Turns out ‘reading’ is the secret sauce for innovation - Cogent

Turns out ‘reading’ is the secret sauce for innovation

Matt Shanks

Matt Shanks

Principal Product Designer & Author/Illustrator for children. I'm out to improve the quality of life for everyone who uses the things that I make.

My working life has been about Virtual, Mixed and Augmented reality experiences. I’ve learned about how people are beginning to use and perceive this new technology — their assumptions, their wants, needs and fears. It’s been mind-bending stuff. But at the same time, by night and and on weekends, I’ve been creating art in the physical medium of watercolour and pencil for children’s books. I use elemental forces like gravity, water and time, essentially the opposite of my day job. VR during the day, picture books at night. Weird hey? I think so too. And I also think that because of this, I’ve got a pretty unique story to tell you about how this ‘old’ technology of books and this new technology of VR/AR desperately need each other in so many ways. I also think that our governments, teachers, parents and kids don’t know it yet.

That innovation thing

I don’t want to spend too long on this but it’s a buzz word that needs clarification. Our governments talk about how their focus is on innovation. They want Australia to lead the way in it. After all, we did invent the dual-flush toilet and wifi right? Just imagine what’s next?! (P.S a wifi-enabled dual flush toilet, obviously).

But see, Innovation, or “making changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products” needs a couple of key things. One is a deep empathy and understanding for how we’re currently living our lives. The other? Critical and creative thinking to solve problems in new ways. And, because of these 2 things, we’ve got a conundrum on our hands people.

The ‘features’ of books

Meet Walter Bromley. He’s one of my characters. Read his story.
Meet Walter Bromley. He’s one of my characters.

Enter, the good ol’ book. That thing that, a few years ago, people were sure we’d see the end of. See, books might not be as lightweight as e-readers, they might not be internet-connected, Twitter-enabled, easily-shareable or even impervious to water and heat but they serve a critical function that I think we’re beginning to take for granted. They’re a vehicle for ideas that last lifetimes. They fire imaginations. They engage the brain in a deeper, longer form version of learning. Their disconnection from interruption is one of their most powerful features. They’re also archival in nature. I’ve got books in my library that are, I kid you not, one hundred years old. I’ve got content and ideas in those books that are a lot older than that. Think Seneca, Plato, Bronte, Shakespeare. Ideas that have shaped the thoughts and actions of humanity’s march through history.

Their presence in physical space, another thing we’re starting to question and dare I say devalue, means that these thoughts and ideas are arranged as a first-order information architecture. I can stand in front of my bookcases and easily access each and every one, some of the most timeless insights into human behaviour whenever I need them. My curiosity is also sparked when I see a book I don’t recognise, probably bought by my wife. It’s so easy to pick it up and find out something I didn’t know. It’s an experience I don’t get with any digital device, especially my MP3 player. I have albums on there that I know I love but never listen to because I’m never reminded that they’re there. I never see them unless I’m already searching specifically for them. And, if you want more than my crummy anecdote about the positive effect of a home library, then read this 20-year study which showed that growing up in a home with a library can further a child’s education by an average of 3 years regardless of the education level of the parents.

We have proof that reading fiction helps individuals build the skills to empathise. Remember, This is a critical component of our ability to innovate. According to Clark and Rumbold (2006), amongst the many benefits of reading for pleasure, there are three I’ll call out that speak directly to helping improve one’s ability to innovate:

  • A better understanding of other cultures
  • Community participation; and
  • A greater insight into human nature and decision-making.

It just so happens that it’s the bare minimum if you want to a be a half decent designer too, but I’ll leave that for another time.

A book’s archival nature means we’re exposed to ideas from different times in the same format as we are those ideas of the modern era. It makes the ‘date published’ less relevant. It puts Jane Austen on the same platform as Stephen King, you can give the same weight to Aristotle as you can to Seth Godin. This gives us the incredible opportunity to think critically about what’s been before, what’s happening now, and where we’re going. We automatically reflect on the context in which these authors worked.

Each book, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction gives us a view of another world, another time and place to that which we inhabit now. It provides us with the opportunity to analyse these trends and understand how we’ve stood upon each other’s shoulders for centuries. And physical books do this uniquely, they have for centuries. Without them, well, we’d be in a world not so dissimilar to our Indigenous Australians whose language and stories are dying with each successive generation. Word of mouth is just not good enough! Humans are simply too lazy to go that effort.

Now, this next bit is what I find fascinating.


The Australian book industry has just, for the meantime, dodged a bullet from the productivity commission that would put a huge dent in the motivation for people to create books and tell stories. These are complex recommendations from the (now dubbed) un-productivity commission and they’re notionally called “Parallel Importation Rights” and “Fair Use”. You can read more about them at your own leisure. Yes, read them. I know, right?

And so we’ve got this incredible situation where we know anecdotally and scientifically that books are the vehicle for the essential ingredients of innovation, we’ve got a government that says they’re backing ‘innovation’, but at the same time they’re being persuaded to neutralise and demotivate the creators of those essential ingredients. The contradictions in this stand-off are biblical!

Where ‘progress’ comes from

Some science-fiction doesn’t feel so fictional anymore.

The bleeding edge of digital technology on which I spend most of my waking hours is the direct result of human endeavour and imagination. Endeavour and imagination that has been created by the act of writing stories and sharing those thoughts and ideas in the best archival medium we’ve had for hundreds of years. “Fiction” like William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Phillip K Dick’s Bladerunner and other seminal works of sci-fi came from imaginations shaped by books before them. And you know what, these don’t feel like fiction anymore. They continue to shape our futures.

Dystopian and Utopian speculative fiction has always played an incredible role in setting targets for scientists to achieve. They constantly focus our attention on the moral dilemmas that new technologies impose upon our moving societal values. They help us imagine what life would be like if we connected the world by some sort of mass consciousness, you know, like the internet? Have you ever been so immersed in a book that you missed your train stop? Or paused when you got off the bus to finish the last few pages? Books are virtual reality. They have the ability to transport you to a world that isn’t here. It’s an all encompassing experience. You know the first thing a user says to me when they try Virtual Reality or Augmented Reality for the first time? “Woah, it’s like the Minority Report”. Well, there’s no prizes for guessing which came first.

See, where I’m going here is that Innovation needs the humble book, but for books to exist, we need writers of books and writers of books will only exist if we value their work by buying their books and reading them. Without that, who’s going to paint the picture of where humans are heading? Who’s going to explore the social, moral and technical possibilities before the hardware is achievable? Who’s going to play out what will happen to humanity in the safety of their own imagination so we might learn from what could happen, and then adapt how we act in the real world to shape it for the better? Our brains are already super-computers running hundreds of permutations of the future and we’re collecting those permutations in books, for all to see! Who’s going to continue to dare the scientists to take a far flung concept like automatically opening doors (as first seen in Star Trek) and make them a reality? They’re so real that now we “tisk-tisk” or moan to ourselves when it doesn’t work and we have to use a good old-fashioned door handle to push and pull our way in to another room.

Our brains are already super-computers running hundreds of permutations of the future and we’re collecting those permutations in books, for all to see

So, do yourself a favour. If you want to be a better designer or imagine the possibilities, if you want a glimpse of where we’re headed, if you want to answer big questions about the role of humans in this world or if you want to “make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products”, then start building your physical book library now and then get on to reading it.

A few more thoughts for people who say, “I don’t do books”

Let me start with, “I was one of you.” If you want to read about my relationship with books and how it’s changed over the years in more detail, head here. In the meantime, here’s a few questions I had to answer for myself along the way, and how I might be able to help you see the future.

Motivated to pick up a book but don’t know where to start?

Hit me up at @mattshanks_. I won’t list my favourite or ‘recommended reads’ here. I won’t even list a bunch of classics that people say, “You must read” because I think it needs to be more personal than that. Once you find something you like though (I might be able to help with that), I promise, it’ll be addictive and you can thank me later.

Don’t have room to store books?

You’ve got 2 options:

  • Make some room. Think of them as an investment in art. If you pick the right ones you’ll return to them again and again and they’ll continue to inspire, challenge and shape you for years to come. Or, think of it like purchasing software. We don’t seem to have a problem paying $50 for software, but a physical book is like $19.99 and providing you don’t get flooded and you can avoid fire so you don’t die, you’ll have it FOREVER!
  • Find a book swap shop or, you know a LIBRARY. In Australia, there’s a few places where you can buy books to read, then sell them back or if you’re short on cash visit your closest library where you can read them FOR FREE!

Thanks for all the fish!

Thanks to Melissa Hill

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