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Documentation and Education

Thursday, 1 April, 2010

On this momentous day, a day of childish pranks, fascinating ideas and general tomfoolery, we are presented with two ideas.

Today is release day for the Apple iPad. Your humble narrator tends to think of the thing as Convergence Device 2.0; the iPhone and others in its generation of “smartphones” being CD 1.0. The thing which you carry around with you and communicate with remote persons, read, access and produce information via internet, carry out financial transactions, make audio recordings, photographs and video and send them out into the world, consume same, and eventually accomplish things which shall confound the average person stuck way back in the year 2000. Lest you think the truly average person would not have access to such a tool for quite some time, we are not quite ten years into the era of the phone which can take and transmit photographs and such devices very nearly ubiquitous.

The esteemed Roger Ebert offers typically astute observations on the deliberate controversy brewing in my present United State of residence. It is the most concice analysis of said controversy yet available. Whether textbooks should be re-written to interject totalitarian propaganda within the public schools. The shorthand for which is “teaching the controversy about evolution”, although they no longer wish to limit their distinctive interpretations to science courses. This article was brought to my attention by Mark Evanier who typically writes on matters of entertainment and the history of his home MSA Los Angeles, but adds:

At a time when books can be desktop-published and printed-on-demand, I’m not entirely sure why other states have to use the exact same editions that are used in Texas.

You may be surprised to learn both topics effect my professional life. Your humble narrator deliberately does not speak of his professional life with any regularity because it isn’t very interesting. I prepare and print documents digitally for a large commercial print house. I don’t do any editing, text creation or typing. Indeed most of the work done in my division arrives via internet which we then have to adapt very little and send directly to laser printers. These are not unlike the laser printer you may have in your home, apart from the scale. These machines would not fit in the average garage and reliably produce 150 impressions per minute on up to five varieties of paper. Using skills borrowed from printing traditions which date back to the dawn of sixteenth century we can produce complicated documents and do so in a hurry.

When folks talk about “demand publishing”, that’s what I do. That is, the actual creation of a finished product. Alternatively, we can produce standard, mundane sets of copies on a nearly incomprehensible scale. For example, we produce all of the handouts for all of the schools within a school district for a single semester in a single order. In fact, we often take several orders like this in October and November and again in June and July. This can result in several million impressions and a few tons of paper. The final cost for our printing is far less than each school using its smaller scale resources. This experience leaves me more than a little surprised at how absolutely standardized the schools, at least within a particular district, are today.

An inescapable conclusion drawn from the experience is that paper shall be obsolete some day. Most documents come to us digitally and in a generic, finished form. Most typically in Adobe’s Portable Document Format (PDF) if you’re curious. PDF is pretty much bullet proof, and these documents are readily created by almost every computer someone serious about document creation is likely to use. The only pragmatic reason one would use paper today is the absence of a practical alternative. Much like the historic absence of a practical alternative to pressing vinyl disks, magnetized ribbons or digitally encoded discs then moving those things around for the distribution of music.

I don’t think the iPad is quite the revolutionary device the most enthusiastic observers are making it out to be. I said the same thing about the iPod years ago.

The objective of the vast majority of data publishing, video, audio, text and so forth, is to move the ideas contained within from some human head or collective and eventually get them into another human head. The rest is about having some kind of tangible object for fetishism. We no longer require physical objects to do this with music, news and the abundance of amateur-created information. The remainder of human experience cannot be far behind.

The only elements missing to close the era of scholastic pulp are a ubiquitous device which can read, interact with and allow one to “write on” non-paper documents, and the authoring of these documents for wide distribution outside the current industrial-publisher model. The iPad was released today. Something not unlike it, and at a lower retail price, is the device.

I propose a system of proposal, review and composition of handouts, workbooks and complete textbooks by teachers, administrators and other interested parties, such as the college professors who spend too much time counter programming the products of the schools. This would be in a wiki format. Openly editable, subject to review and fully available to the general public.

Documents would be organized by subject matter, rather than grade. I grew up in a world where 7th Graders were deemed eligible for Algebra for the first time, while 5th Grade is the standard where I live today. I don’t know how many educators would bother with such a project as the only compensation would be seeing your name on a header and knowing it is distributed to thousands of desks around the world. Somehow, I suspect the more serious people, the ones you would want composing textbooks, may do so.

These various documents would then be openly available, free as in both beer and speech, and editable as implication and context problems are invariably encountered. Of course, no reason exists as to why this could not be used in the world of scholastic pulp, but the objective is to eventually transcend mere paper.

Somebody, get on that.

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