Friday Five: books, bubbles and boats

A roundup of some of the more thought-provoking articles from the week:

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Boaty McBoatface and the False Promise of Democracy – by Uri Friedman, for The Atlantic

For the record: Boaty McBoatface is a brilliant name.

The UK Coast Guard decided to try out this thing called “social engagement” by opening up the naming of its new vessel to the community at large. It would let the public nominate and vote on potential names. What could go wrong?

Well, what could go wrong is that the Science Minister didn’t like the winner. Boaty McBoatface won by a huge margin, as it should have. But that entry has been disqualified. Why? Because the name is not “serious enough”.

The US Republican Party should take note: apparently you don’t have to abide by the rules of democracy if the people’s choice is not “serious enough”. Just sayin’.

“What happened to disapproving of what you name your boat, but defending to the death your right to name it? Is democracy a lie?”

A good article, which points out that the futility of democracy does not end with a ship.

“By voting, you can play some role in electing your member of Congress. But you have far less control over which policies that member supports once in office, let alone which policies the government as a whole pursues. Similarly, you can cast a ballot for Boaty McBoatface and help shoot the name to the top of an online poll. But you’re pretty powerless when it comes to what the science minister does with that information.”

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Very, um, festive? Fun? Quirky? A kinetic toy installation made with Hoberman Spheres (I want one!), by artist Nils Volker. Via Colossal.

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Silicon Valley’s unicorn fantasy is collapsing in on itself – by Alison Griswald for Quartz

I include an article about an article, which I normally don’t like to do, but in this case you’ll thank me – the original article, by tech investor Bill Gurley, is reaaaaally long. The Quartz summary is more readable, in my attention-deficit opinion, and highlights the scarily relevant points.

It goes a bit beyond the now-usual “the bubble is bursting” commentary to talk about how Silicon Valley hubris is bringing the roof down on their own heads. On the one hand, it’s a pity, as so many young dreams will be washed away. On the other hand, you would think we’d learn from past mistakes, no? According to Bill, the four main factors in the VCs’ and founders’ own way are:

– emotional biases (the overwhelming desire to be a paper billionaire),

– greedy VCs with more ambition than ethics (who get unrealistic guarantees in the contract, which deters further funding),

– inscrutable financials (greater transparency in the numbers would lead to better decisions and less blind hype) and

– too much money looking for a high return.

“The pressures of lofty paper valuations, massive burn rates (and the subsequent need for more cash), and unprecedented low levels of IPOs and M&A, have created a complex and unique circumstance which many Unicorn CEOs and investors are ill-prepared to navigate.”

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I love this floor:

Image by Bernhard Strauss, via Designboom

Image by Bernhard Strauss, via Designboom

Made with poured resin, by Peter Zimmerman. Via Designboom.

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What books can learn from the Web / What the Web can learn from books – by Hugh McGuire, via Medium

Here we have an interesting look at the difference between books and the web. “Boundedness” on the one hand. “Unboundedness” on the other. Is there a way to bring them together?

“If …

The Web is the most efficient technology we have for creating and distributing information …

And if …

The web is the most efficient technology for organizing connections between bits of information …

And if …

The Web is an open platform on which we can build new tools and services …

And, further, if …

Books represent the (arguably) the most important single nodes of information from human minds …

Then …

Why doesn’t the content inside of books live on the Open Web — where it can more easily be found, shared, read, and built upon?”

We have unlimited information on the Internet, which allows us to build connections, to adapt and to innovate. A book’s reassuring limitations concentrate our attention but at the same time block the creativity of immediate interaction. Online books, without the physical heft, offer the same restrictions.

“So we moved from paper books to digital books, but rather than embracing digital fully, we instead built a system that tries to mimic the limitations of paper. In fact the ebook system we have built in many ways imposed new restrictions: on ownership (since you don’t own your ebooks, you license them from wherever you bought them), and use (you can’t easily lend your ebooks, or give them away; you might be able to highlight and take notes on your books — but there isn’t anything useful we can do with those notes).”

So is there a way that books can retain their advantages, set in the beginning of printing-press time, while joining the connectivity revolution?

“Books can learn from the web how to be bounded and unbounded at once: to keep the circumscribed, portable integrity of discrete content; but to open that content to the platform of the Web. To open the reading experience to being built upon… But I think there is power in the notion of a book, its thingness, and the Web can perhaps learn how to encapsulate, in the way a book does, a discrete thing, a bounded set of ideas.”

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A brief roundup (you’re probably grateful, right?), but it’s been a crazily busy week. Glad it’s Friday. You too, I hope!

Sunday Seven: Reading, reality and inequality

For the first Sunday Seven of the year, I’ve tried to stay away from the typical “best of” and “trends for” lists, there are so many of them, and few are worth more than a passing glance (the ones I’ve most enjoyed so far are this one from Wired on upcoming TV, games and music, and this engrossing one from Longreads on the best longform journalism of 2015). Here are some links to articles and ideas I’ve enjoyed this week:

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The deep space of digital reading – by Paul La Farge, for Nautilus

by Irene Rinaldi for Nautilus

by Irene Rinaldi for Nautilus

Paul La Farge gives us an eye-opening stroll through the history of reading that debunks the accusation that technology is making us dumber.

“The fear of technology is not new. In the fifth century B.C., Socrates worried that writing would weaken human memory, and stifle judgment.”

Tackling Nicholas Carr’s accusation that we’ve lost the ability to “deep read”, as in to read a book from cover to cover without getting distracted, Lafarge points out that we never really had it. The table of contents, the index and footnotes are there to distract us, to add side texts, to make it easier to weave in and out of a narrative. The only books that we enthusiastically read from beginning to end are novels, for we don’t want to miss part of the plot.

“The Internet may cause our minds to wander off, and yet a quick look at the history of books suggests that we have been wandering off all along. When we read, the eye does not progress steadily along the line of text; it alternates between saccades—little jumps—and brief stops, not unlike the movement of the mouse’s cursor across a screen of hypertext. From the invention of papyrus around 3000 B.C., until about 300 A.D., most written documents were scrolls, which had to be rolled up by one hand as they were unrolled by the other: a truly linear presentation. Since then, though, most reading has involved codices, bound books or pamphlets, a major advantage of which (at least compared to the scroll) is that you can jump around in them, from chapter to chapter (the table of contents had been around since roughly the first century B.C.); from text to marginal gloss, and, later, to footnote.”

And the overwhelming flood of stuff to read is not new, either. Ever since the printing press was invented, mankind has been churning out more books than anyone can read in a lifetime. The scale is completely different now. But then again, more people than ever are readers.

Lafarge also brings up the intriguing question of why we find scrambled texts, disjointed ideas and general absurdity more fun. As education experts can tell you, we learn more when we’re having fun. So, surely text riddled with hyperlinks, and fractured reading, help us to learn more, not less? It could well be that our lower learning scores are because of haste imposed by expectations, both ours and society’s, rather than the style of the text. That is not (directly, anyway) technology’s fault.

This also hints at the success of the new literary media of video games. Apart from the technological wizardry and fantastic art, the interrupted story lines that wait for our input make us part of the narrative, increasing our emotional investment and empowering our search for more.

After reading this article you’ll feel more relaxed about the digital encroachment, and more of a participant in a fundamental cultural and even biological shift. Our brains are being rewired, yes, but not as a shocked response to sudden changes in media. Rather, we are all part of a continuous rewiring that is and always has been necessary to adapt to the technological evolution that propels us forward.

In lamenting the impact of new technologies, we join the ranks of great philosophers throughout history. But an open mind presents opportunities, and some historical perspective gives confidence, opens up curiosity and hands us better questions.

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The Value In Virtual And Augmented Reality – by  Linc Gasking, for TechCrunch

I’m excited about virtual reality, and augmented reality, and how it will change the experience of watching, learning, playing and doing. This article nimbly skips across the surface of the potential, and in so doing conveys an understanding of why so much is being written in the tech press about the developments. Skeptics say that it’s a “flash in the pan”, that the enthusiasm will die out as we discover that the headsets are too clunky, too expensive and/or too isolating. I don’t agree, I believe that the genie is out of the bottle as far as the technology is concerned. The emotional impact is real, and thoughout time we have shown that we are willing to pay for that. If the headsets aren’t comfortable enough, we will come up with something better.

It’s a concept that is hard to understand without experiencing it, and I speak as someone who has not yet tried out “the real thing” and who doesn’t yet fully grasp the impact beyond the “cool” factor. But that doesn’t mean that I’m unable to imagine the implications. Articles like this struggle to do it justice. As Chris Milk said in an entertaining TED talk about the subject: “Talking about virtual reality is like dancing about architecture.”

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The Victoria & Albert’s Design-A-Wig

From those masters of silliness, the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, this is crazy fun.

design a wig

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Who controls your Facebook feed – by Will Oremus, for Slate

As Facebook has grown from a way of keeping in touch to a global newspaper, it’s important to have a think about the control it has over what we see. You may think that you’re seeing updates from your friends and from the companies and media that you follow, but you’re wrong. You’re seeing a very limited selection. And who selects? Glad you asked.

You no doubt already know that it’s an algorithm. This gripping article goes deep on how the algorithm works, why, and how it came to be. It is relevant even if you don’t use the social platform, as it speaks to the increasing control that algorithms have over what we see. The author is actually present at an algorithm tweak.

For now, we can put aside our fears of a Facebook-friendly artificial intelligence:

“Facebook’s algorithm, I learned, isn’t flawed because of some glitch in the system. It’s flawed because, unlike the perfectly realized, sentient algorithms of our sci-fi fever dreams, the intelligence behind Facebook’s software is fundamentally human.”

On the ingenuity of the Like button:

“The like button wasn’t just a new way for users to interact on the site. It was a way for Facebook to enlist its users in solving the problem of how best to filter their own news feeds. That users didn’t realize they were doing this was perhaps the most ingenious part. If Facebook had told users they had to rank and review their friends’ posts to help the company determine how many other people should see them, we would have found the process tedious and distracting. Facebook’s news feed algorithm was one of the first to surreptitiously enlist users in personalizing their experience—and influencing everyone else’s.”

I came out of reading this both worried and relieved. Worried that so much information and power is in the hands of a computer program. And relieved that we won’t be depending on it any time soon, either for controlling our feed with intent, or for accurate filtering. It turns out that the algorithm is still very dependent on us humans, and we are a confusing and unpredictable bunch.

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The triumph of email – by Adrienne Lafrance, for The Atlantic

I love the opening:

“Email, ughhhh. There is too much of it, and the wrong kind of it, from the wrong people. When people aren’t hating their inboxes out loud, they are quietly emailing to say that they’re sorry for replying so late, and for all the typos, and for missing your earlier note, and for forgetting to turn off auto-reply, and for sending this from their mobile device, and for writing too long, and for bothering you at all.”

Given how important email is in (most of) our lives, it’s surprising that more isn’t written about it, more studies aren’t done, more philosophical analysis is not performed. Or maybe it is but we just don’t hear about it, and that’s surprising, too. This article is an illuminating and at times discomforting look at an intimate part of our lives: our relationship with the barrage and the variety of the messages arriving daily in our inbox.

Here’s the crux of the problem:

“Email works just the way it’s supposed to, and better than it used to, but people seem to hate it more than ever.”

Why do we hate it? Because of the hijacking of our attention and our time. I get at least 100 emails a day, many of which I absolutely have to read, a good chunk of which I’d like to read, and a big chunk of which are automatic notifications from sites I don’t even remember looking at. Stuart Butterfield, the founder of email-killer Slack (which I use for one of my projects, and it works, email relating to that project is way down) tells us that 80% of the email we receive was not even generated by a human being. Glancing at my inbox, I have a feeling that it’s even more.

And the outlook is not good:

“If email represents one kind of “notification hell,” push notifications are the next circle of it… Push notifications are the natural extension of email, and with the rise of wearables and Internet-connected-everything, it’s only going to get worse.”

Help. I would be so happy if I got much less email. Or would I? Most of the email I receive is because I asked to receive it. Newsletters, curated lists, notifications… I asked for them. If I didn’t get them, I’d feel less informed. But probably less overwhelmed, too. My project for the rest of the day is to reduce my inbox from 1300 emails to just 700. And to watch the Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks film “You’ve Got Mail” with my 13-year-old daughter, at her request. She’s entranced by the bookshop. She won’t even recognize their courtship medium as being close to what we still use today.

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52 places to go in 2016 – via The New York Times

I invested wasted so much time fantasising my way through this list. My top 3: Malta, Japan and San Sebastián. Yours?

sansebastian-landscape-1800

by Daniel Rodrigues for The New York Times

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Economic inequality – by Paul Graham

Paul Graham’s meandering response to the “economic inequality is bad” argument reads as a self-absorbed overreaction, which assumes that we all are against all inequality, and that we don’t understand economics at all. While I assume that he has his reasons for taking this so personally, I am confused as to the logic.

Mr. Graham is one of the founders of startup incubator Y Combinator, and as he himself says:

“I’ve become an expert on how to increase economic inequality, and I’ve spent the past decade working hard to do it. Not just by helping the 2500 founders YC has funded. I’ve also written essays encouraging people to increase economic inequality and giving them detailed instructions showing how.

So when I hear people saying that economic inequality is bad and should be decreased, I feel rather like a wild animal overhearing a conversation between hunters.”

Without even going into the implication that if only we were all capable of following his “detailed instructions” we too would be able to contribute to economic equality, let’s go straight to why his comments are an overreaction.

People are not against economic inequality per se. We enjoy the choice that our economic system gives us, and accept that full equality is not a feature. Yet, that does not mean that we are comfortable with the economic equality excesses that we see around us all the time. Most of us are against extreme inequality that weakens our communities, tugs at our heartstrings and makes us question what it means to be a human being. We see extravagant waste, and we see children go hungry. We see narcissistic splurging, and we see people unable to pay for medical treatment. Very few of us are comfortable with that. That does not mean that we want a complete redistribution of wealth. Incentive is good, and success, talent, hard work, and even luck should be rewarded. But fairness, backed up by the fiscal system, judicial support and social benefit is good, too.

Most of us are not at all against startups. Sure, there may be some complaints against startup excess and resulting price bumps (not to mention the hype). But startups aren’t what causes inequality. Successful startup founders create value, employment and technological advances, and deserve the wealth they accumulate. Several of them have taken significant and admirable steps to redistribute a good portion of that.

And the rambling about the pie fallacy and how kids grow up believing in the zero-sum game stretches credibility. Really, children do not grow up believing that for them to do well, someone else has to do badly. Their social instincts are generally more advanced than that, even at a very young age.

But it’s ok, because Mr. Graham isn’t defending all types of wealth:

“I’m all for shutting down the crooked ways to get rich. But that won’t eliminate great variations in wealth, because as long as you leave open the option of getting rich by creating wealth, people who want to get rich will do that instead.”

Ah, so the rich criminals are really all just startup founders who chose an easier way? And if that way is closed off to them, they’ll just go and set up a few companies? Got it.

Mr. Graham’s conclusion is perplexing, somewhat incoherent, and not particularly sensitive, coming from a white male working in Silicon Valley:

“If our goal is to decrease economic inequality, then it is equally important to prevent people from becoming rich and to prevent them becoming poor. I believe it’s far more important to prevent people becoming poor. And that therefore decreasing economic inequality should not be our goal.”

Um.

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Two things I’ve really enjoyed this week:

  • A Christmas present from my husband: Laphroaig 10-year-old Scotch whisky. An ideal end to a blustery day.

Laphroaig

  • Building a Lego Minecraft house with my daughter. I think I enjoyed it more than she did, and all I did was hand her the pieces. If anyone wants to know what to get me for my birthday, a Lego spaceship, please.

lego minecraft

Sunday Seven: freedom, communication, predictions and media

Seven articles I came across this week that I think are important and relevant enough to share. Oh, and some cool art. Because why not?

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Are we liberated by tech, or does it enslave us? – via The Guardian

“Technology makes us more productive, but it’s also accused of unreasonably extending the domain of work. So does tech liberate us, or enslave us? And what does it really “intend” to do?”

We don’t know the answer to these questions. But that’s not important. What is important is the asking.

“Our devices present us with simulacra of beautiful, fit, fulfilled people pursuing their dreams and falling in love, and none of them are browsing the web at 11pm on a Saturday night – unlike us. We click and swipe our woebegone way through a vibrant world where nobody who is anybody spends their free time in front of a glowing screen, painfully aware that our only access to that world is through that very glowing screen.”

Is that the relationship with technology that we want? If the answer is “yes”, that’s absolutely fine. But at least we’re choosing, not having the choosing done for us.

“But even if tech companies aren’t really trying to enslave us, or to make us feel inadequate, that doesn’t mean that the current situation is a case of good intentions gone awry. There’s no more reason to think that tech is intrinsically good, but occasionally getting it wrong, than there is to think that it’s a remarkably successful villain.”

A tech-filled life is the default option. If we change that and make it a conscious choice, we’ll get so much more out of it.

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The modern world – via Bored Panda

Some of these are very funny…

by Jean Jullien

by Jean Jullien

by Jean Jullien

by Jean Jullien

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Messaging is just getting started – via Medium

Many argue that instant messaging is the most important function to come out of the new networking technologies. Its impact on economies, on communities and on individuals seems obvious, but is still being explored. It’s not comfortable, the keyboards are tiny, and does anyone actually like autocorrect? But it connects and it builds and it solves problems more efficiently than almost any other invention since the first computer was switched on.

“Information wants to be immediate, global, and expressive. Like a stream of water finds a crack in the rock and expands it, information will always find a way to develop a more efficient channel.”

As a form of communication, messaging has the advantage of being 1) asynchronous, 2) easy to consume, 3) informal, 4) always with you and 5) expressive.

“Communication is a fundamentally human act, and anything that allows us to connect with each other is going to connect with us. Messaging can emulate the intimacy of a private conversation or the fun of group banter.”

This article looks at the importance of the function, and shows how its development is just getting started. Which on the one hand is puzzling: it feels like it’s been around forever, how come it’s just getting started? On the other hand it’s encouraging: so it might get even easier to use?

“Just a couple of years ago we were sending clipped, plain text SMS messages back and forth. But today it’s common for a chat to consist of text, emojis, stickers, photos, videos, and audio recordings. Our digital conversations have almost imperceptibly morphed into a rich, evocative form of communication.”

The potential for embedding commerce could open up the concept to a new level of functionality, making messaging an ever more important feature in our lives. Ordering taxis, getting movie tickets, sending flowers…

And with the tiny details that make up our existence increasingly tapped onto a messaging platform, it will be so much easier for data collecting to produce a pretty accurate picture of who we are and who we will be.

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The ebook is dead, long live the ebook – via The Memo

I read. Not nearly as much as I would like, but I need books around me like I need air around me. And I am a staunch defender of books on paper. I love the feel, the heft, the dimensions, even the smell.

Ebooks are great for research. I love the highlighting capabilities, and the search function. The accessibility, the low cost (for older books), the portability are definitely in their favour. But the swiping can get annoying, the convenience detracts from the experience, and other old-school gripes entrench us publishing luddites in our “paper is best” dogma.

So you can understand why I celebrated the news earlier this year that ebook sales were stagnant or even falling, while print book, paper book sales were increasing.

Not so fast. This article sends up a warning flare to all who thought the digitalization front had met its match. Ebook sales had simply reached a plateau, that is all. They are now ready to regroup and to continue advancing. Technological progress does not sleep, and innovations and new formats a breathing new life into a format that we had become accustomed to.

And yet. According to Michael Tamblyn, CEO of ebook company Kobo, we will end up with a truly hybrid industry. The experience of e-reading is improving with better interface and intriguing novelties. So is the experience of print reading, with innovative formats, better design and new genres.

“’Digital continues to perform incredibly well with some types of non-fiction and genre fiction like romance, sci-fi, fantasy, thrillers and crime, but publishers have also upped their game with types of books that are best experienced in print – incredibly beautiful cookbooks and art books, books that are beautiful physical objects and make great gifts. I think what we are seeing is publishers and retailers of all types refining their approach to what readers want, and that’s always a good thing.’”

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Some media predictions for the next 5 years – via Medium

An enjoyable dash through the changing media landscape.

“One theme across this entire post is power shifts — and it’s the thing I most expect to see in media. Distribution has long been held and gated by corporate interests, and we’re going to a place where content creators hold far more leverage.”

A summary of the major predictions:

1) Virtual reality journalism is a while off from becoming a thing.

2) Podcasts are becoming a very important medium.

3) Citizen journalism is getting its act together – stuff to be worked out still, but we’re getting there.

4) Television is history. This will change advertising. And series is the new cinema.

5) Continued shift from print ads to online. Big and small newspapers should be ok, mid-sized ones will struggle.

6) Buzzfeed is the king of low-brow journalism, and will continue to grow.

7) In spite of a shift away from email, newsletters will continue to work. Expect some Slack-first newsletters to show up soon.

8) Platforms such as Facebook and Apple will help publishers earn money.

9) We’ll see more stories created especially for platform media.

10) Medium will have a bigger impact than many people realize.

11) The quality of discussion in the comments will improve.

12) Media revenue will come from a diverse assortment of streams.

13) Streaming music will continue to shift, with live-stream concerts and the entrance of Google into the field.

14) Always-on media has led to a power shift in politics (the only way to explain the success of Donald Trump).

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Frames in nature – via Colossal

Artist Daryll Fox fuses tree branches with ornate wooden picture frames to create something that looks as if nature tried to encapsulate itself. Quite extraordinary.

by Daryll Fox

by Daryll Fox

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The fault lines reshaping audio – via TechCrunch

Having looked at the text media landscape, let’s turn our attention to audio. What big changes in the listening industry are coming?

1) Access: smartphones have replaced MP3 players and iPods. Multi-purpose wireless systems are replacing home and car stereos. Social media is a more powerful recommendation tool than search, in all media. This should give audio an extra push.

2) Blurred lines between audio and text: audiobooks, speech recognition…

3) Ads: with smartphones and cars the main listening devices, will we see the development of targeted audio ads?

4) Aggregators: expect movement in the spoken word platforms, with Apple’s leadership in podcast downloads threatened by online streaming via Soundcloud, Pandora, Google, etc. Will paywalls become a thing?

Personally, I find this resurgence of interest in the spoken word as a form of entertainment and art very exciting. I love podcasts, and I’m going to start experimenting with audiobooks. So much creativity and professionalism, as well as innovation and talent, make it a very exhilarating field to follow.

“Looking across the span of 200,000 years of human existence, audio is arguably the media format for which humans are most naturally wired. While reading and writing are relatively recent innovations that have emerged during the last 5 percent of that time span, we have always been able to speak and listen.”

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The next frontier for wearables – via TechCrunch

The field of wearables has come a long way since I wrote about it months ago. This article looks at some of the trends that will change our relatively limited view on the sector, and makes you realize that, hey, this will probably be something that improves my life after all.

1) Batteries will become more flexible, lighter, more longer-lasting.

2) “Tattoos”, or ultra-thin patches that adhere to your skin, will come down in price and save more lives.

3) Nanotech: Google has been working on magnetic nanoparticles that can seek out cancer cells.

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Does exercise help keep our brains young? – via The New York Times

I include this because it was my birthday yesterday and “staying young” is something that I think about a lot more than I used to.

The opening is a bit depressing:

“For most of us, our bodies begin to lose flexibility and efficiency as we enter our 40s. Running and other movements slow down and become more awkward, and something similar seems to occur within our heads. As middle age encroaches, our thinking becomes less efficient. We don’t toggle between mental tasks as nimbly as we once did or process new information with the same aplomb and clarity.”

But then you can skip the science in the middle of the article and head straight to the encouraging conclusion:

“The upshot of the findings… is that daily mild exercise such as walking and mild jogging may affect the way the brain works, so that an older person’s brain ‘acts like a younger brain.’”

So, off for a brisk jog now…

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Speaking of which, I took this photo from my bedroom window yesterday morning. Once a year a bunch of crazy people run a mini-marathon around Madrid dressed up as Santa Claus. Many with fake beards and all. I even saw several dogs trotting alongside their owners, also dressed up in little doggy Father Christmas outfits. Crazy.

runners

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2 things I’m particularly enjoying this week

1) The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler

the big sleep

Beautifully written, with a gripping plot. Very dry, very “noir”, amazing language. For example:

Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.

Or:

“If I sound a little sinister as a parent, Mr. Marlowe, it’s because my hold on life is too slight to include any Victorian hypocrisy.” He leaned his head back and closed his eyes, then opened them again suddenly. “I need not add that a man who indulges in parenthood for the first time at the age of fifty-four deserves all he gets.”

2) Calm

Calm 2Calm 1

For improving concentration, this is my secret weapon. I discovered recently that I’m not the only one who thinks that she is terrible at meditating – it turns out that most people do. Huge relief. So, knowing that, I let Calm help me focus on my breathing and quiet my mind, and remind me to let thoughts go. I really like the voice behind the guided sessions, the background sounds, and the beautiful, peaceful videos that accompany. Enhanced focus, here I come!

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Have a great week, and good luck with the holiday shopping!

Friday five: groupthink, fintech and books

The dangers of groupthink – via Pymnts.com

When the press uniformly jumps on a certain bandwagon, we tend to not question it. We’d rather appear knowledgeable than accurate.

“Groupthink is actually a corollary of the “Wisdom of the Crowds” concept. But crowds include lots of different kinds of people  –  the wisdom comes from the diversity of opinion that each person brings to the decision or action. In a crowd, mistakes cancel out and the average opinion tends to be right.

In groupthink, people are all just alike. Same profession, same social status, same town (or Valley), same age, same …..you get the picture. In groupthink, the group tends to make the same mistakes so the mistakes don’t cancel out.

But it’s actually worse than that.”

Healthcare, on-demand food delivery, bitcoin… What other sectors are booming thanks to groupthink?

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This lovely video both pokes fun at the Silicon Valley innovation culture and at the same time highlights a simple but cool education initiative.

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Stop being a freak and just look at your phone – via Medium

The body language of mobile phone use… Brilliant.

“One afternoon I walked from the Mission to downtown to log the many different ways people use smartphones to communicate intentions without words. When people meet for coffee, their phones are out on the table. Phones are hidden for a proper lunch, at least until the check comes. Sitting on the grass in Union Square I watched a guy bump into an acquaintance that he clearly didn’t want to talk to. I could tell because as soon as the other guy called his name the first guy pulled his phone out of his pocket.”

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The future of money – from Virgin

There’s a lot to think about here. A lot. This selection of articles on where financial innovation is going is both exhilarating and overwhelming. Cashless society, obsolete wallets, biometric security, social media payments… Most of the changes they talk about are already happening, but we have yet to notice because we’re stuck in old habits.

Read all the articles, or even just one, and you’ll start getting excited about what’s coming. If, of course, we can dig ourselves out of old habits.

Some of my favourites:

How technology is changing our attitude to giving – “a powerful new social experience”

Will the death of the invoice lead to more ethical business? – solving the critical issue of late payments to small businesses

The future of money – fair and transparent? – “Traditional consumer finance has been unfair for decades.”

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Why being busy makes you less productive – via the World Economic Forum

I know that you know this, that we’re more productive when we’re calm, that we need to focus on health and pace, and that multitasking is not as efficient as we think. But if you’re like me, you need reminding every now and then. Because apparently we all suffer from “idleness aversion”. I’m going to try to work on that.

“The researchers also found that we use busyness to hide from our laziness and fear of failure. We burn valuable time doing things that aren’t necessary or important because this busyness makes us feel productive.”

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This is epic: the recreation with Lego of a Roman scene at Hadrian’s wall – via My Modern Met.

rome lego

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Yes, Australians are really petitioning to change their currency’s name to the Dollarydoo – via Quartz

You couldn’t make this stuff up…

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Have a fantastic weekend! If you live in Europe, remember that the clocks go back on Sunday…

Crowdfunding writing: a new page, or is it a new book?

Would you pay for something that hasn’t even been written yet? I would, definitely, especially if it was being written by an author I knew and liked. And possibly even if I had never heard of the author before. Because when we buy books by an author that’s new to us (and we all should, right?), we are taking a leap of faith based on the title (such as my purchase in an airport book shop of “One of our Thursdays is Missing” by Jasper Fforde, I mean, how could I resist?) or the cover or the blurb on the back. True, the pull of any of those elements is based on something tangible or visible, possibly even something that you’re holding in your hand. And, if you’re like me, you probably do peek inside the book, either by opening it and reading the first page, or using Amazon’s nifty “Look Inside” feature. And if the first sentence grabs you, and you like the tone, the balance of encouraging factors swings in favour of you reaching for your wallet.

by Alejandro Escamilla via Unsplash

by Alejandro Escamilla via Unsplash

But paying up front for a writer you’ve never heard of, for work that you can’t yet flip through, and waiting months for delivery? That requires a much bigger leap of faith than we’re used to. Especially when we are spoiled for choice in the traditional or online bookshops.

However, it seems to be working. As with music crowdfunding, literary crowdfunding offers both new and experienced writers the tantalizing possibility of independence, support and feedback. Both are given the chance to finance their creation, without having to run on the cost-heavy treadmill of the publishing machine. Several specialized crowdfunding platforms already exist, and more are on the way, that allow writers to present their idea, and to ask us to help the project get off the ground.

literary crowdfunding: inkshares

screenshot from Inkshares

Publishizer, Pubslush and Inkshares allow authors set rewards in exchange for various levels of contributions, such as:

  • A copy of the ebook
  • A copy of the print book
  • A signed copy of the print book
  • A t-shirt
  • Several copies of the print book
  • Dinner with the author
  • A photograph session with the author
  • A story written just for you
  • A writing class
  • A speaking engagement
  • A case of wine…

With the funds and pre-sales guaranteed, the author can then self-publish, or try to find an established publisher (who is likely to be more interested given the book’s documented demand and probable success, than with an untested new author). Unbound offers, in addition to the crowdfunding, a publishing service, with 50% of the book’s profits going to the author (vs. 10-30% in traditional publishing houses). And, of course, both Kickstarter and Indiegogo have substantial book sections. In Spain, we have Verkami, Pentian, and Libros.com, which in a forward-looking twist focusses on the number of backers rather than the funds raised. This approach emphasises the community an author can generate, and his or her future economic potential, rather than the money he or she can get for a specific book.

crowdfunding books

screenshot from libros.com

Are these new businesses going to replace the traditional publishing houses? No, not completely, and definitely not yet. We still enjoy our bestsellers and our beach reads, and the big name authors will not eagerly let go of their cushy contracts. But freedom and a higher share of the profits do have a strong pull, and more and more of them will be tempted, which will in turn bring even more traffic to these webs and apps. Crowdfunding isn’t for everyone, but more and more of us are realising just how much fun it can be.

One of the big selling points of crowdfunding as a concept is that it market tests products before their production, even if those products are cultural. For a book, movie or album to get produced, enough people have to like it to fund its costs. If the idea is not that popular, it doesn’t get off the ground. Market rules. But is that fair when it comes to creativity and cultural ideas? Is that what we want for our creative world, that only stuff that people want gets produced? Where would the innovation and the novelty and the cutting-edge infamy come from?

That kind of question underestimates our adventuresome spirit, and our willingness to try new things. Not everyone likes novelty at first. But enough of us do to make this form of financing efficient and easy. Furthermore, the nature of this form of production makes innovation almost inevitable. Crowdfunding platforms attract early adopters. They are becoming more and more popular, but they are not yet “mainstream”. The kind of people who fund projects on the crowdfunding platforms are, by nature and in general, open-minded, innovative individuals, and I think that we can be trusted to keep innovation alive through our pledges.  That’s one of the reasons we love crowdfunding, we get to actively participate in and support new ideas.

crowdfunding books with Publishizer

screenshot from Publishizer

Participating in crowdfunded books transforms us from passive consumers of print, to micro-patrons. And that’s a very good feeling. The act of participating, trusting, contributing creates an emotional connection with the project and its creators. Their triumph is your triumph, and to hold in your hand a book that you helped make possible generates something akin to pride.

The authors don’t have the big advances and the glamorous tours that the publishing houses used to provide. But they do have greater independence and creative freedom, and they get to keep more of the proceeds. The increasing number of crowdfunding platforms specializing in books, and the evident popularity of book ideas on the general platforms, is a refreshing response to the precarious state of the industry. Just as shrinking royalty payments and signing fees to musicians encouraged the development of music crowdfunding platforms, so the dwindling book advances from the publishing houses has incentivized the launch of book crowdfunding solutions. The market giveth what the market taketh away. Ok, not quite, but you have concede the beauty of the creative solutions that we come up with to save that which we love. We need writers. Writers need us. And the Internet connects us all in a mutually supportive relationship, in which we end up with a stronger, freer and even more creative industry model than the one it replaces.

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If you would like to read more about crowdfunding and/or books, check out my “crowdfunding” and/or “books” categories, or take a look at my Flipboards:

flipboard books

Reinventing reading

“Go and re-invent reading!” With that, we were off. It was Wednesday, and I was at MediaLab Prado, participating in their first hackathon aimed at re-defining the book in this digital age. Yes, a bookathon. It was done in the bootcamp style: get to work, and get it done on time. There were about 30 of us: editors, writers, graphic designers, web people, illustrators… We were asked to choose an aspect that interested us ­– distribution, design, accessibility, monetisation, participation – and to work on it together with the others who had chosen the same. I was so lucky with my team, great people, very smart and creative, and I think that we came up with a good idea. We all chose “Shared Reading and Annotation”, and our main innovation was an app that brought together readers, regardless of the format, platform, topic or genre. You can see more about the presented ideas (in Spanish) here, here and here.

the Bookathon team

Interestingly enough, I don’t think that anyone actually re-invented reading, or even reinvented the book. Perhaps I’m being too short-term-istic, but I don’t think that’s possible without redefining reading. We did a pretty good job, however, of pushing the boundaries of what’s already out there. All of the final presentations were innovative, creative and most likely viable. My team did its best to re-invent the social side of reading, while others did an excellent job re-inventing book circulation, personalization and presentation.

So why try to reinvent reading? Because change is inevitable. Reading, and what we read, has changed a staggering amount over the last few years, and will continue to do so. We can wait for others to provoke the changes, nudge them along. Or we can get involved. I know which I think sounds more fun.

As I’ve said before, the book isn’t going anywhere. Uncannily and coincidentally, the Economist magazine this week published a special report on The Future of the Book. The online version is very clever, it’s online but with the format and look of an antique paperback (if you choose the “book” option in the upper menu bar – if you want to, you can read it as a normal web page, but trust me, that’s not nearly as much fun). Even the “pages” are slightly yellowed and stained, and you could have a lot of fun just playing with the page-folding graphics. Even if you don’t want to read it, take a look for the art.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Books are not just “tree flakes encased in dead cow”, as a scholar once wryly put it. They are a technology in their own right, one developed and used for the refinement and advancement of thought. And this technology is a powerful, long-lived and adaptable one.” – The Economist, “The Future of the Book” 11/10/14

The key word there is “adaptable”. The book isn’t going anywhere, but siblings and cousins are springing up which give new reading experiences. Book formats will change, distribution will become easier, costs will come down and creativity will never cease to surprise us. I wrote about Olia Lialina’s online story concept last week – we will see more literary work created exclusively for the internet.

future book formats

image from Naxos

The report gets across the message that the demise of the book has long been foretold, yet the book has always proved resilient. The paper book has managed to compete very effectively against the cool, technological digital version: it has very good resolution, it’s as easy or even easier to handle, and it certainly has longer battery life. And human beings generally choose simple, even after playing with complicated for a while. The digital version does let you highlight and change font size and swipe with your finger (I love doing that), but it’s main advantage has been wiped out with the significant increase in cost over the past couple of years. We bought our daughter a Kindle last year, thinking that it would save us money on books (she goes through a staggering amount). It turns out that the digital versions are not very much cheaper. True, you do save on shipping costs, and you get the books faster, but you can’t lend them to a friend very easily.

You can, however, comment and annotate more easily online, which is frustrating for us offline readers. My favourite news and general journalism web sites are Quartz and Medium, for their ease of annotation, in which you comment on specific paragraphs. I would love to be able to engage with other readers about what so-and-so really meant here, where does this statistic come from, don’t you think that this dialogue sounds a bit like the speech in such-and-such? Us paper readers can’t do that.

But, what if we could snap a photograph of what we were reading with our mobile phone, and it would automatically recognize the text and show us, and let us join, web-based annotations from other readers on that same paragraph? Reading offline would no longer leave us out of the conversation. We don’t need access to the entire digital copy of what we’re reading to be able to connect with others. Just the part we want to talk about.

And it’s very possible that the book industry may go the way of the music industry in that, when you buy a physical CD on Amazon, you get the MP3 download for free. You buy the physical book, either in Amazon or in a bookstore (yes! They do still exist!), and you automatically get the MP3 download for free. Maybe books will be printed with QR codes for a one-time download?

That was the gist of the idea that we presented in the Bookathon. Technologically complex, with possible copyright issues and a complicated usability map, but the idea of enhancing the social aspect of reading is a good one. GoodReads is great, but it’s not immediate, it’s not like discussing what you’re reading with your friends, or finding someone who loves the same books that you do. You can communicate and share through GoodReads, but you can’t socialize, it’s still a bit “lonely”.

To quote from the Economist report again:

“Being able to study printed material at the same time as others studied it and to exchange ideas about it sparked the Reformation; it was central to the Enlightenment and the rise of science. No army has accomplished more than printed textbooks have; no prince or priest has mattered as much as “On the Origin of Species”; no coercion has changed the hearts and minds of men and women as much as the first folio of Shakespeare’s plays.

Books read in electronic form will boast the same power and some new ones to boot. The printed book is an excellent means of channelling information from writer to reader; the e-book can send information back as well. Teachers will be able to learn of a pupil’s progress and questions; publishers will be able to see which books are gulped down, which sipped slowly. Already readers can see what other readers have thought worthy of note, and seek out like-minded people for further discussion of what they have read. The private joys of the book will remain; new public pleasures are there to be added.” – The Economist, “The Future of the Book” 11/10/14

I especially love the last phrase, which sums up what we tried to do in the Bookathon: “The private joys of the book will remain; new public pleasures are there to be added.” There is a book for everyone, and few physical objects have as much power to entertain, transport and even change us. Books take us inward, we discover things about ourselves, our past, our future, our world, that we may want to share with others. In this new sharing and social economy, a traditionally private activity is of course going to become more public. In sharing our reading experiences, we help to shape the reading to come.

Books will evolve online and off, and the definition of what counts as one will expand; the sense of the book as a fundamental channel of culture, flowing from past to future, will endure. – The Economist, “The Future of the Book” 11/10/14

 

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If you want to go deeper into what the future of books looks like (and why wouldn’t you?), I recommend:

The future of books: the next chapter

Sprint Beyond the Book: the future of reading

– the blog of The Future of the Book (started in 2004!!)

And if you want to see even more articles, take a look at my Flipboard magazine “Books and Reading:

Books and Reading on FlipboardThis is my first Storify attempt, on the bookathon, in Spanish (Storify’s surprisingly fun!):

Storify bookathon

 

The future of books: the next chapter

I’m currently reading a novel on an iPad for the first time. (Jane Eyre, since you asked, can you believe that I managed to get all the way through school and university without ever having read it? I didn’t think that it sounded like my kind of thing at all, but it turns out I’m loving it, which shows that perhaps I could work on being a bit more open-minded. But I digress.).

As I’ve said before, I like e-reading for non-fiction, because you can highlight and search easily. But, on the whole, and definitely for pleasure reading, I prefer paper. I’m not saying that e-books don’t have advantages. In this particular case, one big advantage is that Jane Eyre was free on the Project Gutenberg. However, for choice, give me heft and texture and bookmarks that I can never find when I want to mark my place and put the book down.

paper-books-and-glasses

That said, the development of new ways of enjoying books on tablets is fascinating. The genre of fiction is broadening, the boundaries of what we know as reading are becoming blurred, and the definition of what is a book is not as clear as it used to be.

This video from IDEO labs shows three different ways of enjoying and sharing books on connected devices. These ideas are conceptual, as far as I know the apps were never actually distributed, but they are worth looking at and thinking about as we re-think the role of books and information in our lives.

Nelson helps us to put a book in context, by showing us references to the work, revealing the sources, and showing us the impact it has had on the work of others or even on social media. It suggests related reading, and has the potential to deepen our engagement with the book through highlighting the parts that others found interesting or controversial. Could that make us more superficial readers, dependent on being “fed” ideas and relevant concepts to think about? Perhaps. Or it could help us to see things that we wouldn’t see otherwise, to engage more deeply with some of the book’s ideas through the chance to discuss them with others. These others will probably have a different view, which would end up broadening ours. For me, the aspect of this idea with the most potential is the placing of a book in a larger context, making it easier to see its cultural impact. We no longer see the book as just a case for its content.

Copeland is innovative not so much for its book sharing function (although bear in mind the video was made four years ago, before Goodreads became Goodreads), but more for the community. The idea is you share your reading preferences with your work colleagues, you see what they are reading, the company can make you feel special by downloading your favourite books for the virtual library. Reading is an activity we usually undertake in isolation. It’s just you and your book. This idea stretches a book’s “usefulness”, turning it into a social conduit, an opener of relationships and a deepener of conversations. Are we really that interested in sharing our reading preferences with our colleagues? Do we really want them to know the real us? Do we really think that their “public” reading lists show the real them? Probably not, but no-one said that we had to share everything on social media, nor that we had to take others’ public confessions as the whole truth. However, sharing some of our tastes is an opportunity for connection, for bonding and for making friends. My 12-year-old daughter said to me the other day: “When I see someone reading a book that I liked, it’s like the book is introducing us.” Reading is a personal experience, and a book is interpreted differently by each reader. But a book can also be a social tool, and sharing can broaden our understanding and our interests. Again, we no longer see the book as just a case for its content.

the future of books

Alice is perhaps the most creatively “disruptive” idea of the three. The book becomes interactive. You become part of the action. It’s not about getting your name inserted in key scenes, it’s about making those scenes happen. Content gets unlocked if you complete a challenge, such as finding a location (a beacon at that location opens previously invisible sections), or sending messages to certain characters in the book. As the narrator puts it, “the reader co-develops the story, and gains access to secret events, character back stories and new chapters.” Hyperlinks add detail and texture (much like WIRED’s tablet versions, seriously cool), and, quoting again from the narrator, “a non-linear narrative emerges, allowing the readers to immerse themselves in the story from multiple angles.” It does sound a bit video game-ish (see The Stanley Parable), but that doesn’t mean that it’s not art. An interactive book shifts the idea of reading from absorption to creation, and creates a new type of mental experience. The book no longer has boundaries, and we don’t know where the story will take us. Our expectations shift, and our objectives. And, you guessed it, we no longer see the book as just a case for its content.

the future of books and reading

But are these ideas “The Future of the Book”, as IDEO’s title suggests? Maybe. Probably. But by no means exclusively. The future of the book is a diverse spectrum of formats. “A Visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan (published in 2010, the same year of the IDEO video, coincidentally) includes a short story told in PowerPoint. Poetry is appearing on Twitter. Comic books can have motion effects. And who knows what’s around the corner? TeamLabs, a Madrid-based “learning laboratory”, and Bubok, Europe’s largest independent self-publishing web, are hosting a “bookathon” in Madrid next week called “Reinventing Digital Reading”, a day-long brainstorming session to dissect and reconstruct what a book is supposed to be. Serious brainpower coming up with new ways to read? Sounds interesting.

As Nicholas Carr points out in “Stop What You’re Doing and Read This”, reading is beneficial and enjoyable precisely because we have no input, we are not “called upon” to interact, rather just to let ourselves absorb and be absorbed.

“It is only when we leave behind the incessant busyness of our lives in society that we open ourselves to literature’s transformative emotional power. That doesn’t mean that reading is anti-social. The central subject of literature is society, and when we lose ourselves in a book we often receive an education in the subtleties and vagaries of human relations. Several studies have shown that reading tends to make us more empathetic, more alert to the inner lives of others. The reader withdraws in order to connect more deeply.”

We will always cherish books that make us feel and think, as well as books that instruct and entertain. There is scope for book to evolve, and for traditional and new formats to co-exist, without encroaching on each other’s territory. The book as we know it isn’t going anywhere, there are enough ardent fans in all generations and walks of life to make sure of that. But it will have to share our mindspace with other forms of absorbing information and of entertainment. We’re not seeing the destruction of the book, we’re seeing the birth of a new form of art, a hybrid reading/watching/creating experience. Welcome to the party, I say. Let’s see what you’ve got.
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If you want to see even more articles about the Future of Books, take a look at my Flipboard magazine “Books and Reading“:

books and reading

 

 

 

 

View my Flipboard Magazine.

Digital or paper textbooks?

“And starting in September, we get to take our iPads home!” My daughter is 11, and just last year she started using an iPad in class. Online exercises, downloadable homework, in-class games… Brilliant idea, we thought, finally, no more heavy textbooks. But no. It turns out that she still has to carry a heavy knapsack full of textbooks every day to school, and man, those things are heavy! So, why?

textbooks in schools

Paper textbooks are static, expensive and bulky. Digital textbooks are cheaper, updatable, and obviously, lighter. I’ve written before about the advantages of paper books over digital books, but in that post I was thinking mainly of reading for pleasure, and how I prefer paper over a screen. But for studying, learning and research, it’s a different story.

There are some who prefer learning from paper, and I get that – it’s somewhat easier to focus, and many claim that it’s easier to learn. I’m not saying that digital textbooks are the ultimate solution. But I do believe that their advantages far outweigh their disadvantages. Let’s look at both:

Advantages:

Obviously, with digital textbooks, weight and volume are no longer a problem. One 4GB tablet weighs approximately 600-700g, and can contain over 3,000 books. That many textbooks would weigh almost 5,000kg. Of course, no student will need that many, but it does show the difference of scale.

Having all your textbooks in one place makes preparing for class and studying so much easier. Who hasn’t forgotten a key textbook at some time or another? I still remember that frustrating feeling of slipping behind just because I couldn’t organize my books better.

The search function is also a huge efficiency gain. You don’t understand epistemology? Type it into the search function and see all the references to it throughout the textbook, and/or get a simple definition from the inbuilt or online dictionary. That saves so much fluffing around with dictionaries and indices.

One thing I love about e-books is the ability to highlight and make notes on the text, which are then summarized in another file. That makes my research so much easier, and I can just imagine what it would do for studying for exams…

Teachers can show a textbook page on the whiteboard, add detail with the e-pen which the students can annotate in the text on their screen.

E-textbooks can easily be updated. A new government in South Sudan? A new planet on the other side of Pluto? Having up-to-date relevant information makes the textbook so much more useful and efficient, especially if it has to do with sectors changing every year, such as economics or technology.

Shall we talk about environmental issues? Think of the number of trees that can be saved. It seems a bit hypocritical to urge people to not print emails unless absolutely necessary, but to then allow the unnecessary printing of textbooks.

digital textbooks in schools

Disadvantages:

Many say that the price is a barrier, that e-textbooks end up costing the student or the school even more than print, once you factor in the cost of the tablet. At university level, let’s face it, most students are going to have some sort of tablet anyway, right? And according to Mary Meeker’s seminal study on Internet trends, tablet usage is going through the roof (+52% yoy in 2013), so I think that it’s safe to assume that more and more university students will have their own device, so that’s a sunk cost that is not dependent on whether or not the textbooks are digital or paper. And, tablet costs are coming down fast, which is relevant for both older students paying for their own devices, as well as for schools funding tablets for younger students.

It’s likely that the cost of digital textbooks will also continue to decline as the production gets more efficient and as more people use e-textbooks, which will broaden even further the cost gap. And let’s not forget that the marginal cost of production of e-textbooks, that is, the cost of “printing” more once the production is complete, is $0.

Working in the digital world can be more distracting. The added functionalities can detract from deep focus, and jumping from hyperlink to hyperlink can lead to a loss of train of thought. However, the distractions and the link jumping can themselves lead to new insights, and the easy access to footnote sources makes deep learning more possible, not less. And for each study you find showing that students learn better on paper, you’ll find another one saying the opposite.

It is true that paper textbooks are easier to skim, and to jump back and forth. Personally I find it much easier to visualize the information in relation to its physical location, what the experts call “cognitive mapping”… I remember that the analysis of Germany’s economic decline was towards the beginning, on the right hand page, for example. However, as e-reader technology continues to advance and become even cheaper, we will be able to “visualize” books, with pages and all, on our tablets. If you use note-taking or writing apps such as Bamboo or Paper, you know what I mean. Check out this video from the KAIST Institute of Information Technology Convergence to get an idea of what’s coming:

We mentioned before that e-textbooks can easily be updated. That sounds like a good thing. Unless, as my husband points out, we decide that we don’t trust the updaters. With updatable textbooks, history can, literally, be re-written. However, with online information transparency and access to original print books, it is very unlikely that enough information can be supressed or revised to convince an increasingly educated populace. In fact, pre-Internet it would have been much easier to re-write history, as access to print books is significantly more limited than access to e-books.

What about vulnerability to power cuts? Since we’re looking into the future here, I think that it’s relatively safe to assume that the current trends in developing increasingly green, inexpensive energy sources will continue. And Internet connections will become even faster and more reliable (remember the dial-up modems? That was only 10 years ago!).

In the US, the decision to use digital or paper e-books for public schools is made at a local level, and some states and communities are adopting them faster than others. In the UK, the use of textbooks, paper or digital, is not obligatory in public schools, and just 10% of teachers issue whole textbooks to classes, preferring photocopies and individual exercises. South Korea has pledged to ban all print textbooks from its schools by next year.

And in Spain, where I live, the textbook situation is somewhat ridiculous. Here, the public education is free, but the textbooks are not. That itself is a point of contention, as the Constitution guarantees access to a free education for all citizens. And textbooks are an obligatory part of that education, you can’t go to class if you don’t have them. But they’re not free. Understandably, there is some resentment at the State’s interpretation of “free education”.

And these textbooks are not cheap. There is a type of cartel, with few publishing houses (the largest is part of a media group with considerable political clout) cornering the market  through agreements with the Ministry of Education, which establishes which textbooks are necessary for which courses. So there is no price competition. Families complain that they have to buy new textbooks every year. In spite of the editorials’ assurances, there is virtually no market for second-hand books.

Education is a local issue at state level, and each state has their own textbooks (Catalan textbooks are nothing like those from other states, for example, and not just because of the language). Smaller runs mean higher prices.

The law says that the textbooks can’t be updated more often than every four years. But the teaching style is for “participation” textbooks, in which the young students write, draw, colour, cut out… So, of course, they have to be replaced every year. Is that really necessary? Could the children not do their work in blank notebooks? Or on photocopied sheets provided by the teacher?

If you speak Spanish, I invite you to take a look at Enrique Dans’ effective and moving diatribe against Spanish textbook publishers in his blog.

I personally think that one of the greatest strengths of education is to show us how to find things out for ourselves. Whether we learn better with digital books or paper books is not the important question, inasmuch as I very much doubt that we will ever categorically answer it one way or another…  A more interesting question is which method is better for showing us how to discover?

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If you want to see even more articles about the Future of Books, take a look at my Flipboard magazine “Books and Reading:

Books and Reading on Flipboard

E-books vs paper books – may they both win

Now, you’re probably starting to think about your summer holiday (if you’re not on holiday already!), and all that delicious reading you’re going to get done. So… what’s it going to be? An intimate bonding with a satisfying chunk of paper and print? Or frustrations with connectivity and battery life?

book on beach

de istockphoto.com

In cost and convenience, the e-readers win, I concede that. But is that the main consideration in so personal an activity? I don’t choose my friends for their cost or convenience. I don’t even choose my meals that way – deciding what we eat based on easiest and cheapest would deprive us of so much pleasure and would make human beings less interesting. And many die-hard e-book fans I know love to travel and explore, and, seriously, what is either cheap or convenient about that? Isn’t it cheaper and more convenient to read a magazine article and watch a video about the fantasy destination? I’m not saying that reading and travelling are the same thing (although are they that different? A different debate), I’m making the point that cost and convenience should not be the deciding factor here.

I could be accused of sticking to the comfortable, staying with paper books because it’s what I’m used to. But no, I like change, and will happily try out new technologies and embrace their conveniences. I do use e-books for work-related reading, and I love the technology, the swiping of the pages, the searchability. But for preference, and certainly for reading for pleasure, I prefer the self-contained fantasy world of paper.

And I’m not alone. E-books are still a significant minority of books sold and read. Yes, the percentage is increasing rapidly (from 17% to 28% of the American population over the past three years, according to Pew Research – in Spain, where I live, approximately 12% of the population e-reads). But will e-books replace print? I doubt it. 87% of e-book readers also read books on paper. And here’s why: it’s psychologically much more satisfying.

kindle reading

by James Tarbotton for unsplash.com

A paper book has heft, bulk, it has dimensions. That makes the relationship more tangible, and more intimate. If the book I’m reading has boundaries, the relationship is more intense. And let’s not even get into the sensation of holding something substantial in your hands, of riffling the pages, of the texture of the paper and the smell of the print…

Ok, all of that is pretty obvious. But let me go on. The privacy of connecting with something that has no connectivity. The thrill of the immediacy of opening the book and diving in, no waiting for start-up and library search. Paper books allow us a more personal reading style. I turn down corners if I can’t find my bookmark or if I want to remember a specific page. Sometimes I’ll mark a margin, yes, with pen. A paper book will never suddenly not be there anymore because of a malfunction, a weak battery, a software incompatibility. And I love being able to see what other people are reading at the airport or on the metro. I once even made a friend on an airplane that way – I had just bought the book that he was reading, so of course I asked him what he thought about it. E-reading, while not unifying our tastes, homogenizes our style, and removes the public statement that our reading choices make about us. And the intimacy of lending books… “Here, you have to read this,” my friend Elizabeth said to me the other day, as she put in my hands a book I would never have thought of picking up. And best of all: we didn’t have to worry about copyright issues.

However, let me confess a contradiction: I do believe that e-reading is much better for what the psychologists would call “active learning”. You can search, highlight, annotate, bookmark (depending on your e-reader, obviously). I don’t want my research books to be a self-contained universe. I want them to lead me to other destinations, to cross-reference, to correlate. In some cases you have hyperlinks in the footnotes, really convenient. You can read a review of a book and in seconds have the book downloaded, ready to go. You can change the size of the font, useful for tired eyes. Even the menacing progress bar at the bottom of the screen is less bothersome if I’m not engrossed in a fictional world. And travelling with an e-reader is so much lighter than a rucksack full of textbooks or similar.

I’m aware that there might be a generational issue here. The Pew Research Survey I mentioned earlier shows that 37% of under-30s read books on screens. So I decided to ask an expert. My 11-year-old daughter goes through at least a book a week, and it was getting logistically impossible to keep up with a fresh supply, not to mention the fact that the physical space the books take up was beginning to be a problem. So we bought her a Kindle for her last birthday.

I asked her which she preferred, reading on the Kindle or reading on paper, and her answer was interesting: “Well, the Kindle is definitely more practical,” she said, in her most practical voice. “But… I find I can imagine the book better if I’m reading on paper.” Her friend Charlotte agrees, and adds: “I get so much more distracted with e-books. I love flipping the pages back and forth!”

So, who wins: e-book readers or paper book readers? The answer is we all do. True, paper books may become more scarce and costly over the next generation. True, e-readers will become ever-more technologically amazing. But they have ahead of them a long and happy co-existence, and new business models and publishing formats will draw in new readers, new contributors, and will make reading an ever richer experience.

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If you want to see even more articles about the Future of Books, take a look at my Flipboard magazine “Books and Reading:

Books and Reading on Flipboard