The future, by the book

There was an interesting article by Marcus du Sautoy in the Guardian on Saturday about the future of the book.

That’s a perfectly straightforward statement – or might have been had it been written a few years ago.  But now ‘article’, ‘in’ and ‘on Saturday’ are all a bit problematic.

On the printed page, it remains an article. It is about how the written word is no longer confined by the limitations of a printed page – not just in terms of interactivity, but branching narratives, the story which may never be experienced by two people in quite the same way. More intriguingly, du Sautoy makes clear that he is most interested in non-fiction (which since he is is a mathematician is hardly surprising):

Non-fiction is different again. What is a footnote, after all, but an attempt to break out of the linear structure of a book? How reference books could change can now begin to be imagined, but I’m particularly interested in apps for non-fiction that are not designed to break up a narrative in a radical way, but rather to augment a storyline – for me, non-fiction works best when it tries to emulate the narrative that drives a reader to the end of a novel.

But this sometime article is itself no longer confined to the printed page. It is, of course, on the Guardian’s website (where it already attracting vigorously critical comments). And as it happens, it’s here too as an irresistible meta-recursive first use of the Guardian’s new wordpress plugin. The text below the line comes from the Guardian, but it’s not in any meaningful sense ‘in’ the Guardian any more and still less is it ‘on Saturday’.

Du Sautoy’s critics are right to observe that the hyping of multimedia has been going on at least since the excitement of the cd-rom – and if that were all this was about, it wouldn’t be about much. I am old enough and old fashioned enough to think that reading a book will carry on being much like reading a book for some time to come.  But not all books and, more pertinently, not other things which still live in linear forms or in the remnants of those forms. We are beginning to see self-navigating forms, a version of techniques used in market research for many years, but self-contextualising help and cross-medium support are still in the near future, as they have been for quite a while now. And just as the piece below can be ‘from’ the Guardian without needing to be ‘in’ the Guardian, so the clear implication of the principles of data transparency is that the same will be true for many services from the government.

[The Guardian article has been removed for reasons explained here, though it is of course still on their website]