Saturday, January 5, 2008

In our grasp - How new technology is about to democratise publishing

Speech to Libros International Christmas Lunch, December 2007 

In our grasp

My name is Philip Spires and I am a Libros International author. It’s about six months since I first held a copy of my book, Mission, in my grasp. Mission was a project I had lived with, on and off, for twenty years. I wrote the book in the 1980s and forgot about it until November 2006. I retrieved it, decided to finish it and then there was Libros International. 

So, in my grasp, there was the book. It was a strange feeling. It felt like it had a life of its own, as if it had nothing to do with me any more. I am proud of Mission. It’s not autobiographical, but many of the events in the book did happen. But, of course, I re-ordered them, changed them, made them fit the overall idea that I decided would underpin the book. I would not be so crass, so clichéd, as to say that it is “based on real events”, but I would claim that Mission contains a lot that derives from my personal experience. The book is my way of communicating that experience, hopefully in a way that goes beyond merely listing a series of events. 

There’s meaning there, somewhere – at least I hope there is. Writing, obviously, is a form of communication. Creative writing is personal communication. It offers a particular, yes, a personal view of existence. When we write, we claim that we are special, that we have something special to say. There would be no point in doing it, otherwise. So what might I be able to communicate? What is so special about me that might motivate others to read about the experiences I relate? Who is this “Philip Spires”, resplendent on the cover of the book? 

Well, I was born in 1952, so that makes me 55 years old. I was brought up in what was then a mining village in the West Riding of Yorkshire. The home we lived in had no garden. You walked directly from the front room onto a main road. We spread cinders from the fire across the back yard to fill out the puddles. My mother had to go out and lift up the washing line with a prop to let the coal wagon through. We had an outside toilet with torn up newspaper on a nail. We had no bathroom, and running water only in the kitchen sink. Baths were taken once a week in a galvanised tub set in front of the kitchen fire. The cellar used to flood and I spent many hours sailing the tin bath in that subterranean sea. Tell ‘em that you lived in a shoe box in the middle of the road and do they believe you? No. But it turned out that I was quite good at school.

I was accelerated. I did my eleven plus at nine and went to Normanton Grammar School. From there I won a scholarship to Imperial College in London where I studied Chemical Engineering. Yes, I am a mathematician and a physicist. End of conversation… But I didn’t want to design oil refineries, so I trained as a teacher. I have always been conscious that I am a product of the 1944 Education Act. Had that legislation not sought to widen access to education then I would probably have become an electrician like my father or gone down the pit like my grandfather. For me the 1944 Education Act changed everything. 

So I went to university. I was always conscious of this opportunity that had never been available to previous generations of my family. That’s why I decided to teach. I wanted to help other poor people to empower themselves, as I thought I had done. And then I went to Kenya. I did two years as a volunteer in a self-help secondary school in Kitui District, eastern Kenya. I became a head teacher after just three months and so, as a 22 year old, I found myself running a school with 180 students, 120 of which were full-time boarders. I had six full-time teaching staff and five ancillary staff. I had to construct a science lab, library, kitchen, dining room, two teacher’s houses and a large concrete water tank. I did all the school accounts, extracted fees from the students, paid the staff, handled governors’ and parents’ meetings in Swahili etc. It was quite an experience. Things that happened in those two years formed the basis of Mission and, indeed, A Fool’s Knot, my next book awaiting publication by Libros International. 

It’s thirty years since I wrote A Fool’s Knot, incidentally, though I revised it this year having retrieved my original hand-written manuscript after 15 years of separation. Ten years ago I threw away the two copies of the book that I had typed. At the time I needed to offload luggage. And now it will be published.

After Kenya, I went back to London where I met Caroline. We married and lived and worked in London for 16 years. I taught in schools and colleges and was involved in some very interesting spare time projects. Then, in 1992 we upped and went to Brunei in South-East Asia. We lived there for six and a half years and then moved to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates for three years. 

Then we gravitated here to Spain, and have been here for five years. I have taught mathematics and information technology throughout, but I have also studied. I have a Master’s degree in education and a PhD in social sciences, specialising in the psychological aspects of economic change. 

So here I am, a maths teacher who does computers, grounded in educational theory and a specialist in how economic change impacts the individual’s identity, beliefs and culture. Perhaps I am unique, but then we all are, because we are all individuals and have an individual and thus individualised experience. A pause here to say thank you and for being patient while I talked about “me”. But what’s the point? How does this come together? 

Well let’s start with the 1944 Education Act. And let’s remember that it’s only 150 years or so since economically developed countries actively tried to widen access to education. Prior to that it was a controlled, utterly exclusive path, open to only a miniscule fraction of the population. It is still true that 95% of all scientists who have ever lived are alive today. This statistic is a direct consequence of a deliberate global widening of access to education in the last century, which itself has led to an amazing flowering of knowledge and discovery. 

Human population and life expectancy have soared. In Brunei, for instance, life expectancy rose from 40 to 80 years in one generation. Yes, “progress” results in environmental pressures, social tensions, conflict, perhaps, but personally I would not want to return to a life expectancy of 40, and neither would I volunteer to forego the technology that so enhances the quality of my life. Our ingenuity got us here. It will take us somewhere else as well. 

But if that ingenuity is not literally “schooled”, not presented with opportunity to develop and express itself, then it will be wasted, never realised. So it is my assertion that all of this human transformation, most of which is positive, came about primarily as a result of wider access to education. I am also a social scientist. If physical sciences observe natural phenomena with a view to categorising them and extracting patterns of predictability and behaviour, then social sciences do the same with groups of people. It’s harder to categorise in the social sciences because the targets keep moving. Societies tend to change before they have defined themselves, certainly before they have succumbed to description, let alone analysis. 

The mechanisms of the physical world are relatively constant, if stubbornly hard to reveal, whereas those of the human world are a seething pot of bubbles. There’s an approach to social sciences called phenomenology. What it uses for data is individual experience. I’ve done a bit myself. It takes many hours of work to conduct interviews, transcribe them, analyse them and then reflect upon the content. When, as a researcher, you try to contrast the phenomenological data provided by people here and now with that of the past, you quickly realise that there really isn’t anything to work with. 

If access to education only increased a hundred or so years ago, access to the means of recording individual human existence really has never widened. It remains restricted, access to it controlled in the way that education used to be the privilege of the few. If you want to communicate your own personal and particular experience, you write something. Speech is both free and common, but it’s ethereal: once spoken it’s gone for ever. Until the end of the twentieth century, individuals who wanted to record experience first had to secure access to education to learn literacy. They then had to have enough time off from securing the necessities of life to write. 

And finally they would be presented with the highly unlikely task of finding a publisher, someone who was willing to invest money in the production of a record of that highly personal experience. Interesting it may be. Marketable it generally was not. In addition, the publisher doing the paying usually demanded the call of the writer’s tune, so the individual part of that individual experience was generally dropped as the publisher inserted his own requirements. 

But where are we now? New technology means that we can produce books with little investment. The print-on-demand technique currently produces relatively expensive books, but that will soon change. Electronic self-publishing can be free. The blogosphere is something entirely new. And, as a consequence, for the first time in human history, the voices of ordinary people, living ordinary lives, having ordinary experiences can be heard. The word ordinary, by the way, is illusory. What we really should say is “particular”, “individual”, “different”, or “interesting”. 

Currently there is no phenomenological human history. It does not exist. We are witnessing its birth. Imagine a hundred years from now being able to say that 95% of all the authors who have ever lived are currently alive – and all because of changes in technology at the end of the twentieth century, allied with the initiative of a few visionaries at the time who saw the potential. So thank you to all five of the founding partners of Libros International, the author’s publisher, for being prime movers in a revolution, a revolution to make the voice of the ordinary, the particular, the unique individual heard. Thanks to you, it’s now in our grasp.

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