Discover Magazine: What Remains to Be Written?  12/28/05 - Article by Discover Editors

In the 25th Anniversary issue of Discover (Oct. 2005) there's a neat article in the reviews section asking scientists whether there are any science books that remain to be written, and what uncharted territory they (the scientists) would cover in the book.

Vera Rubin, astronomer and Senior Fellow in the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie institution of Washington had this to say, and I love it:

I would like to see a multilevel book, written for toddlers, schoolchildren, college students, and adults, that would look at the world around us and answer questions that youngsters may or may not ask as a day progresses. ... Each page off a tall book might have four sections, top to bottom, with the first answer being for the child, the second answer for those a little older, the third a "scientific explanation," and the final one a philosophical discussion of pertinent concepts like forces or brains or animals. Alternatively, there could be four pages per question, each page hidden behind the first...."

I read this just as I was hitting the midpoint of Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age (more on that soon), and the convergence was frustrating. Exhilirating, too, but 'frustrating' because this multilinearity would be so easy to do, so valuable, and yet it really isn't done. For lack of a better term, I'm going to call it 'tiered engagement' and attempt a definition.

Tiered Engagement

Tiered Engagement means that the reader receives different material based on both their own experience of the text and on their interest. Tiered engagment is one model for tailoring a text to the reader while maintaining focus and progress around a central narrative.

(I just included this material in the last entry via alias, but I think it deserves its own entry, so here it is. Viva transclusion!)

The lexia that the software presents depend on the reader's experience of the text and outside the text. An older reader who comes to a passage about being lost in a wood may read about how the protagonist finds their way again by looking over a topographic map, learning how to read it and comparing it to the landscape around them. A younger reader who is not ready for details about reading topographic maps may merely read that the character lost their way but then remembered their map and learned to read it. The software can present 'tiers' of engagement to the reader-- tiers of complexity (map skills or not) or tiers of involvement with topics (cartography, navigation). The story changes by the reader's experience outside the text.

The software can also change the story depending on the reader's experience within the text. For instance, if earlier in the story the reader had played a mini-game where a map was available and could help the character, the player's use of the map indicates to the software whether the reader is ready for that side-story. Similarly, if the reader had already done a topographic map side-story within the text, the software would know not to include it in the current story. Thus the software could 'know' of the reader's interest either through previous choices and readings or through direct feedback like a quiz, survey, or interactive feature which depends in part on external skills.

The software may also tailor the story to the reader's express interest. The following events can indicate interest either as curiosity to hear more or as difficulty understanding-- both are 'interest' of a sort useful to educators for teach and to storytellers for engaging.

  • clicking on a link
  • reading a lexia for a long time
  • revisiting a lexia multiple times
  • choosing links which cause a lexia to be presented multiple times
  • repeated link choices within a category or type of link

The software can present lexia which relate to topics, characters, themes, or events which the reader has expressed interest in. It is important with a central narrative and with educational material to 'stay on target' so that the author or teacher can a) ensure that the desired material is addressed (including material as desirable as a 'goal' and 'conclusion') and b) to provide a baseline commonality between experiences of the story to allow discussion and comparison. Tiered engagement allows the reader to 'zoom in' on parts of a story while still continuing along the story which the authors wrote and the other readers are reading.

Print Challenges for Tiered Engagement

It wouldn't be difficult to do in a book, though Rubin's struggle in her single-paragraph answer to suggest the best interface for the design foreshadows marketing problems for such a book. Shooting from the hip, I don't think that very many books get written or marketed at the outset for the entire age spectrum... and books that do get recognized for their multi-generational appeal do so as time passes.

I think the multi-generational problem would be especially pertinent for a print book. You could certainly write a book so that it would appeal both to parents and to their children and to help parents teach their children, but a lot of the value for such a work would come in allowing rereadings as children age and are able to revisit material in a deeper sense later. The 'spiral' metaphor is big in some pedagogical circles, recommending that repeated re-engagement with topics at progressively deeper levels is an excellent way to build understanding as well as factual knowledge. A print book, though, is static. The theories of today are likely to be out of date in the ten years it will take a child to grow into the third or fourth level of Rubin's book. At the very least, better articulations will have come along.

Hypertextual Advantages for a Tiered Textbook

The challenges for such a work in print are advantages in the dynamic world of hypertext. For one thing, Rubin is suggesting one sort of hypertextual structure already-- a multilinear narrative with topical and age-related threads. One of the benefits of such a structure is that a reader who doesn't fit easily into one of those categories --because their interest transcends the topic or they can read past their age or both-- can turn a corner in their reading and read in a sensible direction that the author nevertheless didn't specifically write in.

Where is it?

Why don't we see this sort of thing out there... or where should I look? The back of the Historical Atlas of New York City has a quote lauding it as the closest thing to a CD-ROM you can get on paper, so perhaps there are a bunch of well-done CD-ROMs out there.

I'd like to think that I'm just not seeing works incorporating tiered engagement (and that I'll shortly get emails recommending a few). But I don't see them right now. Most works channel you through the reading they want, or are completely open (rather than being intelligently tiered). And works that are at least 'promiscuously linked' in an informative way (like Wikipedia) nevertheless assume a generic engagement level or duck the issue entirely and leave it up to the reader.


Anonymous. "What Remains to Be Written?" Discover Magazine Vol. 26 No. 10 (October 2005). http://www.discover.com/issues/oct-05/departments/reviews/