I used to struggle with identity. I wondered, am I a teacher who writes or a writer who teaches. It may seem silly but in the interest of allocating time and describing myself, I thought I had to choose. Thankfully, I realised identity is a fluid notion. This realisation was liberating, it meant I didn’t have to conform to a label. In some instances I am a writer who teaches, in others I am a teacher who writes – and it has nothing to do with a classroom or computer. I am simultaneously a teacher and a writer existing within a multidimensional space. E-books exist within this same multidimensional frame.
Or at least they should.
Recently I took part in a discussion about the viability e-book publishing. Some of the experienced publishers in the group cautioned those of us who were excited about immersive texts, to be wary. They reminded us that the tech world is full of forgotten ideas that appeared visionary then failed because they didn’t take into account market forces. These publishers were sceptical of interactive e-books and questioned if the market really wants them. However, it seemed to me these publishers were bound to fixed labels of what constitutes a ‘book’ and what defines a reading experience.
So, while I understand the gist of their warning, I am eager to explore the digital frontier. The key issue from my vantage point (gazing longingly onto sunlight plains, wild rapids and majestic mountains) will be identity. If we remain locked in a single, ‘what has been done before’ dimension, we risk following an ancient map to crumbling ruins. Perhaps then, as we define what the market wants, we need to consider e-book identity as a fluid form.
Perhaps an analogy will help.
As a teacher, I have witnessed the restrictions of a static identity. Teenage students struggle with ‘who am I’ and ‘who are my friends’. They seek a label that helps them identity with one group or another, but then struggle when they find themselves falling into one category one day and another the next. These labels impact their thoughts and behaviours. Yet, when they are courageous enough to break free of labels, they develop the confidence to explore, innovate and create opportunities for themselves. They find their own place – a space of self-acceptance. Without labouring the point, swapping static labels for multidimensional identities, opens opportunities. We can be confident in the face of a changing environment because we are not bound to follow. Rather, we can choose how we interact with thoughts, emotions and ideas. This is a liberating vista.
How does this relate to e-books?
As a writer I have felt the restrictions of a static identity. I want to create a text that encourages audiences to become simultaneously within, without and below the story. I hope to build an immersive, reflective and creative opportunity that allows the audience to actively participate in the gathering of ideas. I want them to manipulate, analyse and synthesise what they see, hear and feel. I am interested in adopting a pioneering approach to the sharing of ideas through words, images and sounds. Yet when I explain the concept to adults they want clearer labels. They ask for examples. What if there are none?
We need the imagination of childhood.
My research into the viability of immersive e-books has been conducted within the classroom. While at the so called chalkface (even though chalkboards disappeared years ago), I witnessed firsthand how today’s teenagers access ideas, information and knowledge -and it is different to the way we did when we were at school. From what I see in primary schools, this is about to shift even further. If you have ever seen a five year old with their parent’s smart phone or tablet, you will know what I mean. Even if novels retain a traditional place in a reading environment, the text book will follow chalk boards and slates into the nearest folk museum. Children see beyond markets, they take the tools we provide and create new uses.
Here is the Ah, Ha moment – the multidimensional (or transmedia) identity opportunity.
The e-text book market has the potential to ‘go where no book has gone before’. My guess is other non-fiction books will quickly follow. But, we have a problem. The e-book market is stuck within an identity maelstrom. Traditional publishers want to maintain market share. Numerous platforms jostle for supremacy and the writers of code have yet to collaborate effectively with the writers of words, image and sound. True, we have interactive and immersive novels, we have interactive graphic novels, we have games with strong narrative elements, we have textbooks with hyper links and we have note taking facilities within e reader software. However, these pioneering initiatives are still wrenching current identities to fit within traditional book labels. It is time for a multidimensional attitude.
A book can be a book that is simultaneously a book and not a book – the label should not restrict the functionality.
The current e-volution in the publishing world needs to take into account the future. Not the future of technology, but future generations. This is a market that wants interactive e-alternatives. Adults need to listen to children and look at how they access ideas, stories, impressions, facts, thoughts and emotions. And I use the word children deliberately, to put it bluntly, children are the markets of the future. I am talking about the secondary school and university students of the future, not the ones studying at university now. Again I remind you, look at what is happening in primary schools and imagine the content gathering and ideas manipulation expectations today’s children will have tomorrow. Rather than looking to the past (particularly in terms of uptake of e-texts) to see what has succeeded, we need to look at the world our children live in. We need active collaboration between the users of content, the creators of content and those who will build the systems. I look forward to the day teachers, writers, software and hardware developers join forces in a multidimensional space that does not seek to publish within a neatly labelled e-box.
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