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Rise of the cyberbooks

Don’t look now, but here come the cyberbooks.

No, cyberbooks aren’t the villains in an episode of Dr. Who, but it’s true their arrival may well signal a kind of revolution–and the first shot in that revolution has already been fired in (where else?) Japan, in the form of a new high-tech gadget called the Data Discman.

The Data Discman is 10 centimetres by 17 centimetres, weighs only half a kilogram, features a keyboard and a pop-up liquid crystal display, and plays eight-centimeter compact disks. But you won’t hear a note of music from it, because what these disks play is information–LOTS of information; about 100,000 pages of text each.

Sony is manufacturing Data Discmans (Or should that be Data Discmen?) at the rate of 20,000 per month, and selling them in Japan at a list price of $450 U.S. each. In the first nine months it sold more than 70,000, and more than 200,000 disks to go with them. It now offers 25 titles on disk, including a multilingual dictionary and a home medical reference.

The Data Discman may be available in North America before the end of the year–and some people believe that may mark the beginning of the end of that archaic contraption known as the printed book.

Books are wonderful data-storage devices: easily transportable, durable, aesthetically pleasing, and containing a lot of information in a relatively small amount of space. Unfortunately, they’re also hard to organize in large numbers, time-consuming to search through for a particular bit of information, and are directly responsible for the destruction of millions of trees.

Enter the cyberbook–an electronic device that is better than paper books at all the things paper books are good at and has none of their drawbacks.

The key to the cyberbook is CD-ROM, which stands for Compact-Disk, Read-Only-Memory. I mentioned that the eight-centimeter disks used in the Data Discman can contain up to 100,000 pages of text; a standard 11-centimetre disk can contain up to 250,000 pages, and new developments are continuing to increase the amount of data that can be crammed onto that rainbow-hued surface.

What this means is that for the first time you can carry the reference section of a library, or the complete works of William Shakespeare, or any other collection of valuable data around with you, and access it quickly.

But that’s only the beginning, because the real breakthrough isn’t the reduction of storage space required for information, it’s the leap into complete interactivity computer technology provides. Suddenly, instead of being bound to the linear thinking of one writer, as you are in a conventional book, you are free to explore a world of information, following your own curiosity from topic to topic, with the information always there waiting for you–and in the true cyberbook, that information isn’t just presented as text, it also includes photographs, music, video, computer animation, and whatever else is available on the subject.

A good example is an already existing cyberbook called Palenque, developed by Intel Princeton Operation and Bank Street College of Education. This cyberbook draws on a database of images, sound, text and graphics to let students visit an ancient Mayan site. They can explore any portion of the site based on their own interest, moving from place to place as though through the rooms of a museum, summoning up movies, audio, still pictures and text about the rain forest, the Mayan people and their artifacts.

Each student, returning from this “trip,” will have garnered different information, based on his or her own interests–and that’s the whole idea. In a cyberbook, what drives the “reader” from point to point isn’t the linear writing of the author, but his or her own curiousity, the innate curiousity we all have as children but some of us seem to lose as we grow older.

David Boulton, founder of Learning Insights in San Jose, Calif., feels that these new technologies furnish an element of play that has been missing from most conventional education techniques, and that this element of play increases student motivation and decreases the intimidation some students feel in the face of current techniques.

“By encouraging learners to declare, at virtually any time or place, their uncertainty or curiosity impulses, and by subsequently providing the tools and resources that help them clarify and resolve such impulses, the environment transforms obstacles during learning into opportunities,” Boulton writes.

In other words, if you come to something that either especially interests you or you don’t understand, the cyberbook lets you pursue it, and make it fun to do so. And as cyberbooks grow in sophistication and are linked (through the same technology that makes cellular phones possible) to centralized databases that are far larger than even CD-ROM technology can supply, how far you can pursue your own interests could be very far indeed.

When I was in Grade 4, my teacher wrote on my report card that I did very well in subjects that I enjoyed, and less well in those I didn’t. Even at the age of eight, this didn’t strike me as a particularly profound insight. Of course I learned more when I enjoyed a subject! Who doesn’t?

The promise of cyberbooks, of on-line, interactive learning, is to add that element of fun; to bring the intense concentration children can summon for a Nintendo Game Boy, for instance, to bear on their education. (It’s no coincidence that Nintendo is funding research into this field.)

As the technology of cyberbooks and the premise that education can be fun come together, literary agent Richard Curtis writes, then maybe at last there will come a day when the following conversation won’t just be science fiction:

“Go read.”

“Sure, Mom!”

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