Archive for April 2007

Content/Container

April 28, 2007

With thanks to Dave Snowden’s latest commentary in our Value Networks online dialogues (see www.cognitive-edge.com)…

Dave, your latest observations about HTML lead me to relate an anecdote from my book’s research.  (I will leave the semantic and psychological variations to those better qualified, with one note: it has been my observation that we must change our words in order to change our behaviors.)

The anecdote, then.

As some of you know, my book is a series of fictions, narratives of characters who live and work in the world of technology.  One of the chapters is told from a professor’s point-of-view, and includes a description of a technical writing exercise he asks each year from his students.  In this story, the students are encouraged to consider the works of Robert Coover (Brown Univ.) and Ted Nelson (Xanadu, etc.) in three-dimensional form.

During the early drafts of the chapter, I had the good fortune to engage in actual (not fictional) correspondence with Mssrs. Coover and Nelson – and Ted Nelson, in particular, was enamored with the idea that I might send him passages of the fictional story, to which he could (in real life) respond.  In this way, the fictional conversation becomes a real conversation over the Net.  During our brief correspondence, I explained that his text in the story could be linked to his dynamic website, allowing him the possibility of editing/revising his notions about information exchange, even after the book was published.  However, we acknowledged that, upon hardcopy publication, the actual hypertext link would be “frozen in time” as published.  Finally, we then postulated that the book might oneday be electronically searchable by Google or the Internet Archive, at which point, the hypertext link to his writings would become active, once more.

HTML created and blurred the distinction between “content” and “container.”  In the old days, the text was housed in a time-based and physical ostuary (print), however, with the advent and wide acceptance of HTML, and the further expansion of dynamic links generated by software, one’s homepage might be changed via software programming, without manual intervention, creating dynamically-generated content.  Since then, we have introduced even further layers of abstraction that invites us to further blur any distinctions between content/container.

The most apt metaphor for the future of hardcopy publishing is reflected in my experience during the production cycle of my book, The System is a Mirror, which I finished writing in December 2005.  If I had wanted to publish the work on the Net (via an extended blog or narrative-based website), it would have been available to readers within days.  However, the manufacturing and marketing cycles of the book led it to an August release, more than seven months after I’d finished writing.

For those of us who continue to learn and adjust our conceptual models, seven months can lead to significant changes in one’s thinking – perhaps work on a second book is well on its way when the first appears for readers, whereas the currency of web-based publishing (events unfolding in text as they are unfolding in the world) affords near real-time exchange of views, a “faster” absorption of other views, a more complex and adaptive system that emulates the natural behavior of a human network.

One final note, as confession: I am a book lover.  Leather-bound first editions of fine literature are among my favorite objects in the known world.  Unlike hundreds of years ago, however, they are no longer bound by a specific time.  Our networked collaboration – due to the ubiquity of markup languages and standard Internet protocols – indeed, this very blog is no longer constrained in this way.  It is text in the present tense.