One company's new app distills the big ideas in works of non-fiction into a set of shareable "cards."
For all the disruption in the publishing industry wrought by the Internet, e-readers, and tablets, reading a book still feels like, well, reading a book: tabbing through pages, digesting information linearly. But maybe that will change. The company Semi-Linear is hoping so: Its recently unveiled Citia iPad apps reinvents long-form non-fiction for the tablet, turning books into something that resembles less a sequence of chapters and more a digital spread of sharable, customizable, collectible cards.
"Faking books and page-turns and location numbers on screens is somewhat functional, but can't be the best solution for devices as nuanced as the iPad."
For example, the premiere book in Citia's library, What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly, is segmented into various, smaller stand-alone yet interconnected mini-chapters. "Kelly writes that what technology wants is for this app to realize its ideal, most 'convivial' form," says Linda M. Holliday, the founder and CEO of Semi-Linear. "So we've tried to build an e-book that's optimized for digital life. We've done away with the endless unspooling text of PDF-based e-books and replaced it with discrete stacks of cards, organized according to concept. The result is a very detailed synopsis of a book—one that always offers users the option to buy the full-length original in any format."
Citia's three-dimensional table of contents allows readers to survey the ideas in each mini-chapter, get an overview of the book's thesis, and dive in wherever they like. Readers can explore according to their interest, prior knowledge, or any other entry point. The idea is to make reading faster, easier, and more social. There's an economic motive, as well: "In this model authors get paid for metered 'micro-publishing,' but each card also promotes the author's original work and allows users to purchase it directly," Holliday says .
Citia was born out of the question of how to make ideas travel farther and faster. Traditionally, e-books have been basically a few pieces of metadata (a title, an author, a publisher) with an impenetrable string of words associated with it. "Those ideas never travel except locked into that string," Holliday says. "They are digitally opaque."
"But books contain some of the best, most disciplined thinking there is," she added. "Making them visible and sharable, so that those ideas could be passed along at Internet speed, became the core challenge."
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The card concept emerged as a natural way to tackle that challenge. Each card has a URL, so it is a entity with "a digital identity." Apple's old HyperCard concept was an influence for Citia, yet surprisingly, Holliday says the city itself was also her inspiration—and provided the brand's name.
"We navigate effortlessly—even joyfully, making intuitive decisions constantly," she says. "Where to turn, eat, sit, observe? So we are suggesting that if we want to navigate massive amounts of content, one solution might be to engage our human way-finding experience. We make it through bookstores, libraries, and cities quite easily."
Wikipedia inspired her as well, "but its endless flatness can feel monotonous; again, no sense of location." she says. "We call that 'Lost in Space,' and it's what we get from e-books too. Faking books and page-turns and location numbers on screens is somewhat functional, but can't be the best solution for devices as nuanced and high-definition as the iPad."
Citia's maiden book, What Technology Wants, a bible of technology, was selected because Holliday wanted to "stress test" the product on something structurally difficult. "Much of non-fiction really is a constellation of ideas whose relationship to each other is more complex than a line," she says. "A narrative is often the response to the constraints of the codex itself. I listen to many authors struggling with prose to basically build a diagram."
Several very different titles have also been tested, and the Citia method of reduction and reorganization worked. "Nothing will replace the level of nuance and detail of a 125,000 word text," Holliday says, but she argues that in fewer than 20,000 "we think we've done a pretty good job. And we've given those words the ability to travel through the social graph in a way they never had before, which will grow not only the number of people exposed to them, but also the pool of paying customers."
What about strictly linear narratives that cannot be reconstucted according to the Citia format? "We're going to leave the storytelling to storytellers," Holliday says. "Even certain kinds of narrative nonfiction are probably low on our list. That said, when writers start writing into our system, anything's possible."
Holliday uses "anything's possible" as a kind of mantra. She sees Citia's format as a way to connect millions of ideas into argument clusters, and believes that crowd wisdom can effectively judge the quality of claims and evidence that are released into the media. "Maybe complex conflicts such as nuclear power, Israel/Palestine, or global warming can be better understood by bringing arguments together and by letting users rebut and refine the ideas," she says. "We're certain that there are breakthroughs ahead of us in how we learn, organize, debate, define, and act. Most of the technology is in place. As Alan Kay put it, 'The best way to predict the future is to invent it.'"