Welcome the smart book

Today’s utopia is tomorrow’s technology. One may dream of a kind of scientific books which would be strikingly different from the bound sets of printed pages which clutter our libraries and offer more rhetoric than substance. Once printed, the text is carved in stone. It is heavy, expensive, and immutable. It takes trucks and planes to move it around. It is under the rules of economic gravity. Books mostly record, at a high cost of production and maintenance, the errors and lies of the past. Knowledge is a fluid, unpredictable process. Scientific books, which encapsulate information that makes a difference, have a short shelf-life. They quickly become history, that is, dead weight. Even the languages in which they are printed sooner or later lose their currency. The inquisitive human mind constantly devises new methods to push further our horizon of ignorance and invents languages apt at expressing the fast emerging, moving landscape of knowledge. In the current book culture, textbooks, even in the social sciences, must be constantly re-written and cost a fortune for the students.

Let us dream of a book whose contents are stored in the cloud. Its author(s) can delete, or add the parts which become obsolete, and rewrite it as time goes by whenever parts of it lose their relevance. Scientific knowledge is a cumulative process which needs to be constantly updated. Today’s speed of change makes printed books kind of dinosaurs on the verge of extinction. With the smart book, the privileges which go with authorship are guaranteed not by a vulnerable password but by biometrics. Passwords can easily be stolen or shared between friends wanting to access content without paying for a subscription. Human faces, voices, fingerprints, and other markers of individuality empower selective access. Such unique attributes of an individual can be made the ground for exclusive access to those who would purchase this right, thus providing an economic basis for the entrepreneurs who would invest in the new model of scientific and scholarly communication. Individuals themselves will be the key to such sources of knowledge, being warned whenever deletions or additions have occurred. Compared to today’s economics of the production and marketing of printed books, the lightness of nebulous publishing through elegant and user friendly templates should make the product easily accessible and its cost commensurate with its use, even with abundant visual information which today’s publishers only parsimoniously agree to print for lack of profitability.  Publishing in the electronic format exists today in the form of e-books, but they are static representations of knowledge, not regularly updated by the author(s). This is what makes the smart book different. The subscription to this service implies up-to-date relevant material.

But there is more. Reading a smart book will provide invaluable interactive resources because this new technological embodiment designed for the purpose of communicating up-to-date knowledge is akin to a live organism. It is an intelligent robot which is interactive. It can monitor its reader’s face and read signs of arousal such as the dilatation of the pupils or other biometrical indicators, and automatically highlight the concerned paragraphs or references. It can record verbal remarks in a special font. The reader can share reflections through his/her social network because the smart book is connected to platforms such as Face Book and Twitter or whatever other devices may emerge, possibly as a service included in the smart book’s affordance itself. Thus, smart books will generate their own readers’ communities and peer groups.

Authors’ guidelines will have to be rewritten. There is no need for rhetoric which creates inflated volumes for the sole purpose of justifying the price charged by the publisher. Substantial knowledge can be economically delivered and the length of texts should be commensurate with the functional information they convey. Such editorial principles are appropriate for both highly specialized books and popularisations. We can dream of a smart book which would bring the two together, empowering the readers to switch from one mode to the other by a light touch on the screen or a verbal request.

A few examples are in order. Data intensive domains are on the front line. For instance, the rate of discoveries in prehistoric archaeology and palaeoanthropology is such that books which were printed a decade ago are bound to be inaccurate at least in some respect, and often become a cause of embarrassment for their authors.

Let us move to another topic: a neuroscientist specializing in autism recently told me that it is difficult, if at all possible, to keep track of the innumerable research results which become available almost daily in this field. This knowledge is important not only for the specialists but it is also a public concern. We can list ad infinitum the issues which meet those criteria.

On the personal side: many parts of my introductory book on Saussure’s life and works need to be corrected after the publication of the definitive biography by John Joseph who had access to archives which were not previously available. But which publisher will ever agree to re-publish edited versions of scholarly books? A detrimental result of the printed book culture is that erroneous and irrelevant knowledge keeps spreading at great cost.

In fact, the smart book is not a total utopia. All the necessary technologies are already available. It is just a matter of putting things together and overcoming the resistance to change which festers in the guts of the book industrialists and academic institutions. The SemiotiX team will attempt to meet the challenge in the near future through crowd funding and lots of good will. A bit of luck and outside support could also help ☺

This is the plan. Initially create an iOS prototype app with minimal functionality, which would demonstrate the capacity and usefulness of the smart book. This app in itself would be useful and open to the community to submit/edit/read content, free of charge. It would be released with some starter content from the scientific community. The future goal is to transfer or white-label the product to a publishing company interested in putting up content and building up and improving the app.

Paul Bouissac
Tom Wysocki
Zbigniew Roguszka

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