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Talking Sense about Cyberbabel

by Laura Fillmore

Presented at the German Business Congress
Cologne, Germany
March 15, 1995

Reprinted in InSight Kommunikation, June, 1995

Copyright © 1995 by Laura Fillmore; written permission required to reprint.
laura@obs-us.com

Summary Extract:

In order to discover and exploit the potentials of the Internet as a kinetic thought machine, successful publishers will overcome today's prevailing anxiety about protecting their paper empires by realizing the nature of Internet publishing, which has little if anything to do with sitting at a desk and reading a book on a screen. People don't read big books on computers; they learn and play, search and explore the overlaid and overlapping, morphing fields of many media, of which text is a key component, and freedom of access in multiple languages is essential.

Rather than scurrying behind protective firewalls and adopting regressive encryption schemes, successful online publishers will lead the way for other knowledge workers and industries, who are themselves "publishers" in the new and necessarily broad definition of that term. By developing fluid, subscription-based structures for collective thought evolution, which at once engage authors, user/readers, and knowledge facilitators (such as editors and software designers), today's publisher may well find a richer destiny online--and ultimately, more book projects--than she would by building locks and walls around yesterday's treasures.


At first blush, the notion of publishing on the Internet seems a familiar and logical extension of its paper-and-glue predecessor, print publishing, only faster, more far-reaching, and less expensive. After three years in the business, however, I can report back to you that the obvious isn't evident. "Fast" is hardly an issue any more; desktop publishing was fast. Fed Ex is fast. The Internet is always on and everywhere and there is no sense of going from one place to another, but rather of being part of one big, strange and surprising setting that is always just about to become something else. And less expensive--Well, yes, of course, for after all, bits aren't trees, emails don't use stamps, and copies practically make themselves ;-). So there's virtually nothing for publishing people--authors, publishers, user/readers--to charge for, really. Except time. And ideas.

And just about everyone has time and bright ideas, right? That's why, on the global Internet, the term "publishing" itself assumes a broader and more central meaning than it does in the real world, for what is publishing, but the making public of ideas, information, people, governments and companies? Among the flatlands and webworks of the Internet, user/readers can find little distinction among traditional print publishers and, say, oil companies, software houses, florists, or students with technical talent. Anyone or any company creating a face to meet the faces that they meet on the Internet is a "publisher."

Where's the Table of Contents for this acephalous, distributed, globally internetworked community of mind, which is increasing exponentially in size and complexity? Megalomaniacs aside, does anyone have a clue or a clear idea what will become of our creation, or where it might take us? The self-correcting freedom inherent in the distributed architecture of the Net poses its greatest strength through diversity, as well as its greatest perceived threat to centralized organizations unadapted for porous corporate membranes. Presumably, in an environment of our own making such as the Internet, we can exercise reason and control over things like growth. It does not make sense to exercise control over growth and resource development by centralizing and walling in what needs to grow in order to maximally and most efficiently serve its creators.

To understand the potentials of such a kinetic and far-reaching thinking machine, it would be useful to look at the shift from contained to distributive publishing, from paper to online. On the 'Net, instead of acquiring, manufacturing, and distributing contained and finite knowledge products, whether in the form of books, magazines, or CDs, successful publishers become online access sites for ongoing creative processes. For this purpose, the Internet, the great and internetworked collective "alter-mind" for tens of millions of people, serves as a kinetic palette, as a milieu for all publishers' contextually linked access sites.

In the internetworked environment, the dynamics of the reader/publisher relationship reverses itself: Instead of a publisher with a centralized organization making educated guesses about and then supplying what his readers want, the reader determines his knowledge needs, and chooses whether or not to travel into the publisher's online site. This form of communication is, in a way, like radio, where the reader decides whether or not to tune in to a particular publishing station, based on his needs and wants at the moment.

This reversal of the information tide also can be seen in how we task our computers: in pre-Internet days, we used to feed information into our personal computers and then attempt to monitor and control the paper output. Millions of hours and DMs have been spent squinting into computer screens, moving type up and down, measuring margins, trying to get typeset- quality output from the machine.

With internetworked machines, the output doesn't matter any more--it's the structure and resulting accessibility of the ideas and information *inside* the computer. The brain. Internetworked, we input with a whole new purpose now; no longer, as in the dusty old age of desktop publishing, to slavishly mimic the products of yesterday's huge typesetting machines, but rather to code and structure our thoughts and information, even ourselves, in some instances, so that they can be linked to, moved around, incorporated and accessed by others.

During this shift from contained to distributive publishing, from the publisher-controlled to the reader-controlled model, from output- to input-oriented personal computers, other changes have occurred as well, many having to do with time and order. For example, the serial book production process has become a massively parallel, even simultaneously parallax operation of ongoing collective thought (at its best) and chaos at its worst. Online publishing has become for some an almost surrealistic process punctuated with indistinct stages of evolution. The Online BookStore (OBS) can't say, for example, that "we published Nelson Mandela's autobiography online." One should, rather, say, "Mandela's autobiography has been in the process of being published for the past three months now; We just added three new links and a second language--German--yesterday. Readers have been contributing links to other sites around the net."

It used to be, in the familiar and tangible world, that a book would progress in linear fashion, from idea to manuscript, aided by the clear-headed input of an editor to help the author realize and crystallize his creative vision. Then a designer would carefully construct the book typographically so that the meaning would yield itself up--a good designer, like a good editor, being an invisible abettor to the artist's original vision. But the purpose of all this production, printing, promotion and distribution--it all brought the book closer to the end user, the reader who pays for it all. With online publishing, that whole equation changes.

There need be no press proofs, no pub date, no finished product. To a great extent, the reader and his client browser determine what the type design and layout looks like. In the case of Mandela's book, the publisher, Little, Brown, sold the translation rights to 16 foreign countries, each one of whom repeated the serial production process for its printed book and made their own book product. But online, all languages can coexist simultaneously as distributive publications contextually linked into the Internet's many multimedia resources. What in physical terms are books of different languages, different jackets, different markets, from different parts of the world-- online they become one. In the paper world, only the hardiest, or the best-funded of publications can spread from language to language around the globe.

Not only is the OBS online publication in multiple languages opening up possibilities for multilingual books to be sold by their publishers into the global market, but also through the online publication, Mandela's book, for example, gets increased exposure to new markets, such as schools with language courses, which might want to combine the teaching of geography, language, history, culture, and literature, and current events. As a contextual site, it becomes a focal point for online resources concerning South Africa, and offers opportunities for readers to participate in, not only read about, the ideas and experiences of Nelson Mandela. This book is published or made available on three continents simultaneously--North America, Europe, and Africa--and represents the collaboration at OBS of many different kinds of companies: Fischer Verlag, Time Warner, Little, Brown, EUNET, and Sun Microsystems. Qualitatively, what is for sale on line is different than on paper. This has to do with more than production values. As we have seen with books, when the thing of value ceases to be a thing and instead becomes a monitored idea site in an evolving state of becoming, then the traditional production values cease to be as important as some other more relevant and pressing factors unique to the Internet environment, such as time and customization. The stock broker isn't going to care in what type size his screen tells him to BUY PATHSYS! He will care when that advice arrives, and it will matter what he does with it.

We've been talking about the processes of publishing, and how the procedures and modes of thinking have evolved as we move from a product-oriented business to a kinetic thought-process business. If we accept that publishing is the foundation of being digitally public, we have to talk about language and the capability for "simulpublishing," or the instantaneous release of recorded ideas and information on the networks.

This capability of instant global communication is nothing short of a revolution, and according to Tony Rutkowski, President of the Internet Society, "Internet est sa propre revolution." According to the one online European source -- Europe and the Information Society

"This revolution adds huge new capacities to human intelligence and constitutes a resource which changes the way we work together and the way we live together."

The central causative factors for this revolution seem to have to do with language.

First of all, it was TCP/IP, the language or protocol that allows computers of different types to talk to one another, that makes communication on a worldwide internetworked meshworks of computers possible in the first place. With TCP/IP, open networking becomes possible, freed from the proprietary boundaries established by private companies operating closed networks.

Secondly, the distributed network, as it is in the process of creating itself, generates its own new language or lexicon. In an open, distributed network of networks, a cabbage can look like a king for the price of a $10 home page at someplace like. Analogous to the new European citizen, who can travel from Athens to the Arctic Circle without showing a passport, traversing a multitude of lands with their own languages, cultures, and currencies in the process, the Internaut passes freely from culture to culture without bumping into too many tollbooths and customs officers....yet.

One benchmark of successful Internet publishing is doing something online that can only be done online, and publishing in multiple languages is such an event. With only the beginnings of instruction on pronunciation, and the toggling capability between languages, one can begin to get a familiarity and feel for a language online that is impossible on paper. (There are sites on the net featuring pronunciation guides, as well.) Seeing the native languages in context of their respective cultures, such as the French, German, Afrikaans, and American, show not only the language, but an aspect of the culture behind the language. Like the words that are typographically enhanced with codes such as "the blink tag," and themselves turn into pulsating icons, the words at a site pick up contextual meaning and nuance by virtue of their digital neighborhood.

The Internet, a network of networks and king of all contexts, if understood as a functioning idea whose time and state of mind have come, is not a "thing" at all, and requires that we invent new words, a whole new language to talk about the actions and ideas defining what is not a medium, not an infobahn or a highway, but a new state of being. New vocabulary abounds; every day we learn or create new words to talk about our lives online. Starting with places like "cyberspace," and kinetic concepts such as "bipolar linking," to powerful new people such as "webmasters," the Internet practitioners and theorists must develop the semantics and the language to allow us to communicate among ourselves, as well as with "offliners," about living and working in this electronic world so quickly realizing itself.

The development of this shared language is itself publishing, and builds substance and meaning atop the foundations initially laid by the Internet Service Providers not so many years ago. These networking companies, such as PSI, UUNET, EUNET, PIPEX, ANS, NEARnet, continue to collaborate to create a common environment in which they can all then compete. It's easy for a Humanities-oriented person to note a beautiful simplicity when dealing with things like backbones and the wires, with a network that is either up or down, that either works or doesn't work. (One can either connect to the remote host, or one can't.) But when it comes to building the online empires of the mind, the problems begin to abound, and self-complicate with new "publishing" elements such as the participatory, maybe vampiristic readers, compounded with the need to pay equitably weighted chunked royalties to the author(s) (as well as other contributory thinkers and readers), based not only on site access but on resultant transferrable thought paths, and degree of required anonymity.

Clearly, the above is no longer reading or publishing as we know and remember those occupations, perhaps, for example, from days spent curling up on a summer beach towel reading Kafka's "Metamorphosis." The reader, anonymous, might find himself laughing at the utter blackness of Kafka's vision, might wryly sympathizes with the hero and note, perhaps, how horrible can be the corporate and the corporeal lives on a society driven by jobs and money. He might idly think of the anatomy of a cockroach, and wonder about insect life spans, insects in cities, family lives of insects. All of these tangential, casual and contextual thoughts concerning the book would be forever lost to future readers outside of his limited sphere of personal and professional acquaintance of that one reader. The publisher would concern itself with that reader only insofar as he buys this and other titles, not for what role he might play in the text itself, and the value of his thought paths in attracting (or repelling!) other readers to the Ur text itself, "The Metamorphosis." Never before has the reader's recorded mind been an active part of the publishing equation to the degree promised by this medium.

So, to introduce the new realm created by internetworked publishing, and to clarify the distinctions adumbrated here, let's invent a new term for online publishing, "pubnetting". The Internet Service Provider model of establishing a common ground on which to then complete, proves difficult in the nuanced world of pubnetting. We are new to this, there is a lot of fear and enthusiasm in the air, and it is not clear what works and what doesn't work, beyond the obvious fact that marketing and sponsored publishing succeed capitally by virtue of the newness, public relations hype, and ever-increasing traffic on the Net. Too much sponsored publishing might put a strain on one's objectivity, so to discover what people need and want from commercial pubnetting activities requires real-time experimentation, which, for example, University of North Carolina is doing with The Internet Companion: A Beginner's Guide to Global Networking by Tracy LaQuey by making it a project in Paul Jones's cyberpublishing course there and at SUNsite.

Unlike their service provider counterparts, and even though clusters of pubnetters may share the same spoken language, traditional publishers have not yet proven willing to pool their paper-based content into globally accessible, cooperatively run and commercially viable digital libraries, and in so doing gain a significant advantage over all other knowledge-based businesses emerging onto the Net.

Again, it is the problem of hierarchical and centralized companies developing porous exterior membranes, and choosing whether or not to gain strength by assuming some of the distributive characteristics of the networks which hold their future. Even some companies that should know better, who specialize in publishing about the Internet, occasionally give way to centristic (some might say greedy) modes of thought, voicing ambitions to be "The" place where X happens or Y happens, or to be "The starting point for Z." Such proprietary positions cannot yet be hardwired into anything; Netizens are as water, avoid dams, and vote with their mice. One fundamental characteristic about the Net at this stage in any event is that such a leading position cannot be bought, hyped, or lassoed--such superiority is conferred--and removed--by the people who use the networks. And no one has discovered yet just how and if this global audience is for sale.

Unlike a network that works or doesn't work, it can't yet be said definitively that a book is published or not published on the Internet because, well, no one knows what publishing on the Internet *is* yet. One could, for example, say that Nelson Mandela's autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom" is in the state of becoming published on the Internet. It only becomes an interesting publishing site if it is constantly changing, if it is a digital stream of information repeatedly of use to the reader.

A forward-looking Internet publisher might be involved simultaneously in adapting existing books and methods of doing business to the new technology, while at the same time identifying and exploiting the new opportunities available on the open and instantaneous communications medium. The anxiety of losing control of their paper content may lead many publishers down the path of encryption--a path of questionable merit, reflecting a wrongheaded concern for static copies. After all, what sense does it make to build sand castles in the face of a rising tide?

Scrambling of data may make good sense for things like private banking transactions and medical records, but it will certainly prove hobbling and destructive to our common culture if applied to literature and public online discourse. It will lock out more people than it will let in, which is at once an ethical, technical, and commercial error, because in the online environment, it is the participating user/readers who will determine the most valuable idea access sites. Knowledge about building such sites can best be achieved through active experimentation in the online media.

I was on a panel recently at the Library of Congress, and was preceded by Steve Wolff of the National Science Foundation (NSF), who suggested the following revolutionary sentiment: "Every client a server." That's like saying "Every reader an author." By recognizing and beginning to channel into a commercially viable online knowledge system the tremendous power inherent in these words, we will begin to define the next generation of publishers.

Copyright © 1995 by Laura Fillmore; written permission required to reprint. laura@obs-us.com

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