The Bologna Children’s Book Fair is one of the most high profile events in the publishing calendar, gathering together some very talented people with a passionate interest in producing great reading experiences for kids.
This year the main festival at Bologna was prefaced by O’Reilly Media’s Tools of Change for Publishing conference and our Creative Director Jos was invited to give a presentation about interactive storytelling.
Jos’ speech seemed to go down particularly well, with Italian journalist Ivan Rachieli describing it as “uno splendido intervento” on the Apogeonline website.
Here is Jos’ speech in full:
I’m Jos Carlyle, Creative Director of Persian Cat Press, and I’m going to talk to day about interactive storytelling, and the changing ways in which today’s and future audiences are receiving information.
At Persian Cat Press we develop and publish story apps. And our mission is very clear.
We want to make sure that reading content for future generations is as carefully created and curated by the publishing industry as it has been in the past.
But why do we want this? And how do we achieve it?
To begin, allow me to tell you a story.
* * *
Once upon a time there was a boy. His name was Benjamin.
Benjamin sat on his mother’s knee and listened to her read him stories of old, faintly aware of her heartbeat, as he leaned back against her chest, pulsing out its sure and steady beat.
As his mother turned the pages, Benjamin concentrated, listening carefully, taking in every word, making sure that nothing was missed – he had heard the story many times before.
Years passed by. Benjamin grew taller, stronger. He ran outside to play in the fields, climbed trees in the woods, lay in the shade and read more stories, new stories, adventure stories for boys.
He watched stories on the television – loved stories on the television.
Sometimes he wrote his own stories too, imagining what would happen in the space between episodes.
At school Benjamin was a lively boy, telling stories to his friends, showing them stories too, on his phone – and later on his iPad, which he loved for all the possibilities it brought him.
At college he excelled. He was confident and bright.
One day he gave a speech to his class. Benjamin’s speech went like this:
Hands up if you own some kind of technological device? Cellphone, computer, iPod, iPad… everybody, right?
We live in a world that revolves around technology. It’s a daily part of our lives. Why then, is it not central to our education? Why is a cellphone still seen as an enemy in a classroom? Shouldn’t we be utilising this technology to our advantage?
Technology is the future of education, not only because it makes learning more enjoyable, but also because it’s more efficient and it’s much more practical.
Technology is a timesaver. Technology is the best way for us to exploit the time we have got and really make the best of our school days.
Stop slowly trickling technology into the classroom one megabyte at a time and just go for it. Make the change.
Technology is just more fun. As a student, I want to engage with my learning, I want to see it come to life in front of me, to move and demonstrate, and generally be a bit more interesting.
Technology can offer us this, and old books printed over a decade ago just can’t. So come on! Move with the times!
His classmates cheered, and Benjamin smiled, feeling like a leader among men.
* * *
Before I go on, let me explain a few things:
Benjamin is fictional. I made him up. But his speech is real. It was taken from an actual speech made by a 16-year-old college student earlier this month.
A bright student, full of potential, making the most of what technology can offer her. This student thinks nothing of moving from one to device to another – iPad, laptop, mobile phone – whilst also processing TV and desktop data, and other media players outputting simultaneously.
We could say that she typifies the ways in which a whole generation want and expect their information to be delivered to them.
That she is thrilled with the cleverness and convenience of it.
We too, as the creators and providers of that information, seem equally thrilled at all these delivery opportunities opening up before us.
All this newness.
New platforms. New audiences. New ways in which to engage. New ways in which to tell our stories.
Multi-sensory possibilities. Massively expanded universes. Increased educational reach. Two-screen, three-screen, four-screen, even five-screen strategies.
These are all current topics that we, here at TOC, and at other digital media collectives around the world are exploring, encouraging and expounding as the future.
It is thrilling, challenging and stimulating. These are great puzzles to apply ourselves to, and to solve.
With interactive storytelling we are actively encouraging brain evolution.
Now, back to Benjamin:
* * *
As he reached the front door there was a buzz in his pocket. Benjamin checked his phone. It was an alert, a reminder about Thomas’ appointment at the doctor’s, to talk again about the sleeping problems.
Inside the house Benjamin took off his coat and headed upstairs, where he knew his son would be waiting for him.
The bedroom was tidy. Thomas was on his bed, playing with the tablet he’d been given for Christmas.
Beside him was a second tablet – a standard school issue – and a little further down the bed the kids’ tablet that he’d favoured before the iPad came along.
Each device was on. Each was playing a different application.
Benjamin smiled, remembering his own youth, when he had often had three books on the go himself.
He sat down on the bed with Thomas and pulled him close.
‘Which story would you like?’
Thomas touched an icon, and together they began to play.
‘Good boy!’ said Benjamin as Thomas tapped in all the right places.
What Benjamin didn’t notice, though – what he couldn’t see – was how the boy’s eyes were jumping from one device to another to another.
* * *
I step away from the story again to point out a few facts.
Never before in human history have our brains had to process as much information as they do today.
It is now scientifically accepted that the strain of processing so much data means we are becoming disconnected from other people.
That we are so busy processing information from all directions we are losing the tendency to think and to feel. That we are sacrificing depth of thought.
Research over the last three years indicates that children and adolescents who spend excessive time using screens are more likely to encounter physical health disadvantages and participate in negative health behaviours.
They are also more likely experience adverse mental and social health issues and behavioural, learning and attentional disorders.
There is a line we cross – when we go from technology nourishment to a kind of distraction — where instead of informing us, technology impedes our productivity.
There is growing evidence that that line is closer than we have imagined or acknowledged.
So are we actively encouraging brain evolution. Or are we actively encouraging a user’s brain to split and fragment?
Back to Thomas.
* * *
Thomas tapped the screen to start the film then slumped back in his chair.
He had heard it was a movie classic – one of the great studies of love.
A man walked into the scene. He wore a hat – a certain kind of hat that Thomas couldn’t remember the name of.
He looked it up quickly on his iPad. An advert for men’s accessories flashed into view –gloves, shoes, more hats.
Thomas had put a bid on eBay for some shoes earlier that day. He flicked to his phone to check the current status. So far, so good. He was still in the lead.
A push notification arrived. An update for a game that Thomas had recently been playing. He downloaded the update, quickly tried out its new level.
He turned back to the film.
The man had been joined by a woman. Thomas recognised her. Hadn’t she been in something else? That other film? He did a quick search. Skimmed over some trivia. It wasn’t the woman he was thinking of. Who then?
He sent a tweet, asking the world.
Then scrolled through his timeline to see the latest tweets of the 5000 people that he followed. One or two of them were funny. Thomas laughed.
The man and the woman in the film were talking.
Thomas had been talking to a girl online. He wondered whether he should send her a message. But he was worried that she would want a conversation.
The sound of a text arriving caused him to turn again to his phone. It was his father, Benjamin.
‘Hi Thomas. What are you up to?’
‘Watching film’, Thomas texted back.
Thomas stared at the movie. The credits had started to roll.
‘Just finished’, he typed.
‘What was it about?’
‘Don’t know’, Thomas replied.
An alert appeared from eBay, obscuring the text message exchange. Thomas checked his account and scowled. He had been outbid.
* * *
It’s a sad ending, I feel.
Just as it would be a sad ending to an invaluable publishing e-ra if we allowed delivery of content to overwhelm the content itself.
This is why we want – and why all of us should want – to make sure that reading content for future generations is as carefully created and curated by the publishing industry as it has been in the past.
I’m not saying that that technology is bad for our children.
I’m not saying that we should slow down progress.
I am saying, that as the content creators for this new e-ra of information delivery, we have a responsibility that goes beyond the commercial bottom line.
As publishers, leading the way forward into this new age, as we all are here at TOC, we are assuming a guardianship position in society.
That is not a privilege that should be taken lightly.
Privilege is a precious thing. Everyone in this room has had the privilege of growing up under the protective wisdom of the traditional publishing umbrella. Content has been carefully and lovingly nurtured and assembled by the hands of hundreds of years of experience and expertise.
It has formed our minds. It has made us literate, curious. It has made us thinkers
It is because of this careful creation and curation that we have developed appreciation. That we have developed respect.
But that is traditional publishing, born of pens and paper, and actual pages whose turning causes a physical breeze to pass across our faces.
What of digital publishing? How do we maintain this careful creation and curation in this new publishing age?
Where do we even begin, in the face of this ceaseless digital media stream?
The answer is that we do it in the writing.
Now, we already know this. We’ve all heard the adage: If you don’t have a good story then you don’t have anything at all.
But why is the answer in the writing, and how do we turn this answer into an actual solution?
Why is the answer in the writing?
Because a writer controls the pace of a story. This is what they do. This is their skill.
When you read a book, whether you fly breathless through the pages, or sink deep into the language of a single paragraph, it is because the writer wishes you to do so.
Pacing, and spacing are two of the most powerful devices that writers employ to control the rate at which the reader absorbs the information being presented to them.
How do we turn this into an actual solution?
This is little trickier.
Yes, it is now more than ever essential that there are devices in place to control the rate at which the reader absorbs the information being presented to them.
Story apps must have built into them the space in which to assimilate and reflect upon the many levels of information being presented. And this must be built into them at the writing stage.
But interactive, non-linear writing is different to traditional, linear storytelling, and not all writers know how to do it.
So what we need to do, as the new creators and curators of publishing, is to support writers as they learn how to apply their storytelling skills interactively across these new reading platforms.
At Persian Cat Press we actively train writers in the art of interactive scriptwriting, and have worked hard to utilise the skills and devices of storytelling in order to bring control of pace into our apps.
Whether we have fully achieved that just yet, I’m not sure. But we have certainly gone a long way towards it.
We took a great risk with our first story app The Gift, creating an experience that had such a gentle and reflective atmosphere that we fully expected some frustration over its measured pacing. Instead the warmth of the reception The Gift has received has genuinely moved us.
It almost seems to elicit a sense of relief in the people who see it, perhaps accompanied by a realisation that not everything needs to happen at a million miles an hour.
To quote one reviewer: ‘I wanted to turn the pages more quickly than the app would allow, but maybe that’s a sign that I need to slow down.’
This is, of course, something that we wish to continue to engender – a healthiness that we wish to nurture.
At Persian Cat Press we feel the best way to do that is for us, the new creators and curators of publishing, to work together with the old creators and curators of publishing – although in reality there is no old and new publishing, there is just one industry, bringing all of its wisdom, its writers, its understanding of storytelling, its knowledge of interactive platforms, its advantages of technological reach … together.
There are already some great examples of larger traditional publishers and smaller digital outfits coming together around existing content or new ideas.
I put it to you, however, that for a long-term healthy industry, the focus needs to be on the writer.
Jos Carlyle, Persian Cat Press, Bologna Tools of Change for Publishing conference, March 2012