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Joseph Esposito began his long publishing career in 1990 at Merriam-Webster, which led him to become CEO of the subsidiary Encyclopedia Britannica. Over that period, he pursued an aggressive digital media agenda, including initiating Britannica Online, the first Internet encyclopedia. The Processed Book (Esposito, 2003) represents his critical and rhetorical assessment of how the publishing industry should go digital.

Esposito takes the stand that the book must escape the dead entombment of the printed page, stiflingly isolated from its sibling texts. Instead, a digital book will be wholly reshaped, shedding physical limitations to become the processed book. The book becomes reduced to merely its essential content, which then becomes a computable data source, but thereby transforming the linear definition of book (title page, chapters, index, etc.) to mean any form of authored text.

The processed book fits into Actor-Network Theory (Latour, 1996), where the digital text of the book (not the physical artifact) fosters its own social role. For instance, the book opens as a portal to its predecessor works, reflecting only the tip of an iceberg, say of the history of academic citations. Another traditional convention is self-referencing, such as indexing and text analysis. Within digital books, these forms are active, fluidly navigating between texts or generating indices on demand. However, both these processes work backwards in time, working against what already exists. Esposito also provides three new roles for the book that enable future extensions of the text. These are the most important ideas.

First, the book becomes socialized, an actor; it is a platform for future writings, such as commentary and annotation, which in digital media can become part of the book proper. Second, the book becomes a networked form, such as his example to link related current events to the relevant text. Rather than believing in the myth of the self-contained book like a memoir, authors expose the intertextual connections. And finally, machines can also read the text, from a conventional text-to-speech processor, to real-time text analysis to determine the zeitgeist of the writing public to optimize bookstore catalogues.

Piracy becomes more difficult, in a sense. While the text of a book is easy to reproduced, the social network of the book is much harder. If a book is densely embedded in a network of linkages, copies of the text will be ignored, deferring to the more popular location. Therefore, a book in motion that continuously adds value will remain uncopiable, especially if it is easy to build connections to and from the text.

Strangely, Esposito holds onto the ideal that the final text is immutable. He exclaims, "In the final indignity to authors, it seems likely that the creators of books will begin to lose control of the editorial entity," but it is not always indignifying for a second author to edify your text. This seems a contradiction as he criticizes the romantic misconception of authorship as a solitary act of love. Further, while he duly admits that people may copy and then modify the text, he doesn't allow for an ongoing collaboratively created text such as an open source document.

While his arguments are sound, his passion well directed, and his vision vibrant, Esposito could still be faulted for still carrying too much of his publishing industry background with him. Does the author-centric editorial process that fit the printing press (Schement & Curtis, 1995) really match the social one of the Internet? Nonetheless, this article describes the after-publishing environment quite accurately in the post-print age of the transmitted word. -- SunirShah

For those more interested in books qua books, see [Lynch (2001)].


Esposito, J. (2003). The processed book. First Monday, 8(3). Retrieved January 26, 2004 from http://www.firstmonday.dk/issues/issue8_3/esposito

Latour, B. (1996). Aramis or the love of technology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lynch, C. (2001). The battle to define the future of the book in the digital world. First Monday, 6(6). Retrieved April 27, 2004 from http://www.firstmonday.dk/issues/issue6_6/lynch

Schement, J and Curtis, T. (1995). Tendencies and Tensions of the Information Age. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.



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