology that is designed to help us capture meaning and move it around can be considered to have two primary cognitive dimensions: The medium. You can think of this as the box or container where we keep the information. The content, which is the meaningful stuff, whatever it is, that we want to move it around. Somehow we need to put the stuff into the box, in such a way that we can find it, and get it out, later, when we need it.
  8. 8. 8 Let’s start with the medium: the container or box we use to move meaning around. Considerations include the physical form factor or shape as well as the types of interactions that are possible. Think about all the things you can do with a book. First of all it’s quite rugged. You can drop a book, spill wine on it and read it in the bathtub. I have personally tested these qualities many times. A PC or PDA is much more delicate and requires careful handling by comparison.
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  10. 10. 10 PLEASURES OF THE BOOK A book is a delightful object to hold and carry around with you. It feels comfortable in the hand. It smells good. The turning of pages is a pleasurable activity. A book offers serendipitous access – it could fall open at any point. It’s read-writable: You can write in it, underline words, mark paragraphs, and even fold pages. You can tell where you are in a book by changes in thickness and weight.
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  12. 12. 12 When papyrus was invented about 4,000 years ago, the first form, not surprisingly, was loose leaves or sheets. We still use loose sheets of paper today because they are portable, lightweight, and flexible. Loose sheets are great for transporting information that is small and self-contained, like a receipt, a grocery list, a small sketch or a short note.
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  14. 14. 14 Loose sheets of paper can be sorted, filed, arranged and rearranged. Add a little glue and they become sticky notes which offer even more possibilities, turning any window or wall into a human-sized configurable display. When the graphical user interface (GUI) appeared we called them windows, but we manipulate them and use them more like loose sheets of paper than windows.
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  16. 16. 16 The scroll form emerged at almost the same time as papyrus. A scroll was made by gluing loose sheets together to form one long continuous sheet. This allowed longer texts to be kept in a single document. The major advantage this holds over loose sheets is that the order of the text is kept intact. Loose sheets easily become scattered and when this happens the original order is lost. Most web pages today use the scroll form, which we invented 4,000 years ago. Surely there is still a long way to go.
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  18. 18. 18 As early as 600 BC the wax tablet was used as a portable reading and writing device. The tablets were usually made of wood and tied together so that when opened they formed a two-page display, and when closed the wax “pages” were protected so they could be safely transported.
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  20. 20. 20 Legend has it that Julius Caesar invented the book during his invasion of Gaul, when folded his scrolls accordion-style in order to use the “pages” as reference points. Accordion-fold books were also made by the Mayans (image at right) and the Chinese. Accordion-folding is still used today for larger documents that need to be portable, such as maps.
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  22. 22. 22 The whirlwind scroll is a hybrid form, invented in China, that combines attributes of the book and the scroll. It’s bound along one edge and rolled up for storage and transportation. Each sheet in a whirlwind scroll is slightly longer than the previous sheet, so that a thin strip of every page is always visible. The whirlwind form is relatively uncommon but all known instances are reference works. You might say that this was the first form of what we now know as folder tabs.
  23. 23. 23 The whirlwind scroll was made by cutting a bamboo shoot in half and stringing together loose sheets of silk or paper. When the scroll is laid flat, part of each page is visible and can be marked for reference.
  24. 24. 24 Codex is the name for the book proper, made of separate pages bound together and given a cover. It was invented by the Romans somewhere around 100 AD and survives to this day in substantially the same form we know and love today.
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  26. 26. 26 Girdle books were small, portable books carried by nobles and the clergy, beginning in the 13th Century. The girdle book hung from the belt, attached by a leather strap. This enabled the book to be carried easily and also served as a visible statement of wealth and literacy.
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  28. 28. 28 When Gutenberg invented movable type in the 15th century, the book had been in existence for over a thousand years, and yet many of the elements we take for granted today – such as tables of contents, page numbers and indices – had not become standard features. You could think of these items as metadata, because they allow you to reference specific pages and sections within a book. Perhaps not surprisingly, the adoption of metadata coincided with the rise of classical scholarship and humanism, which involved the study of ancient Greek and Roman texts.
  29. 29. 29 This page from the Gutenberg bible has no page numbers and no chapter or verse numbers.
  30. 30. 30 striking … passage(s) should be indicated by some appropriate mark … not only must a variety of marks be used but appropriate ones … so that they will immediately indicate their purpose.” - Erasmus “ HUMANIST AND THEOLOGIAN 1466-1536
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  32. 32. 32 There seems to be a size for printed matter that is “cognitively comfortable,” which is roughly equivalent to the two facing pages in a modern book, which designers call the spread. Even in ancient scrolls, where page width was not an issue, columns were 2-4 inches wide and 8-10 inches high.
  33. 33. 33 Now that you understand a bit about the history of the book as a medium, let’s explore the book from a content perspective. By content I mean: What kinds of things do we put into books? How do we get them in? How do we get them out again?
  34. 34. 34 The book has significant advantages over the browser: It is a complete and integrated package. The book designer knows what the content is and can design the form to suit. The book is then manufactured with a specific size and shape that is appropriate for the content. The design and form of coffee- table book is very different from a spy novel. The browser must carry a heavier load. When someone creates content for the internet, they have to somehow get it “into” the internet, at which point the content then lives on servers and can be accessed by anyone who has a device that can “look at” the internet. The designer of internet content must expect that readers could be viewing the content in a multitude of different devices. In fact, the designer of web content must anticipate devices that don’t even exist yet.
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  36. 36. 36 To think about the content that the book contains, we need to go back to the oral traditions that we developed in our earliest societies. Perhaps the oral tradition is best exemplified in the works of Homer, which still exist today in printed form. A reading of Homer can never fully recreate the original experience, which predates text. But if you read Homer you will find a rich store of rhyme, meter, mnemonic devices and repetition, which together serve to keep an audience aligned with each other and anchored to an imaginary space.
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  38. 38. 38 In his book, The User Illusion, Tor Norretranders describes the “tree of talking.” When you turn a thought into language, you must “pack” the concept into a short word or phrase. For example, the simple word “horse” contains a rich set of meanings that are specifically tied to your personal experiences. If you had wonderful childhood experience with horses and the person you are talking to had negative experiences, you will assign different meanings to the word. Every conversation is a complex interaction where many experiences are continuously packed into tightly condensed phrases and unpacked into experiences.
  39. 39. 39 Authors and artists have similar challenges, and they “pack the box” in similar ways. Packing is not a linear, sequential activity, even though the result may be a linear sequence.
  40. 40. 40 Any author will tell you that writing is not a simple sequential experience. A first draft may flow quickly onto the page, but this is only the beginning. Authors work by crafting bits and piecing them together. Many authors use index cards, scissors and tape, and their works are constructed by arranging and rearranging elements until an overall harmony of composition is achieved.
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  42. 42. 42 The internet, and the web browser, in its current state, does not support authors anywhere near as well as it supports readers. The internet needs to improve its support for imagination – it needs to support non-linear construction. It needs to enable authors to compose the way they naturally do things. Watching creators in their natural environments would be a good start.
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  44. 44. 44 Every composition, like every conversation, follows a path, and every choice eliminates an infinity of other possible paths. Every time you open your browser you follow a similar path. With every click you choose a road, and with every click the alternatives are left behind. Thus the internet browsing experience parallels natural conversation in many ways.
  45. 45. 45 When we represent our world in all its complexity, we tend to generate maps and stories. A map is a representation of space, while a story is a representation of action or time- based sequences. Nouns and verbs. Entities and events. Objects and interactions. Things and things that happen.
  46. 46. 46 What happens when we think of the internet as a map – as a landscape? Just as each person’s experiences are highly individual, so is each person’s experience of the internet. Because the landscape of the internet is represented digitally, it’s possible to have an infinite number of realities, and thus an infinite number of maps. We shape the landscape as we move through it. Think of how the physical landscape evolves: Paths become cattle trails, cattle trails become roads, roads become highways. If we imagine the internet as a landscape, each person’s browsing activities give it shape and form.
  47. 47. 47 Today when we move through the internet we don’t leave traces of our passing. Why not? These traces become useful landmarks for those who follow, or for us, the next time we visit.
  48. 48. 48 It would be nice if my browser sent me on a random walk once in a while, just to get me out of a rut.
  49. 49. 49 Our browsers keep track of the sites we visit – we have the option of opening any new thread as a new tab. This helps us track multiple threads. So far so good. But sometimes, as shown above, three or four threads emanate from a single source. Current browsers don’t track this. When you browse the web, you’re blazing a trail as much as any author. Why should your efforts and explorations be lost? Can’t they be mapped?
  50. 50. 50 In the 1700’s, it was common to buy a book unbound and take it yourself to the bookbinder for binding. In those days writing in books was something any educated reader was likely to do, and so many readers would have books interleaved. Interleaving placed a blank sheet between every two pages, so that the reader could take notes. When reading a left-hand page the right page would be blank, and vice-versa.
  51. 51. 51 Imagine a browser page that’s interleaved. Every web page connected to a blank page that’s your notebook. Imagine content that can be clipped, dragged, arranged and annotated as easily as you can do it with scissors and paper. With the advent of tablet PCs , pen computing and touch- screen interactive surfaces, we should see a new age of interaction that’s fast, easy and intuitive. Will we? I hope so.
  52. 52. 52 How it might look.
  53. 53. 53 Not creator-consumer, but creator-creator. This is the way the world is going.
  54. 54. 54 When we can do this in a web browser I’d say we are getting somewhere.
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