Photo: Mauro Risch

Photo: Mauro Risch

My first SIF project predates my appointment as a Student Innovation Fellow by several weeks. Now that’s innovative!

I was brought onto a project of the School of Public Health to generate an ebook based on the School’s research into the effects of Tobacco use on public health. My own exposure to this project predates even further: I attended a talk at the College of Law (where I am student) last year, shortly after the School of Public Health received a $19 million grant to pursue this research, the largest grant in GSU history. My interest in public health fits within my general interest in public interest legal work. It is a great honor for me to be a part of this project.

Initially, I began a broad inquiry into ebooks, truly untamed jungle of formats, features, and (in)compatibilities. An ebook is perforce defined by its method of reading. Thus, speaking most broadly, if a text is read on an electronic device, it is an ebook.

Marie Lebert of the University of Toronto wrote a “Short History of eBooks” in 2009, “based on 100 interviews conducted worldwide and thousands of hours of web surfing during ten years.” It begins with Project Gutenberg, the first digital library of texts, initiated in 1917: long before “e” meant “electronic”. The Government Printing Office offers a (much shorter) article focused on the state of things at present: “The History of eBooks from 1930’s “Readies” to Today’s GPO eBook Services.”

A familiar comparison is: the ebook vs. the book. This contrast is premised mainly on the long and rich history of books. Any new form of the book must measure itself against that, just as any innovative technology will be judged not merely on the “new” in innovation, but also on its superior qualities with respect to the old. Another way to put this: if a purported innovation isn’t better than what already exists, then in what sense is it an innovation?

The famous essay by Isaac Asimov, “The Ancient and the Ultimate” (1973) lays out this challenge quite effectively. (The link is to an essay about the essay… you can find Asimov’s essay in several of his collections, including “Asimov on Science” and also here on JSTOR.) Asimov’s clever inquiry isn’t designed to question technology, but mainly to illuminate just how technologically perfect a book is.

Seemingly the promised ebook revolution (throw away those bulky, dusty, paper-cut-inducing books and get whizbang-modern!) arrived when… sellable products arrived. I.e., the revolution will be marketed to you. The ubiquity of ebooks owes everything to Amazon (who makes Kindle) and Apple (who makes the iPad). Even though electronic book formats have existed for  as long as the internet, suddenly the “We Have EBooks” moment had arrived. This is, I suppose, little different than the original print revolution. Books had been around for centuries, but it was only when the technology for delivery appeared in the form of the printing press that the book became a power in itself.

The product-based nature of the current ebook revolution makes a cynical person wonder that the original revolution of printing, which freed ideas from the exclusive control of a few, creating to opportunity for an explosion in learning and information transmission, isn’t being co-opted by the media controllers? Is knowledge freed, or merely the purse strings of the masses?

The truth is, myriad ebook formats are free and the tools for their creation open source. And too, many writers and activists fight for more open copyright standards and more free means of distributing texts.

The desire to make an ebook with the widest possible distribution figured significantly into my work on the School of Public Health ebook… more on that in the next entry.