29 March 2012

Lessons in interactivity

PhD. Being wrong. Interactive media's long history. Lessons learned.

One of the cornerstones of my PhD work was that interactive media fiction would evolve out of ebooks, which in turn would be a straightforward transposition of the print book medium into digital space.

Of course I wasn’t blind to the sheer wealth of interactive media works that had grown over the years, but this was ten years ago, a couple of years after the dot-com crash, and the only immersive interactive media that had been broadly accepted as a mass medium were games.

Websites were a lot simpler and the web less capable as a platform.

Flash was used for a lot of interesting experiments, even the occasional useful app, but it hadn’t yet become the rich programming platform it is today.

Director was the only thing that seemed to offer the capabilities the medium would need, but CD-ROMs were too expensive to manufacture and distribute, and the massive files Director generated were largely unsuitable for internet distribution.

And calling Director ‘temperamental’ was being charitable. It was very powerful and ahead of its time, but all that power came wrapped up in a package that had a tendency to misbehave.

(One of my first paid interactive media jobs was making multimedia CD-ROM catalogues in Director for shipping and insurance companies. It was even less fun than it sounds.)

This belief of mine, that rich interactive ebooks would evolve out of the book as a medium, retaining all of the qualities of a book but growing to include all of the functional, structural, and contextual benefits of the traditional book, felt like a minority opinion at the time. I don’t know if it was the books and papers I was reading or the conferences I went to, but most people I spoke to, read, and listened to, seemed to be of the opinion that interactive media was a revolutionary – not evolutionary – new form that, any day now, would soar like a giant eagle to become a major new medium of expression.

Never mind the dot-com crash or the CD-ROM crash. Those were just trial runs, the technology wasn’t ready to do the medium justice. Some day it would be and then it would be glorious.

To say that I was skeptical would be another understatement.

—Books are familiar, a known medium. People will appreciate, even love, how they can grow and develop in a new, more open, digital context.

Uh, no. I’m now pretty sure I was wrong about that.

Now that interactive ebooks are popping up, they are appearing in a market where interactive media is a mass medium. People buy all sorts of playful apps, regularly visit rich, dynamic, websites, and spend a lot of their money on interactive media. They spend less than they do on coffee, but it adds up.

Not as much as, say, games, but much more than they used to in the bad old days of the post-dot-com, post-CD-ROM hellhole that the medium had sunken to in the early days of the twenty-first century.

Interactive media is a medium in its own right and interactive ebooks are an upstart, a competing invader that is priced higher and produced by amateurs on a more limited – less capable – platform.

Interactive ebooks are competing directly with interactive media and games. They are produced and published by publishing companies that have an often awkward and uncomfortable relationship to technology – often incapable of even putting together a tolerable website.

Interactive ebooks are an unproven upstart with an attitude that is completely unwarranted and unearned.


‘Such a nice dog.’ The old lady scratched the dog behind its ears. It looked tough enough to chew nails for breakfast and mean enough to enjoy it.

Walking up East Street in Bedminster, one of the first things I see is a man wearing jeans, a dirty wife-beater, and a trilby, who is showing off his dog to a couple of old ladies. (Henceforth to be known as the Dog Man.)

He is a lanky man with the scrunched up and pulled-out facial features that so many English suffer from and speaks with an accent that marks him as coming from a long line of Bristolians.

The ladies are a part of Bedminster’s daily procession of retirees. On a good, sunny, day, they slowly make their way up East Street, sit on every bench and talk to anybody a smile and time on their hands, until they make their way to ASDA or whatever store they’re aiming for. Then they make their way back, just in time for dinner.

Most people in publishing today would have pre-dialled ‘999’ and had their finger hovering over ‘Call’ as soon as they spotted the Dog Man, and the women they would have completely ignored.

Needless to say, not one of those three is likely to ever buy an ebook, but there is a good chance that the Dog Man has a smartphone on a contract, with a couple of games and maybe a toy app or two.

Bedminster has an odd reputation. A teenage mom, pushing a pram with one hand and holding a can of Stella in the other wouldn’t look out of place. Nor does a scruffy man in a trilby and a wife-beater, showing off his dog to a couple of old ladies. But, as a neighbourhood, it really grows on you. Maybe it’s because locals treat other locals differently.

I’d rather live in a place where single moms feel free to sit out in the sun with their kids and other moms and drink beer than in a place where they don’t.


The first academic conference I went to was Bob Hughes’s Dust or Magic held in Oxford in, I think, both 2002 and 2003.

Probably due to Bob’s strong political opinions and activism, the conference had a unique mixture of idealists and craftsmen with precious little useless academic twaddle (most of what twaddle was there was supplied by me, I’m afraid).

These people presented a collection of works that were beautiful and immersive. Most of them were ‘just’ toys, true, but many were toys that could spur people into action in ways that non-interactive media can’t.

At the time I was rather resentful of the playful nature of interactive media – an attitude that looks remarkably dense in hindsight – hoping for richer, deeper, and more immersive narrative work.

But, interactive media is playful, more so than any of the more traditional media. That’s the one thing that separates it from the pack and makes it interesting. They don’t have to be games, but they do have to be play. That’s what it does. That’s what it’s for. An interactive media project that isn’t built around play is going to have a hard time getting any attention or traction.

I can even pinpoint the time when I changed my mind on this: when I first read John Dewey. His point: ‘we learn what we do’.

School, under this model (we learn what we do), only teaches us to sit down, shut up, and do whatever an authority figure tells us to do.

Interactive media, under this model, has the potential to deliver deeper learning and deeper meaning than any other medium that preceded it.

One of my favourite John Dewey quotes. Not on action as meaning, but quite relevant nonetheless:

The present is not just something which comes after the past; much less something produced by it. It is what life is in leaving the past behind it. The study of past products will not help us understand the present, because the present is not due to the products, but to the life of which they were the products. A knowledge of the past and its heritage is of great significance when it enters into the present, but not otherwise. (Democracy and Education: an introduction to the philosophy of education – John Dewey)

Neil Postman, another fan of Dewey’s, has this to say about education:

In plain truth, what passes for a curriculum in today’s schools is little else but a strategy of distraction, as it was in Alabama in 1936. It is largely designed to keep students from knowing themselves and their environment in any realistic sense; which is to say, it does not allow inquiry into most of the critical problems that comprise the content of the world outside the school. (Teaching As a Subversive Activity – Neil Postman)

(I only blogged the 2003 conference, and, yes, I was an even bigger arsehole then than I am now. I’m pretty sure Bob had two conferences. I just can’t remember if the 2003 one was the first or the second.)


‘Is it your day off?’ The woman making the pancake was in a good mood, a disposition as sunny as the bright day outside. Her cafe is a nice one. Small, but clearly one that gets regular traffic. And the customers do seem to be of a type, judging by the toys and children’s playthings that fill the cafe.

‘No, not really. I decided to take a break from work to enjoy the sun.’

The pancake is fantastic, sprinkled with dark chocolate. It isn’t slathered with a cheap chocolate that you get in some places, but a nice, just bitter enough, chocolate, in exactly the right amount to provide the pancake with a counterpoint. Unusually, for me, I eat the strawberry as well. I’m not too fond of sweet fruits like strawberries, tomatoes, or grapes, but it does go so well with the chocolate.

I’m pretty sure that this used to be a place that sold italian ice cream, but I don’t remember how long ago that was.


I’ve lived in Bristol for so long that reality has become layered with memory upon memory. It’s filled with places whose roles and purpose have changed and changed and changed. It’s not just ice cream parlours turned cafes, or pubs that change ownership every year.

—Over there used to be a nice comic book store. It was pretty small, but had a really nice selection. My sister used to buy manga there. It’s now a shoe shop.

—That used to be a Waterstones, two storeys. I think I bought my copy of Juhani Pallasma’s The Eyes of the Skin there, but can’t be sure.

—That Blackwells is little more than a stationary store now. It used to be five storeys and have a magnificent selection of books.

Once, me, my mom, and her husband spent hours there, just browsing, finding new books, thoughtful books, probably marking us as life-long pseudo-intellectuals in the process. Most of what used to be the Blackwells store is now a restaurant.

—We had Borders over there. I’m afraid to even think about the amount of money I spent there during the lifetime of the store.

On the day before I graduated with my PhD and my sister with her MA, we spent a large part of the afternoon there with our dad, talking about life, history, philosophy and books. It’s now a Wilkinson, selling household goods.

I remember when Forbidden Planet was in the centre, in one of the buildings that was later demolished to make way for Cabot Circus (which is a fine example of a modern day temple to consumerism).

A tiny new Foyles store, and a dingy looking comics store on Bond Street, don’t make up for all of these losses.

The book is ceasing to be a physical thing to the general public in so many ways.


Another good Dewey quote:

Since growth is the characteristic of life, education is all one with growing; it has no end beyond itself. The criterion of the value of school education is the extent in which it creates a desire for continued growth and supplies means for making the desire effective in fact.

And:

We thus reach a technical definition of education: It is that reconstruction or reorganization of experience which adds to the meaning of experience, and which increases ability to direct the course of subsequent experience.

More from Postman:

What one can study are the meanings readers assign to literary works. What people call ’literature” does not exist on paper. The only thing you will ever find on paper are black marks.

And:

Alfred North Whitehead made the point that taxonomy is the death of science. And, we would add, the memorization of taxonomies is the death of education.


—So, what do you think of iBooks, Kindle, and the like?

One of the benefits of having spent such a long time in academia (there aren’t many, but this is one) is that whenever there is an academic conference in the city you live in, there’s a decent chance you can wrangle a free ticket.

Last Friday I went to the i-docs conference at the Watershed, a hullabaloo on interactive documentaries, webdocs, etc. Basically, it covered all forms of interactive non-fiction.

I generally find conference panels and talks to be boring at best, and infuriating twaddle at worst, and these certainly didn’t rise above the crowd.

There’s nothing a conference talk can deliver that wouldn’t be better served by a good blog post.

Which is probably the reason why the i-docs conference site is full of blog posts, videos, and discussions.

But, I digress.

As always, the true worth of a conference is in the attendees and the true value you get is from discussions and conversations in between the sessions. And judging from what I heard in those conversations, the future of interactive non-fiction won’t have ‘book’ anywhere in its name.

‘Too little. Too late. They completely missed the boat.’

The responses I got to my question on what they thought of ebooks as a platform ranged from a polite disinterest to a complete and unequivocal dismissal.

Instead, the focus was on the web and on apps.

People from Mozilla were in attendance, showing off what Firefox can do. Accessible and rich web development tools were demonstrated.

It’s easy to understand why those two platforms have such a large mindshare among documentarists and interactive media developers.

On the one hand we have the web, a platform that is perfectly aligned with the one true goal of most non-fiction projects: to spur action. Documentarists are often ideologists and activists. The don’t make documentaries to make a living. They want to change the world. The web is natively a community platform, so it directly complements interactive documentaries in ways that an isolated interactive ebook cannot.

On the other hand we have apps, a platform that isn’t as limited as the web and can take advantage of the capabilities of modern hardware and mobile technologies to a much greater extent. It is a platform for experimentation, for new things. And, if your project is interesting and playful enough, it might even generate enough sales to pay for development and bootstrap your next project.

Interactive media is in full bloom. It has capable platforms, a massive audience, and revenue.

Some of that revenue comes from direct sales. Some of it is based on volunteer work and donations. Some rely on indirect revenue, e.g. using interactive media to sell something else; an interactive documentary to sell a DVD documentary and the like. One woman there was making an interactive documentary for a condom manufacturer on how condoms were manufactured.

Most of these people have no interest in interactive ebooks.


Some time last year, I went to a talk by my friend Tom Abba. He was outlining some of the lessons he’d learned from a recent project of his where he mailed a bunch of really gorgeous art prints to a bunch of really smart people, with the hope of drawing them into an involved interactive narrative experience.

It’s hard for me to judge his project accurately, having helped out on several stages and followed it for a longer time than seems possible, but one of the things he said stuck with me. (And it wasn’t the first or last time he said it, either.)

I’m paraphrasing now, but it was something along these lines: The first thing we need to do for interactive narrative to grow is to give up on the name ‘book’.

Like ‘horseless carriage’ it binds us to an outmoded way of thinking. By using another name, we shed our expectations and can more accurately explore the capabilities of the medium.

He may well be right.


Another Dewey quote:

We never educate directly, but indirectly by means of the environment. Whether we permit chance environments to do the work, or whether we design environments for the purpose makes a great difference.

And:

The great advantage of immaturity, educationally speaking, is that it enables us to emancipate the young from the need of dwelling in an outgrown past.


I’m beginning to worry that ebooks won’t have any place in the future of interactive media. Interactive non-fiction will grow to encompass the markets that today are served by print non-fiction and it won’t look anything like a book.

In a way this has already happened. Reference books and cookbooks are being pushed out by reference websites and recipe blogs. In a few years, non-fiction as a genre will be dominated by apps and websites, the exceptions being the fields that legitimately require long-form text to deliver their message properly.

I can’t think what those fields might be, but I’m sure they exist.

One exception might be textbooks and other fields that are bound by archaic institutional requirements.

Publishing is on a crossroads. It’s not just a question of how the form will develop but also who we want as an audience. As books lose their real-world presence, do we really want to just cater to a minority of voracious expert readers? A casual reader is never going to buy a bespoke reading device, but will buy an iPhone or iPad, where ebooks are competing with games, apps, websites, and comics.

Pretending you aren’t competing with other media on price, accessibility, and value, is a surefire way to kill off long-form reading.


Twelve years ago I went to the San Diego Comic-Con gathering interviews for a series of radio documentaries I was making for the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service.

Comic-Con was a different beast in those days, more of a pure comics thing. Beyond a few animation looping in DC’s stall, TV and film had a relatively low-key presence.

Comics have always been an interesting medium. Even when the output of the comics industry wasn’t interesting, its role in society and western culture was.

They used to be everywhere. Even in Iceland, when I was a kid, most bookstores had racks and racks of comics to buy and leaf through. The Icelandic book industry churned out translations of American, French, and Nordic comics every year.

All of these translations are now unavailable and out of print.

Comics sales when I was a kid and teenager had fallen from their once glorious peak, but they were always there, filling your mind with wonders, full of crazy ideas.

As the direct market boomed, catering to the comics connoisseur, comics ceased to have a physical presence in most people’s lives. As a medium it became isolated and insular.

The Comic-Con I went to was the result of that inbred culture. Various instances of the Comic Book Guy were out in full force and pretty much the only one advocating the idea that comics should have the genre wealth and diversity of novels was Gary Groth.

Sales have only gone down since then and the digital transition is the medium’s last chance to break out of their cultural isolation.

The direct market took over because distribution was easier, stock was non-returnable, and both publishers and authors got paid more while the price remained the same.

The temptation to focus on these expert, high volume, readers was clearly irresistible and no thought was given on how to renew that readership in the future.


What to do? What to do? What to do?

First of all, ebooks as they are today suck. They look like arse and lock up the reader’s annotations and highlights as if they belonged to the publisher, not the reader. Their visual design capabilities are non-existent and, judging from how Apple has crippled the WebKit rendering engine in iBooks, those limitations are by design.

Even if it is true that this is about to change with the transition to ePub3 and KF8, and that the transition will take place without a hitch, then it might still be too late. Interactive media talent has already gone elsewhere, to platforms that functionally (as opposed to financially) match their goals. Publishing generally isn’t rich enough to make the financial side lucrative enough to overcome function.

If we assume that the transition is going to be problematic and drawn out, documentation will be sparse and late, developer tools will be more limited than what you get for web and app development, then the picture is even bleaker.

Books aren’t a special little snowflake. They are just a medium among many. Interactive media authors and web developers will go where their creative and practical goals are best served.

You think you know what a book is like, but you don’t know what interactive media is will be like. Any platform that will be limited, restricted, confined by what the industry thinks are the ‘special’ circumstances of the book is a platform that will be unsuited to interactive media.

Thinking that book unit sales will transfer on a one for one basis to ebook sales, possibly with slight changes due to lower prices and easier sampling, is one of the most dangerous assumptions you can make. It’s one that could ruin the industry.

It’s just as likely that, after novels have transitioned to digital, ebook growth will stall because non-fiction in a digital era is a web and app genre, not a book genre.

And you can’t beat the web by being like the web, just worse and more expensive.


Tom Abba has posted a partial response.

Everything on this site is written by . In case you hadn't guessed already.