cardboardOn Publishers Weekly, Peter Brantley spends some time talking about the current mobile obsession with photography, and wondering where that and virtual reality might lead digital media. It’s an interesting article. Though it seems to have some things in common with all the publishers who are trying to innovate “the future of e-books” despite no evidence anyone actually wants that particular future,  there’s just enough of a difference to bear consideration.

Brantley discusses the way that many of the most popular mobile applications are all about creating and sharing images. “Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, mobile Facebook, as well as legacy apps such as Flickr, drive huge amounts of traffic on mobile devices.” He could also have mentioned Foursquare/Swarm and Yelp, which are primarily location-check-in apps, but they both also have photo-sharing components. (I photograph and Swarm-share most meals I eat out these days, myself.)

He notes that mobile photography is so quick and easy, we often use it as a short-cut for note-taking, simply snapping a shot of something that we might otherwise have jotted down on a memo pad or other spare scrap of paper. Who hasn’t, especially when pressed for time, simply taken a photo of something they want to remember? And sometimes those photos get shared.

So, all right, we take a lot of pictures. But, Brantley notes, so far there hasn’t been a whole lot done with that in the publishing world. He does point to a novel that used Instagram, however, and the New York Times’s recent experiment sending out Google Cardboard headsets so it could post a story in VR.

“Experiencing VR for the first time isn’t just cool, it’s revelatory,” Marcus Wohlsen observed in a Wired story. “If you’re a kid… there’s a good chance you’ve grown up assuming that portable touchscreen portals to a significant portion of human knowledge, entertainment, and communication are a given. Yes, you think your dad’s iPhone is pretty cool. But then yesterday, you put on Google Cardboard and watched a train come hurtling toward you before you flew up into the sky and into the embrace of a giant baby. And you said, ‘Yeah, now we’re talking.’ ”

Brantley wonders if this could lead to a revolution in the way textbooks are published and stories are told, and whether today’s publishers will take part in it.

Here I go, putting on my speculation hat. I’m going to say yes and no.

Yes, it will probably lead to a revolution in teaching, reporting, and storytelling. If not right away, a few years down the road once the tools have matured a little, they’ll probably be in more common use. Just look at how far computers’ use in education has come in the decades since a generation of kids stared at a green CRT screen and tried desperately not to die of dysentery. There’s no reason that mobile photography or VR applications couldn’t be a part of the future of that computer media revolution. And given how big the publishing mega-conglomerates are today, and how many different media they work in, there’s no reason some of them might not poke their fingers into those pies, too.

But no, any media created with these new techniques will almost certainly not be considered textbooks. Or regular books, for that matter. They’ll be their own thing. Educational VR simulations. Applications. Games. Whatever you want to call them, I can pretty much guarantee they won’t be called “books” in any sense of the word. We don’t call educational computer games “textbooks” today, do we? We didn’t call The Oregon Trail a “textbook” in the 1980s.

Just because something teaches doesn’t mean it’s a “textbook.” Just because it reports the news doesn’t mean it’s a “newspaper” or “magazine.” And just because it tells stories doesn’t mean it’s a “book.”

I don’t know why this seems to be so hard for people to understand. It’s as if e-books being digital and various other media being digital too causes them to think that those other media are automatically also e-books. They’re not. That doesn’t mean that they’re bad, or that they won’t be useful. It just means they’re not books. And the more energy people spend on trying to pretend they are books, the less they’ll have to make them be better at whatever it is they really are.

(Thanks to Nate Hoffelder of The Digital Reader for calling my attention to this story.)

On a related note, Mattel’s plastic Viewmaster VR implementation of Google Cardboard for iOS and Android is just $20 at Amazon right now. That’s barely more than one of the cardboard versions costs.


  1. It’s hard to understand because sometime in the last century and a half we’ve come to equate education with school — which has come to be seen as some sort of temple where teachers-as-gods magnanimously hand down predigested knowledge we couldn’t possibly get any other way. It’s all bunk, of course, but institutions always turn into their own purpose with time, and people hardly ever bother to re-evaluate their utility. As for new things that come along? Look how many sci-fi authors or futurists predicted the smartphone and its social consequences. Or for that matter *Facebook*.

    To most people, computers (and everything else new) are just these magical means to keep doing the same old things the same way as before, only moreso. Look how hard online newspapers have been trying to emulate paper. Heck, look at *DRM*. It’s hardly a surprise that when you say the word education, people automatically think of textbooks, except with electricity, because it’s the future! Imagination? What’s that?

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