Back in 1992, virtual eons before the Kindle and the iPad, Bob Stein created software that let a reader flip through an electronic book on a laptop computer.
To demonstrate the program at conferences, Stein would lie down on stage as if reading in bed.
“Publishers would see this and they would think it was cute, but they didn’t think it had anything to do with them,” he recalled.
Now that the revolution is here, Stein says publishers should embrace what he sees as the inevitable result: the evolution of reading from a solitary pursuit into a communal, electronically networked activity — something he calls social reading and writing.
The advantages of digital technology “are so weighted toward collaboration that people will tear down the existing structures and build something new,” Stein said while sitting among the jammed but now rarely touched bookshelves in his Brooklyn home.
Head of the ambitiously named Institute for the Future of the Book, Stein is one of a collection of programmers, philosophers and other deep thinkers who debate where things are heading in online venues such as a conference titled Books in Browsers and an online discussion group called Read 2.0.
“Bob’s ambition is really to change how people think about the book,” said Brian O’Leary, a founder of consulting firm Magellan Media.
Stein, 64, has a history tied to media innovation. In the early 1980s he worked in Los Angeles on an effort to create a digital encyclopedia for home-computer maker Atari. He then launched Criterion Collection, a video distributor that pioneered the use of interactive features, initially on laserdisc, a predecessor to the DVD. A company he started with some friends and his former wife published multimedia CD-ROMs, such as one on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, using techniques that since have become commonplace on the Web.
It’s in Stein’s nature “to challenge the existing order,” O’Leary said. “But when it comes to these issues he has an incredible legacy of making it work.”
In the world imagined by Stein, readers and authors will be in such constant communication that the line between them will begin to disappear.
Stein cites some early examples including online book discussion site Goodreads.com and a setting on Amazon.com Inc.'s Kindle device that allows readers to highlight a poignant line in a book and share it with friends
“We’re leaving the age of the individual,” he said in classic Delphic style. “We’re heading toward a much more collaborative culture.”
Stein could even pass for an oracle, with a shiny bald head, wiry glasses and a bird-like frame that he drapes with wispy scarves and shirts.
His 6-year-old institute has received funding from the MacArthur Foundation and is affiliated with USC, but it resembles a scrappy start-up. Stein founded it in his kitchen while he lived in Manhattan, and it now has its offices in a garden apartment behind his house in Brooklyn.
For several years, the organization paid a bunch of young scholars to gather regularly, with their laptops, to hash out ideas and play with new software.
“It was really intellectually charged, really social,” said one of the brainstorming participants, Ben Vershbow, who works on digital technologies for the New York Public Library. “We’d sometimes stay there late, and it would segue into dinner.”
An early innovation from the institute was Commentpress, which is software that lets blog readers write comments in the margin instead of at the bottom of the page. The institute also published a book on a website where readers could help shape the final product by commenting while the author was still writing.
Stein’s vision is not a promising one for today’s publishing houses. He predicts that electronic books will fall prey to the pirating that has severely damaged the music-recording industry. The value of the text of a novel or biography will approach zero, he projects.
The best opportunity to make money, according to Stein, will come not in selling content but in hosting conversations around it, similar to the way that Facebook hosts social networks.
Not surprisingly, many people in the publishing industry label Stein, who in the 1960s and ‘70s was a radical campus activist at Columbia and Harvard, as too far in the future.
“The general reaction is that he’s not commercial, so therefore he can be easily dismissed,” O’Leary said.
Stein now is focusing on a plan to start his own electronic publishing house.
That doesn’t mean he’s given up on the printed word. He still gets the Sunday newspaper delivered, and he recognizes the enduring social value of his countless physical books.
“When you go to somebody’s house, you go look at what’s on the shelves,” he said. “When you have those conversations on a date or at someone’s home about a book, it’s as much about social glue as it is about the content of the book. It’s how you get to know someone.”
ABOUT THIS STORY
This is the sixth in a series of occasional articles exploring how technology is changing libraries, the publishing industry and the experience of reading.
Previous articles, video reviews of e-book readers and e-book applications and a slide show on the evolution of books are available at https://www.latimes.com/reading.