The Intelligent, Adaptable Book

Peter Brantley -- June 20th, 2013

Network: Domestic Intervention
In the midst of revolutions, ideas which initially seem inscrutable, or fantastic, suddenly become the building blocks of a new world. This week, Professor Robert Glushko, of UC Berkeley’s Information School and a leading pioneer in hypertext, dropped by the offices of Hypothes.is to discuss his new textbook, The Discipline of Organization. The conversation ranged from notes, to annotations, to transclusion – bringing an early concept of Ted Nelson‘s back to the fore.

Bob Glushko’s challenge as a textbook author was straightforward: information design is multi-disciplinary, and he sought comments from colleagues in many fields: computer science, information science, cognitive science, museums, archives, and so forth. What he quickly discovered was that each field or discipline had its own unique, valued perspective on arguments in the text. Rather than attempt to synthesize or mute the differences, Bob decided instead to tag each comment and construct a semantically richer fabric of footnotes – thus, a comment by an philosopher on the perception of low-entropy organization would be tagged “Phil”, and so forth.

Glushko ibooks screen

Source: Robert Glushko, sample iBooks screen with notes

This enables new forms of navigation – e.g., perhaps a reader only wants to see notes from librarians, or cognitive scientists – recalling pioneering notions of documents with user-configurable information layers, as in the “Multivalent Documents” work of Berkeley computer scientists Tom Phelps and Robert Wilensky from the late 1990s and 2000s.

Further, one can rapidly sense the value of selected footnotes embedded within the text as additional commentary, as a substitution for traditional “transporter” navigation of notes within books, which rips the reader out of their initial context, leaving them to breadcrumb their way back to the location where they left off. You can see elements of this approach in the very appealing browser-based reading interface from eLife, called “Lens“, which much like Hypothes.is’ annotations, right panes an article’s notes, links, and embedded matter such as graphs and datasets to the right of the screen.

However, you can go further, and actually build in support for true transclusion, in which portions of text are optionally included into a document at the reader’s behest. The reader would be alerted to the presence of optional material, which they could then choose to incorporate or not in their reading.

glushko lis endnoteLaw transclusion

Source: Robert Glushko, "The Implications of Intelligent Content for eBooks"

This kind of selection makes sense for a wide range of content, ranging from textbooks and other granular, information rich materials including cookbooks or travel, to series of fiction works. For example, one might want to recall the genesis of The Culture while reading one of Iain M. Bank’s science fiction operas.

As Professor Glushko has considered, there are many design questions raised by inclusion. For example: What granularity of an included segment is appropriate? How does an author’s writing style change with transclusion? What’s the best way in the UI to indicate the presence of transclusable content? Should transcluded text be distinguised in its presentation, or masked into the main text?

And just as one might want to include material, it would be possible to exclude material as well, producing a condensed version, or leaving out particularly difficult passages. For example, a primer on copyright law might permit a reader to “turn off” more formal legal analysis whose terminology and theoretical framework would be difficult to follow by non-lawyers.

Mechanical production of texts with transcluded elements, available for either inclusion or exclusion, will have to be examined as well as reader interactions. Independent of whether one requires an XML workflow, or simply structured HTML production systems, writing platforms will have to figure out ways of allowing authors to denote material for optional treatment on rendering. In reference to textbooks, as Bob Gluskho pointed out to me in an email, ultimately “The idea is that a group of collaborating authors are in essence writing a family of books, not just a single book, where each family member represents some configuration of choices of which content should be excluded or included along with the core content.”

Configurable, adaptable texts is simultaneously both a radical and a transparent concept, and it suggests that we are entering an era of literary production that places new elements of control in the hands of both reader and author, permitting many forms of both passive and ultimately active dialogue between them. Transclusion is one of the elements of a digital rendering of literature; how we engineer the means by which we write back to the network will engender yet new ones.

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