Children are relatively new on the historical scene, according to those who study changes in perceptions of human beings. For example, historians of ancient Rome can cite what will probably be an astonishing example to make the case. The tombstone of Quintus Artulus, who died at the age of four at the silver mines of Baños de la Encina in Andalusia, depicts the child in a short tunic, barefoot, carrying the tools of his trade, a miner’s axe and basket. Human beings used to be put to work as soon as they were physically able.
This stands in stark contrast to the hyper-protective attitude of many North Americans who justify all sorts of questionable actions by bringing children into the discussion as a trump card. We have to censor books or movies to protect children. We need sexual predator laws because so many people in the United States have seen Chris Hansen lure scores of paedophiles on to the set of his “Dateline” television show, and child labor laws, so that the country never sees another Quintus Artulus. Federal budgets must look like Giacometti sculptures to prevent future children from having debt. The category of the child is practically sacred in some circles.
Into this context comes Stephen Abram, VP of Gale Cengage, one of the speakers at IL2011’s session on “Ebooks & the Future of Publishing, Lending, Learning.” Man of forceful and interesting opinions, Mr. Abram announced that young people (never quite defined during the session, except as non-Boomers) possess “Ferrari engines” for brains and have massive attention spans. (Such massive attention spans might have called for Hummers as the vehicular example.) His rationale rested on video games. Some youngsters make their way through different levels of video games, games that sometimes take 45 days to complete. The conclusion the audience was supposed to draw from Mr. Abram’s unattributed evidence is that all young people have impressive attention spans, far greater than the lifespan of anything on Twitter that might be labeled new. Mr. Abrams uttered bold generational generalizations.
During the Q&A, a person posed a question to Mr. Abram. The questioner was someone working with underprivileged children in the Oakland area, and he noted less than impressive skills in math and English among those children. Mr. Abram’s response bypassed completely the questioner’s challenge. Instead, Mr. Abram wanted to launch a second example to confirm his generalization about children (yes, this was a session on ebooks, but human discourse sometimes takes revealing and entertaining tangents).
Mr. Abram felt obliged to mention the value of first-person shooter games (FPS among the initiated) for young people. The train left the track by that point. Mr. Abram tossed in some comment about how FPS games seem to involve U.S. forces attacking countries on an imaginary wish list, Canada being one of those, according to Mr. Abram. Something about the U.S. wanting Canada’s oil, if I caught the aside by Mr. Abram. I checked CNN for reports of a troop buildup on the Alberta border, but nothing. Mr. Abram ran out of time before closing the book (not an ebook, by the way) on that example, but one could suppose he would have cited data about how FPS games improve hand-eye coordination among the young, or help the young to appreciate more their bodily appendages before possibly losing those in actual battles. There was also talk from Mr. Abram about young people no longer chewing lead paint off their cribs, and that being a contributing factor to their Ferrari-like minds in comparison to Boomers. Mr. Abram had a lot to say in a short time, and my sense is that he enjoys being a provocateur, even when he is not speaking directly to the topic at hand. His assertion-spree was mainly appealing and engaging, but I speak only for myself in that, and not for a generation.
Unfortunately, it looks as if the American Academy of Pediatrics disagrees with Mr. Abram, and is warning parents to keep youngsters away from video screens. There might also be a hole or two in the way Mr. Abram wanted to use the example of crib-chewing infants and lead paint, but back to ebooks for a moment.
The other member of the panel, David Bowers, VP at Oxford University Press, wanted the audience to know that OUP, a non-profit, is paying attention to ebooks, given that OverDrive predicts there will be 16 million downloads of ebooks this year. He called ebooks “the next frontier.” Both Mr. Bowers and Mr. Abram talked about moving toward an ebook world in which an ebook could run on any device, be ADA compliant, and meet idiosyncratic requests of particular instructors. Copyright issues and payments to authors and other contributors remain challenges. Mr. Bowers foresees entrepreneurs rescuing the day. Neither Mr. Bowers or Mr. Abram addressed the matter of universities like Harvard and Princeton starting movements that will keep scholarly content public and at the universities. Some universities and colleges have the resources and the talent to take publishing into their own hands. Harvard and Princeton’s faculties have started down that road. Yet, that apparently would not bother Mr. Abram, who began his talk by refuting the notion, brought up in an earlier session in the same room, that publishers make decisions based on profit considerations. The idea seemed to anger him, and he wanted the audience to know that everyone at his company arrived at work each morning with profit far, far, perhaps even parsecs, from their minds.