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"Encyclomedia Linkthink,"
or
Internet Meets "The Practical Guide to Practically Everything"
by Peter Bernstein and Christopher Ma

by Laura Fillmore
President, Open Book Systems (OBS)

Presented to 1995 I.P.A. Programme
at Frankfurt Book Fair
October 11, 1995

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

A reference book for everyday life, a composite of memory and library and the Modern Renaissance Man who lives next door--every reader needs such a book. Imagine the effective and informed lives we'd live if only we had ready access to an index of common sense and collected wisdom. Random House's new annual The Practical Guide to Practically Everything is the kind of single-volume home encyclopedia that addresses that need. But what makes a printed guide to "Practically Everything" particularly challenging, is the fact that everything that's anything is growing and changing all the time--something paper and ink is not particularly adept at.

With the advent of OBS's online "Encyclomedia," Random House is beginning to address this timely issue, turning online to complement and complete its paper publication, enabling us wired readers to supplement our information sources through the lens of many media. The print version of the book gives us substance, and the networked supplement to the The Practical Guide better satisfies our vital natures-- online, all the time. With the point-and-click OBS Encyclomedia, a new and heady user pastime called "linkthinking" emerges. Readers of words evolve into users who click icons, making links from one file to another, from one site to another, leaving behind a trail of digitized footprints, which can be followed by other readers.

Lucky we are that really, in the Grand Scheme of things, things don't always happen all at once. Slowly, miraculously, the amphibians emerged from the muck, fin to foot, gill to lung. Ever hybrids in the process of becoming, sometimes they sat still on a rock in the sun, and sometimes they darted into motion. Eons passed. Ages turned those rocks into sand, into silicon, till now, thanks to us primates (we think), things have begun to heat up and there's electricity in the air. We've become walking paradoxes, who drive and fly and log in so that we can be all places at once, around the clock. Phones and faxes don't suffice for communication any more; there's something else, the new global connection machine that enables an interwiring of minds that's richer and stranger than the old familiar point-to-point or one-to-one. It used to be that, for exchanging ideas, reading and talking would be enough. But now, we can experience that form of ancient familiar interchange--along with many other related info-events, in many windows, simultaneously.

Tethered to the business at hand, which is books, what we're talking about is a living encyclomedia, an online health and travel site where multiple reality streams intertwine to offer the recipient rich and adaptive access to ideas and information, supplementing the contents of Random House's The Practical Guide to Practically Everything. The Encyclomedia is a custom built Heraclitan stream, different every time you stick your toe in it, yet composed of familiar elements, and invigorating in its newness every time you take a dip.

It includes other online books by other publishers, living footnotes, talking experts answering online, discussion groups, updated news in multiple languages, living links to people, places, and things in all corners of the world. The book's editors also apparently subscribe to the famous sentiment voiced by Steve Wolff of the NSF (National Science Foundation): "Every Client a Server." Extrapolated into publishing jargon, that means "Every reader an author." Bernstein and Ma, Senior Editors of "US News and World Report," invite their readers to participate in the online Encyclomedia by allowing them the chance to become part of their printed book. Readers might participate in the Encyclomedia in the hopes of winning that big prize, having their practical knowledge immortalized on paper, in ink, in the next edition of the book published by a major New York house.

In the Encyclomedia, the elements are familiar, nothing is particularly new; it's just recombined at warp speed. We all remember footnotes, those sedentary scholarly appurtenances at the bottom of textbook pages. Online, they take on a new life, assume a different luster, become blue links, wings to take us into a related publication or person. No mere pointers once they move online, footnotes become vehicles for thought, "bookbots," enabling us to actually experience what in the past could only be referred to in the abstract.

This surge in footnote power from the abstract into the practical can, for example, be seen with a purely text example. A footnote in a paper book, when pointing to a study at the CDC, would offer a partial cite or reference to a complete document. The The Practical Guide text advises us, for example, to avoid killing ourselves by reducing stress, basing this advice on statistics compiled by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia. A questioning mind, or a mind attached to a corpulent body overly fond of sugar, tobacco, late nights and too much coffee (and in search of justification for its ungainly dimensions), might want to query the source of that knowledge.

Click! The linkthinker jumps from the Encyclomedia, through a descriptive screen made by a bookbot, right to the CDC itself, and the complete table only mentioned and footnoted in the text. We not only talk about the source, we go to the source. And if we readers want to advise the CDC about how they might revise their table according to our own inside information, we talk to the primary source, not the editors who summarized its contents for popular consumption.

If we readers know better, and wish to alert the authors and refute the wisdom of the governmental agency with a study conducted by sweet-toothed scientists, we can click! again and email our authors, suggesting a link to a hyperstudy showing quite the opposite conclusions as seen in their good work. Connected to the book by email, the authors scratch their chins and wonder: is the reader right? The encyclomedia shows us that no longer dare authors suffer under the mistaken impression that a book is over once it is set in type. With the Open Book, the ongoing work, the thinking about and adapting of the book start once it begins to be read. Being read in a recorded environment is what we are talking about, and the possibility of being read even before the book is printed, as is the case with The Practical Guide. The readers of the Encyclomedia are reading -- and talking to -- these sections of the book in public, at a book fair with tens of thousands of people watching. On the global net of millions.

The publishing of such a book is no longer a local event, one publisher bringing out the work of one author, to be read by readers one by one. Remember, this is no longer point-to-point, but many-to-many, comprised of many individual threads, both self-constructed and hard-wired. Our publisher, Random House, is one division of the larger Random House, Inc. The authors, Christopher Ma and Peter Bernstein, are two editors at "U.S. News and World Report," who got the powerful editorial positions they hold today not only by being able to write, but, more importantly, by recognizing talent in other people who could write, and delegating the work effectively. Their book is comprised of many hundreds of pieces of "expert testimony" in all areas, from sneakers to Salsa.

Online, the OBS Encyclomedia capitalizes on and extends this multifariousness by siting the book's functions and files all over the web, with the goal of superior functionality, ecology of bits, maximization of readership, and just for fun. To start out, OBS's server points to Random House and Random House's server points to OBS, which sites its files on two sides of the Atlantic. The pointers within the book take us all over the world, and of particular interest to this group perhaps, we have put a strong focus on linking to other publishers' freely available web sites containing online files about travel and health, acknowledging how reliable and authentic is the information published by publishing houses as opposed to that from individuals.

You can see, the old rules of competition are beginning to crumble: In the Encyclomedia, Random House's book is pointing to and including Macmillian and O'Reilly and Time Warner and Moon and Chronicle books, US News and World Report and Der Standard news articles, as well as hundreds of other sources of online information. OBS might be thought of as having competitors too, though the definition of that term "competition" changes hue in an environment where copying is one of the fundamental tenets, a foundation stone for the net's interoperability, success, and exponential growth. Keeping the work in view, the optimal excellence of Bernstein and Ma's Encyclomedia, we linked in to one of our competitors, Book Stacks, who have a hypermail program hacked into fine functionality (also known as an online coffee house), which is included as the discussion feature of the book. They win. We win. The book wins. And readership through use increases through the many channels of communication.

We create a kinetic environment where readers come and experience and actively think about, as opposed to only read the book. The online thinking is in the linking, the associative thought from this to that, what used to be a simple and illustrative two-step. We read the word "Hawaii" and clicked to a map of Hawaii. We saw the word "Raven" and click to Edgar Allen Poe's complete poem. Elegant, obvious, and enriching as that form of linking is, still, it is a terribly subjective way to construct an information source. The choice of links can be arbitrary, the information about why a certain link is made is frequently not there, and the means, the coloring of linked words, serves to subordinate all nonlinked words into the status of chaff. "Where's the beef?" asks the reader in his head as he clicks from blue word to blue word, avoiding the static black text.

One useful advance in this Encyclomedia is the introduction of the bookbot page, the intermediary page between the linked text and the linked-to text. This page invokes the new discipline of "Linkthink," inviting OBS link editors to name or describe their online hyperlinking in words or icons, instead of just coding random words and ideas as "hot" and linking them directly to other relevant sites. Linkthink serves two functions: it creates a context in which to describe what and why we link, which should be useful to Real-Time, Real-Life (RT/RL) readers of the online text. Secondly, these named links are designed to be recognizable or searchable by standard Web key-word indexes, web crawlers, and other automatic agents, further increasing people's access to the book by making it findable according to its contents.

The text of this intermediate Linkthink will be found on an intermediate screen between the "Ur.. text" (original text) and the linked-to site(s). This intermediate screen is called the "Bookbot screen", because it exists between the Encyclomedia, from which the Linkthink editor is generating the links, and the artificial bot world(s) of texts or sites being linked to out on the Web. The Bookbot page serves as a doorway between the finite world of the book, and the electronic beyond, the "botness" of the net.

On the Bookbot screen one might find information about the linked text, the linkee text, the key words for searching on the idea(s) behind the link or the people making these links (and this involvement of the RT/RL readers and thinkers is essential). The Encyclomedia's user elects whether or not to spend time reading this bookbot screen; it is possible to click right through that screen and thus go directly to the source being linked to, if that is in the best interests of the reader/user. Spending time on the intermediate bookbot screen is a conscious choice of each RT/RL reader, analogous to deciding to read a footnote in a real book. The bookbot intermediate screen functions as a living online index of sorts, complete with explanation of why a particular link is made and/or maintained.

We see Bookbot Linkthink as an online refinement of indexing. It advances the art of linking beyond the merely illustrative and into a new semantics of kinetic and transferrable thought, by first identifying and then naming the associative thought paths opening up from within any given document.

Bookbot Linkthink is very much an evolving discipline leading to an "open work." The Bookbot intermediate screens themselves will assume shape and meaning in response to the uses readers make of them. For example, when linking to a book's health chapter, you link one section on Prozac to some text at the Center for Disease Control (CDC) about the drug, to a pharmaceutical site about drugs, and through email to an expert doctor who has agreed to answer questions about Prozac. The Bookbot intermediate page you write will include the links you have researched and deemed appropriate, perhaps a sentence or two about why you chose these links (because the CDC has the latest info, or because the pharmaceutical company is publishing a bulletin board of users of Prozac, or because the expert just published a book on Prozac and is the leading authority, for example). Then, the link editor will list five key words that the various online index agents will search on to find this link and this project: "Prozac, depression, CDC, Dr. X, mood-altering drugs."

If our thinking process is in this way captured in digital form online, let's think for a moment about possible future ramifications, and the "cogniright", or "right to think" of readers, users, and authors, in this Internetworked environment, specifically in relation to this intermediate bookbot screen situated between linker and linkee. A thought is nothing without someone to think it (or so we think): access or connection is all. A seine net in the thought stream, the bookbot page might serve not only as a filter for content, but also as a filter for readers as well. As an intermediate zone between linker and linkee, functioning as a thought filter, the bookbot page might double as a "morality macro," barring children from pornography, or it might function as a custom cash register, imposing relative charges on a particular link based on reader/user profile in conjunction with the licensing arrangement between the linker and the linkee. The cash register itself might have two spools: incoming and outgoing, reflecting the fact that readers absorbing knowledge, pay, and those giving knowledge used by other readers of the encyclomedia, receive.

And here we rest, for the moment: a provocative and healthy place to leave off our discussion, with the reader on the receiving end of the royalty stream. We hope you will have time to come by our OBS booth in Halle 1.2, Number 1104, and see for yourselves the books and their publishers who are leading us into the world of ideas, live and online.

Thank you for your attention.

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

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