The iPad app of Al Gore’s Our Choice was updated last Thursday (April 26, 2012) and I read it over the weekend to see what Push Pop Press had done with Gore’s 2009 book. It is not ‘the way books are going to be’ as several reviews gush, at least I hope not for the technical reasons I give below, but it is an outstanding work with many compelling reasons to purchase it (price being high on the list, at $4.99) rather than the hard copy.
First, the content. Our Choice may some day, after the homogenizing brush of history blends the strident climate crisis messages, be looked back on as a transformational work, much as Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man is regarded with respect to Renaissance humanism, but few would go that far today, and many (that cabal of climate crisis deniers mentioned in the latter parts of the work) would positively scoff. Scoff away. The book is an excellent primer on the causes and possible solutions to the enormously complex problem of global warming, an earnest sermon on the need for action from a man who knows and does not stand to gain personally (Gore has donated his entire earnings from An Inconvenient Truth and Our Choice, books, movies and apps, to The Alliance for Climate Protection), an expose on those same cabalistic deniers with their millions for lobbyists and irresponsible media execs and their fawning political toadies. It also seems to be alarmingly wishful about the hope for the future of our planet. It is hard to see how Gore’s story has a happy ending for our fractured world and its inhabitants.
After an outstanding introduction the first two chapters explain the basic causes of global warming and where the earth’s energy comes from and where it goes. The next several chapters are how-it-works primers on solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, co-generation, and nuclear energy, with exquisite detail in the interactive charts. Those are followed by several chapters that deal with the appalling effects of global warming and irresponsible resource management on our environment: forests, soils, and their human residents. Following that, Gore explores the less-is-more philosophy that could, if it were adopted, save us, with a series of what-to-do scenarios related to the electrical grid, building design and use, carbon sequestration, and the many other possible technical solutions, all of which amount to his belief that the solutions exist, but the will to implement them is weak.
Gore is at his best as a calm, clear explainer, and further best at explaining the political obstacles to solving this problem. Chapters 16 and 17 are excellent on why nothing is being done to solve the problem politically in the United States, with the blame placed squarely on the lobbying power of the coal, oil, and automotive industries and their political and pseudo-scientific clients. Chapter 18 is Gore’s hopeful sermon on why we should choose to solve the problem rather than ignore it. It is heartfelt, and sad because it is apparent that the change Gore desires is no nearer to occurring than when An Inconvenient Truth first outlined the problem.
Each reader will have a different opinion about the contents of the app, or book as app, but the part that can be legitimately criticized here is the format, which is imperfect and even distracting from the work’s message at times. The app is a series of linearly connect high resolution photos, text (lots of it), interactive infographics (the very best part of the app), narrated simulations, live action videos by third-party media providers, and photos narrated by Gore himself. Instead of spending a lot of time describing how it is all strung together, let’s listen to Mr. Gore describe it.
My first complaint is that the app dispenses with the traditional apparatus of modern eBooks (the kind you read on Kindle or Nook) not to mention printed books. There are chapter numbers, but no page numbers or any other reference point that can be used to cite the work. If I wanted to quote the text, I would have to invent some convoluted method of describing where I got the quote from (like Chapter x, panel n), which is idiosyncratic and does not lend itself to subsequent review. Furthermore, you cannot adjust the size of the text, typeface family, or page background. Small, black Times New Roman on stark white is what you get. Neither can you annotate the text by highlighting or adding your own comments. Worst of all, there is no search button.
Those complaints being made, I will say that if you think of the work as an information stream rather than an ebook it is elegant, with iPad elegance. Everything works as it should. Pinch up a video and it begins to play, no settings or controls to mess with. The photos are spectacular, like this one of a Kern River oil field.
The very best part are the interactive infographics, that allow you to explore them with your finger.
In this example, roll your finger over the major bar chart and each bar dissolves into a source bar chart for each major pollutant listed, along with an explanatory text bubble. Many of the infographics have multiple views, which make them multiple charts that can encompass an enormous amount of data in a single easily accessed view. The designers of this interface deserve a lot of credit.
A few of the charts in the latter part of the work are a bit fuzzy at full-screen, but for the most part everything looks crisp and clear. What I found distracting was the linear insertion of certain full-screen graphics in the midst of a flow of text, even in the midst of a hyphenated word, which I found enormously distracting. Most pictures are small insets which can be pinched up as desired, but the full-screen graphics were a distraction from the flow of ideas in the text. I have the same complaint about most textbooks.
Finally, I noticed a bit of a problem with text hyphenation. Hyphenated words will appear in the midst of pages where no hyphenation is necessary. It looks as though the text was manually hyphenated and then when it was reflowed to fit the iPad screen the hyphenations were not appropriately removed. This is minor but also annoying when it is so unnecessary, and shows a lack of attention to detail on the part of the publisher.
For its content the book deserves five stars. In my opinion it is the earnest primer that we all need to read. For the interactive infographics, also five stars. For the photos, narrated simulations, and some of the graphics, also five stars. For a few of the fuzzy graphics, 2 stars. For the abandonment of the critical apparatus of the traditional book, with nothing to take its place, a big raspberry. I liked the app, and the price is spectacularly good for so much content, but I wish the publisher had gone to the extra effort to make it more like an ebook, since that is what it essentially is.