E-books going mainstream? Getting “Napsterized?” and “Advantage Google”

Really eye-opening (to me, anyway) article in the Sunday Business section of today’s New York Times:

DIGITAL DOMAIN
Will Books Be Napsterized?
By RANDALL STROSS
As the hardware for electronic books moves closer to the
mainstream, publishers wonder whether their industry can be
spared the potential problems of piracy.
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/04/business/04digi.html?th&emc=th

From the story:

Free file-sharing of e-books will most likely come to be associated with RapidShare, a file-hosting company based in Switzerland. It says its customers have uploaded onto its servers more than 10 petabytes of files — that’s more than 10 million gigabytes — and can handle up to three million users simultaneously. Anyone can upload, and anyone can download; for light users, the service is free. RapidShare does not list the files — a user must know the impossible-to-guess U.R.L. in order to download one.

This has significance, according to Mr. Stross, because e-books are going mainstream:

. . . E-book hardware is on the verge of going mainstream. More dedicated e-readers are coming, with ever larger screens. So, too, are computer tablets that can serve as giant e-readers, and hardware that will not be very hard at all: a thin display flexible enough to roll up into a tube.

And be sure to read Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society fellow Lewis Hyde’s essay in the New York Times Book Review today, “Advantage Google.”

Nothing in the history of copyright permits the treatment of ‘orphan’ works spelled out in the proposed settlement.

Aardvark’s Answer Machine

Typing a question  into a search engine and getting a specific, relevant answer hasn’t improved much since the 1957 librarian-favorite film Desk Set when EMMARAC (the Electromagnetic Memory and Research Arithmetical Calculator) answered a question about Watusis and the island of Corfu with Rose Hartwick Thorpe’s poem Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight.  Make it a subjective question, e.g., “What  is the best Chinese restaurant in Palo Alto?,” and the results are even less helpful, as noted in a “Digital Domain” article by Randall Stross in today’s New York Times.  The article, “Now All Your Friends Are in the Answer Business,” discusses “Aardvark . . . a Web service that answers users’  questions through their friends and friends-of-friends.”

Often at the reference desk I don’t answer a patron’s question but, instead, seek to find someone who can provide a good answer — I’m more a  switchboard operator than fountain of knowledge.  So Aardvark’s approach of using networks to make the connection between question and human-supplied answer is intriguing.  As the article explains,

A new service offered by Aardvark (vark.com), however, provides specific recommendations. Its advice is always current, too, obtained on the fly from those we trust, like friends, but whose collective expertise far exceeds that of the relatively few people we happen to know personally.

Founded in 2007 and based in San Francisco, the company has just completed beta testing of its answer service and opened it to the public last week. It begins with the social network that you’ve established elsewhere. Presently, it requires Facebook; other networks will be added, it says.

. . .

Aardvark may come to be preferred over answer databases and “decision engines” if many people want a speedy answer from a fellow human being.

Four scholars look at Google

Today’s Financial Times includes a review essay by James Harkin, “Net prophets – Incorporated just 10 years ago, Google predicts and shapes our view of the world.”  The essay is a review of these three books:

Planet Google: How One Company is Transforming Our Lives
By Randall Stross
Atlantic Books

Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge: A View of Europe
By Jean-Noel Jeanneney
Translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan
University of Chicago Press

Search Engine Society
By Alexander Halavais
Polity Press

And the author of the piece is James Harkin and his book Cyburbia: The Dangerous Idea That’s Changing How We Live and Who We Are will be published in February by Little, Brown in the UK and by Knopf in Canada.

In the piece, Harkin writes,

Google is now 10 years old, and in that decade it has become one of the world’s most recognisable brands. There’s no doubt that Google is everywhere in our lives. But how exactly has Google changed us, and what lessons can we really draw from its success? Three recent books — one by a professor of business, one by a cultural historian and one by a technology academic — all attempt to answer that question in different ways.

and concludes:


Jeanneney is right to insist that any culture needs to organise its information to reflect its priorities, and that it’s not enough to leave this to an automatic device. The classification system of the traditional library, he reminds us, is evident in books’ arrangement on the shelves, which encourages readers to browse those books in certain ways. It is possible that our facility with search technology will encourage new, looser ways of categorising books which encourage us to take our own path through libraries. It will not, however, be enough to leave readers to rely on pointers from their anonymous online peers. For institutions, the trick will be to adapting to changed cultural sensibilities — our determination to forge our own path through information and make our own associations between things — without surrendering ourselves entirely to Google’s algorithm.

In September last year, Google announced that it had digitised and indexed about a million of the world’s books — not bad, but well short of its target. A couple of years before that, according to Stross, Google’s chief executive Eric Schmidt was asked how long it might take for Google to organise all the world’s information. “Current estimate,” he replied, “300 years.” Only a company with Google’s Promethean ambitions could think with such extravagant time-horizons. With 300 years’ notice to organise our response, we can’t say that we haven�t been warned.

E-textbooks: Buying, selling, renting, revising, copying, pirating, sharing

Really interesting “Digital Domain” article by Randall Stross in today’s Business section of the New York Times, “First It Was Song Downloads.  Now It’s Organic Chemistry,” about college textbooks and sites such as PirateBay.org.