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Posted by Tom Wilson for Elena Maceviciute

April 26 at 15:00 Tom and I went to take part in the Science festival in Gothenburg, an annual event for science popularisation organized by the City Council of Gothenburg, academic communities and other actors united under the aegis of the International Science Festival Gothenburg.

We participated in the “Science roulette”. For those who have not been to Gothenburg it may be interesting to learn that Liseberg, one of the biggest entertainment parks in Scandinavia, is situated there. It has an impressive ferris wheel, that was used for the Science roulette. During the event, the cabins of the wheel are occupied by one or two scientists. The public queues to get inside the cabins, but they cannot choose who they will meet inside – hence, for them, it’s a gamble, since the topic of conversation while the wheel is turning twice (approximately 15-25 minutes) can be anything!
This year 43 researchers and science enthusiasts focused on topics in physics and history, astronomy and linguistics, biotechnology and cultural heritage, engineering and philosophy, mathematics and magic, nano-science and medicine, biology and culture. Apart from people from Gothenburg universities and other academic institutions we met an amateur astronomer and a magician. Both were enthusiastic about their subjects and wished to attract attention of everyone who listened. In general, that was a gathering of enthusiasts, including us. The topic of e-books was so interesting to others that we found ourselves talking about it to at least two or three colleagues – occasional entertainers as ourselves before the event started.

It is quite interesting to find oneself among those 98% of people who do not read e-books. Just some days before I have expressed a wish to spend some time in this environment as my nearest colleagues and friends one or another way are knowledgeable and involved in e-book usage. For someone whose everyday life focuses on e-books it seems quite incredible that only some 2% of Swedish readers also read e-books (unpublished SOM data) or that on an average day only 0.5% of the Swedish population read them (Nordicom).

But there we were – meeting those who do not read e-books. This is no crime or any sign of ignorance, just the reality as it is at the moment. E-books only start to spread and there is no guarantee that they will have any great success despite rapidly growing production and usage percentages. When something starts from nothing it is bound to show an impressive growth. Even at present when e-book technology and equipment become much more usable and affordable, it is relatively expensive. Thus, it is absolutely natural that only very few are using these technologies, while most of the others find other things to do with their money and time than starting to acquire new gadgets and skills.

Nevertheless, among those that we have met there was not a person who did not know what an e-book is and what technical equipment can be used for it. Several owned an iPad or used it regularly (but not a dedicated e-reader). I include in this number also a little two-year old girl soundly sleeping, while we talked with her mother who told that her little daughter uses iPad quite skilfully. There was a group of students using a digital course book in one of their undergraduate courses and a woman of an elegant age who new in detail the situation of e-books in Swedish public libraries: how you can download them, that they disappear in 28 days and a reader does not have to return them or pay fines ever, that libraries pay to the publishers 20 crowns for each loan, etc. Though she has not used them herself, her daughter recommended it as the best way to get reading matter.

As one can expect in these events, the public was quite curious about the scientific and technological advances and their knowledge of them most probably was much higher than on the average among the population.
The experience was very interesting from the point of view of the necessity to adapt our presentation when talking to each new group. But there were two highly successful elements in our conversations.

Everyone admired the demonstration of the e-book by Edward O. Wilson “The Life on Earth” that comes together with an iPad. It was created to demonstrate the capabilities of an e-book and includes all possible elements: embedded video, animation, picture galleries, highlighting and noting capacities, self-evaluation tests, embedded images changing perspectives and size and what not. Everyone was exclaiming with delight and admiring these features, immediately assessing their usefulness for education or entertainment. Even my attempts to dampen their enthusiasm by pointing out how expensive is the production of such books and subsequently how high their price will be on the market, did not make any impact on the overall impression.

Another highlight was the e-book demonstrated by Tom. It is produced by himself as a publisher from the very beginning. I will not go into the details of how the idea was born, but start with the end result. The e-book was in the proofreading stage, which means that it can be demonstrated as a whole product. It is created from scratch using iBook Author software. Though it does not have all fancy features of the “Life on Earth” (as it does not need them), but it is a solid looking serious book of 250 pages, with eight chapters, figures, reference lists, and even some art. It also has an ISBN as any respectable book should have. The fact that it was created by a gray-haired gentleman who demonstrated it as his first work of this kind, was most probably as remarkable for the public as the item itself. It cut through all these myths and stereotyping of older people as incapable of mastering modern technology. Here in this cabin, two people of a certain age were sitting demonstrating the front edge technology that none of these young guys were even aware off.

I cannot be sure how much the people leaving our gondola were impressed or affected by our conversation. The main message we wanted to convey was about our own interest in the changing world of the books, how the new technologies are met and appropriated by it, what forces are inhibiting their spread; also questioning the value of the change for different participants willy-nilly caught up or freely involved in it. I hoped that our entertaining discussions have sown a seed of understanding of this wonderful part of life.

What I can say with much more certainty is our own thoughts and feelings after the event. We were quite tired after going round on the ferris wheel for an hour and a half constantly conversing with the three changing groups of people. I felt very grateful that Tom was by my side (originally, I had to be there alone) and shared the job.

But we also felt inspired by the interest that our short-time co-travellers showed to our topic, their fascination and understanding of its complexity. Consciously or not, but they were picking up the issues that are relevant to our project. One of the students seeing the technological aid of marking the text and conversing with his supervisor about the commented issues directly, somewhat disappointedly pointed out that he doubts if the teaching staff has enough time to engage in these interactions. The young mum speculated that the lack of e-books for young children might be explained by parents preference for physical books that they can explore together with their kids. The older lady pointed out that the conditions of e-book lending through libraries are not fair and limit the access to them for library readers.

Thus, the members of the public have put the social and human condition ahead of technological wonders. But none of them disputed the value of e-books, and to my great surprise none had a strong opinion on what will be the future of a book. Though they might have been affected by the fact that we were researching e-books and tried to avoid a possible conflict that a strong expression of an opinion might lead to. Sweden is famous for avoiding conflicts of all sorts.  And that is one of the reasons I like this country for – being positive gives everyone a high-degree of satisfaction and confidence. That we have felt to a high degree after leaving the entertainment park Liseberg.

[Photos by Tom]