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Distributed Publishing:
The Ingenuity of Multilinear Thought

by Laura Fillmore

Presented at Meckler Electronic Books Conference
London, England
March 17, 1994

Reprinted in Publishing Technologies Update, Summer 1994 Issue

Copyright © 1994 by Laura Fillmore; written permission required to reprint.

Until recently, the experience of reading a book was the delight of following an author's argument or story along a line from beginning, to middle, then end. Regardless of the experimentation on the part of the author, where he toys with the point of view or the time element in his story, as Dickens does in _David Copperfield_ when he steps in as the adult author telling us what he would have felt as the ten-year-old boy hero, the paper medium itself records a linear order and sequence to thought. One starts on page one and finishes on page 500. If it's a comedy, there's a marriage; if it's a tragedy, it ends in death. This familiar linear sequence in storytelling might be seen more as a consistent thread of the passage of time, time ordered by the storyteller or author, beginning back in the oral tradition.

With the introduction of academic apparatus such as footnotes, bibliography, and glossaries, books expand beyond themselves, but still, couched between hard covers, they retain their contained status. The glossary is a highly selective document pointing to the some of the works the author or editors find necessary to illuminate the text in hand; the bibliography includes works the author deems worthy of inclusion for outside reading; the index and footnotes further highlight and amplify subjects relevant to the main text. But still, a book is finite or even static in the sense that it encapsulates the author's vision. Over time, layers may be built on, and critical editions are published, so one author attempts to crystallize the vision or work of another author by putting him in context, making him accessible to modern audiences. So, for example, did Merritt Hughes produce the critical edition of John Milton's work. These publications, offering context for great writers, add new dimensions to an original work, and yet they too keep to the mold of the book on a shelf--offering a book within a book it is true, but still, a book.

My task today is to explore for you in half an hour a new medium, or rather, new media, which offer a fundamentally other way of publishing and thinking, a reader-directed method for reading and thinking on a worldwide, immediate basis.

The early incarnation of these new media, soon to become the much heralded digital superhighway, is today known as the Internet, which is a computer network of networks that started out as a US-Government-sponsored research and education network in the late 60s, a project aimed at offering computer professionals a means to share scarce and expensive supercomputers. It soon became apparent that what the Internet was used for was instant and inexpensive *recorded communication*, person to person, group to group, and as such, the Net began to grow in size exponentially, soon becoming the global, interoperable worldwide web of computers it is today. People use the networks to store, transfer, search, and access information--and to communicate with one another on a one-to-one basis (as one does with a personal telephone conversation) and on a many-to-many basis, as in mailing lists or online computer conferences. Anything that can be digitized can be communicated over the Internet: text, pictures, video, speech, sound. Recording and communicating about human experience and information: what is this but publishing? In many senses, the Internet offers the potential of unmediated publication. My own first awareness of the political potential of this one-to-many type of unmediated communication on the Internet came in the Spring of 1989, when John Quarterman, the author of the first major book on the Internet, _The Matrix_, forwarded to me email he had picked up off of a mailing list. The email I read in Rockport Massachusetts contained first-person accounts from students in Tianamen Square. Some of these reports were just hours old; none of the messages had been vetted by government or traditional media authorities. A new kind of publishing indeed--different from earlier written communication only insofar as the "publications" were available immediately to a global audience.

Scaling up in size at a rate unprecedented in the history of human communication, the Internet seems to be doubling in size every year. Last year at this time approximately 10 million people worldwide were connected by internetworked computers; this year, that number is 20 million. And there are no signs of abatement in sight. It's as if the very neurons of our brains are externalizing themselves, incarnated in fiber optic wires and cables, with the synapses between them represented by spaces between transmitters, satellites, and receivers. The spark, the dynamic principle driving the new machine's evolution, is thought, human thought--first applied in setting up the machines to communicate one with the other by using a common protocol, then to run the machines at their optimal speed and accuracy. Secondly, *thought* fuels the machines with the digitized records of our civilization in the form of text, pictures (moving and still), sound--all essentially integrated with real-time human thought and interaction. Real-time *recorded* human interaction, that's what's new, that's what's fundamentally *other* about the online publishing made possible by computer networks, differentiating it from those still nascent electronic predecessors such as CD-ROMs and other disk-based or "contained" models of publishing.

What's unique about the Internet, what's unprecedented in what may be seen as its self-evolving architecture, is also what makes it so very different from the familiar linear structures which have informed our interpersonal thought communications for so long. We grope for analogies but nothing fits: Not a line, not a highway, not a pyramidal structure with a front door and an ordered universe inside, the Internet is more like an electric constellation of ever shifting mini-minds, making, breaking, and remaking connections, ever updating and synthesizing, as sets become supersets and supersets interrelated become algorithms for new first principles.

Let's take a look at the distributed nature of the Internet, and what that means for online publishing. Many of you are probably familiar with some online information services, computer networks one can access from home or office with a computer and a modem, computer networks such as CompuServe or Prodigy. These are networks owned and organized by companies or individuals; they are computer-based communities with borders around them. You either are or are not a member. Just as in the Wild West once the fence-builders arrived; you're either on or off the ranch. If you log on to CompuServe, you come in the electronic front door, and wend your way through an organized structure. You pay admission, you pay by the hour, you pay one centralized organization. Just as when you buy a book, you pay a bookstore, which pays a publisher, which pays an author. There exist clearly defined physical and economic structures in place--established and accepted lines of communication and financial transaction enabling a reader to access information.

The Internet, on the other hand, is a distributed network, meaning it has no center, no headquarters. It is a collaboratively defined electronic space comprised of some 30,000 computer networks worldwide. You can enter from almost anywhere, and instantaneously become part of the integrated whole. With your laptop and off-the-shelf telecommunications equipment, you could hook into the Internet from Siberia, Nigeria, or New Zealand, and access your home computer in New York City, for example. Like your superego, your electronic mail will follow you anywhere you choose to roam. If you can access the Internet at all, you can access anywhere on the Internet. Geographical boundaries become anachronisms. You, the user, are as a self-determining droplet of water in a vast electronic sea: the sea itself (were it sensate) is indifferent to your position, whether Atlantic, Pacific, or South China Sea--but once you become part of the common sea, you can immediately access and communicate with other connected aqueous elements: fellow droplets, eddies, whirlpools, waves, currents, and tides.

To further understand the difference between a centralized or contained network such as CompuServe and the Internet, think of the superset of stores in the world. CompuServe is a well-organized mall of stores, with an admissions turnstile at the entry way. The Internet is all the markets of the world, from the bazaars of Morocco to the discount warehouses of Chicago, all linked together in what some people call anarchy and others revel in as cyberspace.

But so what, you might ask, what does this mean for me, my book, my career in publishing, my way of thinking? Let me introduce by way of example the OBS's first distributed publishing project, a book by Adrian Butash called _Bless This Food: Amazing Graces in Praise of Food_, recently published in hardcover by Delacorte, a major New York publisher. It is a collection of prayers or graces from religions and countries around the world, and as such, seems proper material for a maiden voyage into the new electronic realm.

Maiden voyage? Not entirely. Other electronic books have preceded this one, offering computerized text, enabling the users to link or join elements within the book itself depending on the needs or whims of the reader--say, one might link the table of contents to the text, or the index to the text, or photographs or sound to the text. One can access such electronic books in a multilinear manner, searching on this or that, taking online notes, inserting electronic book marks, basically customizing the book to one's own needs. These disk-based and CD-ROMS have pushed the boundaries of publishing forward by introducing three-dimensional thinking to the familiar two-dimensional model of book publishing, and pointing the way towards a convergence of media.

In creating a CD-ROM, a book publisher must become a sort of movie maker, licensing rights for multimedia elements not contained in the book itself, creating a blueprint for the many ways readers might want to access the information contained on their particular electronic publication. And there's the key word--"contained." Up until the kinetic online book, electronic publishing was contained. One bought or sold a physical thing, a finite collection of data and ideas. Multilinear perhaps, but still contained within prescribed borders, reflecting the vision of a team of authors, developers, and publishers. Readers can use such products, but not actually determine or change their fundamental contained nature.

The OBS version of _Bless This Food_ is different because it is kinetic and distributed, reflecting the architecture of the Internet itself. It links not only to itself and within itself, but *outside* itself to other places on the Net. Many of the links within this book are live links; the reader rules, the reader determines what the online book is. The publisher, in this case the OBS, points to or offers a link to a related file, site, or online function, and the reader chooses what use he makes of it. The link itself might lead to a live online search session at a library, or access to an online museum--worlds in themselves well beyond the confines of any one book. This particular conference room does not offer a live link to the Internet, and I would like to invite you all to the Internet Start-Up Booth at the London Book Fair at the Olympia on the 20-22 for a live demonstration of this and other distributed online publishing projects, such as ORA's GNN. EUnet, the largest service provider in Europe and N. Africa, has provided the machine for this talk, and at the Fair, they have provided multiple machines and a live link to the Internet, which can demonstrate in real time the links I will show you from the OBS's _Bless This Food_ book. But to get the idea, for now I can show you here the *kinds* of links I am talking about, so you can better understand this unusual new concept.

Say you have a modem and a computer, any computer, whether UNIX, Macintosh, PC or PC-Clone, and a connection to the Internet through a provider service such as EUnet. You log on, and during your online travels, you come to the Online BookStore. If you want to order a book from us, you input your credit card information online and if you've kept up to date with your credit card payments, your card will clear immediately and you'll be free to download any of the electronic titles available there. One of them is Butash's _Bless This Food_, which, by selecting it from a list of titles, you would download to your computer. To use or read the book, or "run" the files, you would need a copy of Mosaic software, which is available free from the Online BookStore, and free elsewhere around the Internet as well. This is in my experience the most popular of several distributed publishing programs.

You look at the book's cover

[flash of cover]

click on it with the mouse in your hand, an attachment to your computer, and enter or open the book. You can tell where the hot links or the pointers are to other computer servers distributed around the global network, when you see a word in blue. Click on this blue word and presto, the computer connects to the site the link points to, whether that link is in your backyard or in Timbuktu, and brings the link directly to you. This is kinetic; this is immediate. Where a footnote in a book can only point you to another book you may or may not have, the Mosaic program actually offers you the footnoted book.

This is easier to understand when you consider a simple text link. Take for example the prayer by Gandhi. Say you want to learn more about Gandhi, you click on the hot link, and find an excerpt from Gandhi's autobiography. This is a kind of living footnote, if you will. Take another example, a Chinese prayer, where God is the link. Clicking on this link will access a computer at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., and yield up a picture [flash on Buddha].

Graphic image files are generally large in size, and might take from seconds to minutes to download, depending on the kind of connection you have. But in the case of Buddha, it's worth the wait. It doesn't stop there. Let's take a look at the Hawaiian prayer, and see what that link yields [flash on Hawaiian video].

Note please that the screen reveals the programmer's magic behind the links--among other things, including the history of all the links you have executed during a particular reading session-- it tells you the kind of file you will access when you first point to a link, and you can then decide whether or not to access it, depending on your own set-up of computer equipment. For the well-wired individuals, when they see this link for the Hawaiian prayer, they would know they are about to access a video, and only if you have a video card and viewer in your machine would you click on this link with the expectation of seeing the this [point to video]. The Mosaic program has enabled us to travel to Hawaii, download the video, and get in the mood for our Hawaiian luau before saying the grace.

But still, we remain in the realm of the familiar. Let's take a look at the link leading to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Here the reader really goes through the rabbit hole, and dinner may get cold before you come out the other side. This link leads to the Dead Sea Scrolls hyperlinked exhibit at the US Library of Congress, complete with a multitude of four-color images, texts, even instructions on shuttle buses to and from the exhibit in Washington D.C. Through _Bless This Food_ we are accessing an entirely new hyperlinked world--one which we did not create for the purposes of this book, certainly, but one which we are only pointing to, and in pointing, we are offering the reader ingress. We can do the same sort of thing when we click on a grace excerpted from Shakespeare. There the link leads us to the complete works of Shakespeare, hyperlinked by a team of computer wizards at the Mass. Institute of Technology.

Again, the MIT hyperlinked files for Shakespeare and the Vatican Exhibit at the Library of Congress were not created especially for the purpose of being accessed by the OBS version of Butash's _Bless This Food_ book. These resources are available to all users of the Internet who have direct connections. We are simply pointing to them from our book, and in so pointing, we are inviting our readers to explore them from within the context of our book. The reader's exploration of these resources is in no way limited by the confines or parameters of our book, as it would be if this were a contained publication such as a CD or a disk. Think instead of _Bless This Food_ as the dashboard on your pre-dinner drive through the Internet. Drive on to Dartmouth College Library, [flash--opening screen of telnet session at Dartmouth] where the book offers you a live telnet link to the online library and invites you to explore the vast holdings there in real time, where you can search out, perhaps, all of Dante's references to hell before your inlaws arrive for dinner. From what you find there, you the reader, might be tempted to add a new grace to those provided by the author. The reader then becomes part of the book in a way never before possible.

Texts, pictures, videos, online hypertext exhibits, these expand what used to be called the contents of the book far beyond conventional parameters of linear thought. And it's not over yet. This business of linking and pointing goes beyond the strictly digitized--humans can be linked to a book as well, as Mr. Butash himself is linked to his book [flash to email to author screen].

Other objects and animals could be linked in, of course; in an online book about modern pet care, the well-wired pet terrier might respond with a wag to his master's affectionate link. That's in the future, of course, but now, we can link directly to the author by means of electronic mail. One might, for example, write Adrian Butash at the beginning of an online session with his book, requesting advice on preparing Yorkshire pudding, and he might respond in time to suggest an appropriate grace for your meal. I'm stretching things a bit, but I think you get the point.

And a starting point this is. Imagine for a moment where this distributed publishing might lead, taking solace in the fact that it will certainly lead to employment for publishing professionals the world over, to those interested and experienced in issues of licensing, copyright, computerized production of books, link editors imaginative in linking related chunks of information together, mathematicians interested in hyperlinked royalty models, computer programmers, as well as the requisite visionaries and marketeers. Imagine a distributed publishing project in, say, medicine, where live links lead to online doctors, regularly updated and hyperlinked files of prescription drugs and their side effects, regularly updated environmental information about health-related factors such as smog, pollen, nuclear pollution, as well as current journals describing states of disease or ecstasy the reader might be interested in. No longer need the reader be confined by the contained model of publishing, subservient to the vision and capabilities of discrete publishers or authors. No longer need useful nuggets of essential information lie buried in an expensive book or journal distributed to specialists in one country or confined professional community.

[flash on beautiful gif from Library of Congress Dead Sea Scrolls]

This is kinetic publishing, where the readers can not only determine what they read, see, and experience online, guided but not determined by the good efforts of publishers, but can also contribute to the online content of books (--and it's interesting to speculate whether online projects such as _Bless This Food_ should even be called "books") by criticizing, amending, suggesting new links, or clusters of customized links for particular audiences. Readers might customize unique editions of _Bless This Food_ for Christians, for Jews, for Moslems, for Buddhists, for atheists, for schoolchildren, for the blind, the hearing impaired, the feminists or the fascists--and not necessarily in that order. The point is that the readers determine what the book is, and, as the online publishing industry expands, what it becomes.

The big question that arises is that of connectivity. Will the riches inherent in is new age of distributed publishing belong only to the well-linked elite, driving Mercedes on the information superhighway? I don't think so. Distributed publishing is backwards-compatible. Remember where we came from, where many of us still are today, local, on whatever machines we have at hand, some of us even still clinging to our paper. If not experienced first-hand, live on line, the fruits of distributed publishing may find their way to their readership using whatever media convey the information most easily to those who need or want it. The distributed medical project suggested earlier might exist in a kinetic form online, and still be available in countless incarnations in other media: printed on disks here, on paper there, or stored in a village's lone laptop somewhere else. That's the nature of a distributed publishing system. It abhors limits and borders. Remember, there is no headquarters. The technology exists today. It is being used and will continue to be used. The second edition of _The Internet Companion_ by Tracy LaQuey states that use of the World Wide Web, our global distributed publishing platform, increased 300,000 percent in 1993. That's 300,000 percent. It is incumbent on the publishers and authors to develop and implement operative publishing models which will allow for the coming-of-age of distributed publishing.

These publishing models must be broader in scope and greater in scale than their paper predecessors. Beyond the obvious complexities inherent in a global hypertext publishing system, accessible immediately in byte-sized chunks down to the level of paragraphs, sentences, or even words, and the attendant royalty, copyright and licensing issues involved, such a reader-driven global electronic system has a dark side as well.

Wherever you go online, you leave electronic footprints. Remember, this is a recorded medium--the text, the pictures, the notes you write to mailing lists, the interactive CUSee-Me videos--all are recorded. In his book _1984_, George Orwell wrote:

"...The telescreen received and transmitted simultaneously. Any sound Winston made, above the level of a very low whisper, would be picked up by it; moreover, so long as he remained within the field of vision which the metal plaque commanded, he could be seen as well as heard. There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live--did live, from habit that became instinct--in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinised..."

We are not quite there yet, but such systemized monitoring of people's use of the networks is a clear possibility, one being debated by governments and other organizations around the world as I speak. We at the Online BookStore guarantee the privacy of our readers; we do not sell or otherwise share reader records or mailing lists of email addresses from people who have accessed the Online BookStore (OBS). Should this be a standard adopted by online publishers in general? Should it be known to authorities, self-appointed or otherwise, whether one reads Nabokov or Rushdie or Joyce or _Final Exit_? Do readers have a right to electronic anonymity? The politics and business practices of today might lead us down the path of darkness. Silent readers, frightened of the technology, waiting at home while others chart the seas of distributed publishing, and build the fences across the broad and rolling great plains, might make the error of identifying thoughts and ideas with the paper they are written on, and by their fear and inaction lose the opportunity to determine this new "thought terrain." Distributed publishing opens doors, enables thoughts and ideas to breathe and live and evolve, when exchanged in an open online environment. Remember, Internet publishing in its distributed form is a user-driven system, a reader-driven system. That's one advantage we have over the society Orwell portrayed in _1984_, where the proles are largely silent. Proles on the Internet have a voice today, voices coming unmediated from Sarajevo, Los Angeles, Belfast, Cairo, and Tel Aviv. What are these voices saying, and how do they fit into or determine the context being created by today's online publishers?

It seems appropriate to end with a citation from John Milton's "Areopagitica," itself an argument against censorship:

"See the Ingenuity of Truth, which, when she gets a free and willing hand, opens faster than the pace and method of discourse can overtake her."

The Ingenuity of Truth outpaces us, and we follow into the uncharted realm of online, distributed publishing.

Thank you.


Copyright © 1994 by Laura Fillmore; written permission required to reprint.

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