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Sunday, 22 September 2013

The camels are coming, hoorah, hoorah!

I am busily working away on my Not Your Usual series, and I have been getting a few odd reactions from people. friends even, who hear that I am planning them as e-books—and that I will be self-publishing.

Part of my reasoning is that I can get my ideas out faster and more cheaply as e-books, but mainly, I don't see paper vs digital as a wholly either/or dichotomy.  I see e-books as something different, and rather more fun, and I have been thinking this way for a while.  What now follows was largely written in September 2000, just as the Sydney Olympics kicked off. I came across the text while selecting content for Not Your Usual Science, which I will have more to say about later (basic message: we need a general survival-level look at science and how it works).

The bits from 2000 make up most of this blog entry, but the comments on the new series weave through it, and are obviously a more recent application of long-standing views. Not that it matters much that I have held these views for a while: what matters is that I hold them now.

First up, e-books need not be bad, even if they are self-published, but they need to be looked at in a different way to print books. Here, I need to recall one of the truisms of research in this area, as explained by Lee J. Cronbach, in the 1970s, back in the days when my main trade was educational measurement.

If you are going to compare a horse and a camel, said Cronbach, you need to compare a good horse and a good camel; the researcher should not just take two camels and saw the humps off one of them. In this case, the hump-sawing is minimal, but no attempt was made to use the special advantages of electronic communication.

A fair test of two media would involve giving two content experts the same amount of time to take a set of information, and develop it into a worthwhile use of the selected medium, rather than holding a contest between a horse and a bicycle, and deciding that neither is very useful for crossing deserts.

I submit that, for the most part, e-books, especially self-published ones, are no more than amputated camels.  The writer of an e-book needs to spend a bit more time on the design and redesign of saddles, bridles and other bits for the animal that is created.

In the next week or so, I expect to see the simultaneous release of two editions of the same book, the Big Book of Australian History, one on paper, and the other as an e-book.  I haven't seen either, yet, but when I prepared the way for the e-book version, I found some 500 hot-links to go in the text, taking my readers directly to the references and sources.

The next few years will see a number of publishers engaging in what Marshall McLuhan called 'rear-view mirror driving', the sort of thinking that saw a steam locomotive called an 'iron horse', an automobile 'a horseless carriage' and labeled radio as 'wireless telegraphy'.

This was the sort of thinking that led Hollywood to put vaudeville performers on the large screen, that led television producers to put radio performers on the small screen, and led the British Post Office to say that telephones would never take off, as people had messenger boys to do all that.

The e-book medium will shape itself as time goes on, and many of the early standards will fall by the wayside. The bad Dickens e-book will be the text of one or more novels and no more.  They are what some of us used to call shovelware.

The good Dickens e-book will explain why dinosaurs are mentioned in the first paragraph of Bleak House (it was published just after the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, where dinosaurs were first made popular), what 'wards in chancery' were, and so on, with hot links in the text or marginal links.

A truly excellent Dickens e-book would offer a way of electronically folding the page corner, a character list, and so on. (Yes, well, we have most of that now.)

The brilliant Dickens e-book might offer Gustav Doré's pictures of the poor in London (two on the left), and perhaps New York's 'other half' of Jacob Riis (right, above), contemporary maps and illustrations, newspaper reports, and so the list would grow.

The point always would be to provide an optional broadening of the base, comparisons, correlations, the links that assemble factoids into knowledge.

Scholarship, now seen as a fairly odd and obscure habit, would begin to pay off, not only for the scholars, but for those who have the chance to follow in their footsteps and really enjoy what Dickens has to offer, putting things like coal-whippers in a proper context.

The same applies, vice versa and mutatis mutandis, in other realms.

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