A Demand for Beauty

tl; dr. You and me baby ain’t nothin’ but mammals, who happen to have millions of years of shared adaptive preferences for beautiful, artistic displays – displays that demonstrate ingenuity, are discernibly authentic, and took some sweet time to produce.

I. Introduction

If there is one thing that we humans do best, it is developing novel ways to satisfy our wants and desires. In recent history, capitalism has greatly highlighted this fact with Hostess Cupcakes and Range Rovers, but our ancestors have been actively satisfying desires in original ways for hundreds of thousands of years. We craved more food and came up with agriculture, we sought competition displays and came up with sport, and we demanded easier access to reproductive cells and came up with sperm banks. With our physically average bodies and superb intellect we have been able to manipulate the resources around us to a multiplicity of our desired ends. When it comes down to it, if there is a demand, someone figures out a new way to supply it. Why we supply something is easy part – because we demand it. But why we demand something – now that is a more interesting discussion. This paper will explore this concept of demand-driven innovation by discussing the ultimate explanation for a distinctly human demand, a demand for beauty and the arts.

Art is to demand for beauty, as chocolate cake is to demand for sweet. Starting with the latter, it is quite clear why we evolved a preference for sweet. In the ancestral environment sweet singled high sugar, high energy foods. Anyone with a “sweet” preference clearly gained an evolutionary advantage over those who did not prefer high energy foods. Thusly demand for sweet is clearly an adaptation, i.e. “a change that occurs by natural selection and leads to improvement in reproductive success.” The adaptive benefits of a demand for beauty, however, are not quite so straightforward. No ancestor ever got through a cold winter thanks to his cave painting, and no mother ever fed her child with a beautiful sunset.

Before we get too far, it is important to remember keep separate the extensions of preferences today (like cake or art films), from their extensions in the ancestral environment. In modernity, anyone with too strong a preference for cake might become obese and be at a disadvantage in the reproduction market. Similarly, no one is arguing that art film critics have an evolutionary advantage over Spiderman fans. But remember, even though an obese cake-lover might not have an evolutionary edge today, that sweet tooth served his berry-seeking ancestors quite well during the course of human evolution. But can the same be said for a “taste” for beauty? Was there ever a point where an appreciation of beauty was such an adaptive advantage that it spread through the entire human gene pool? Is the preference for beauty really an evolutionary adaptation?

II. Art as a by product

Once Nature had set up men’s brains the way she has, certain “unintended” consequences followed – and we are in several ways the beneficiaries.

- Nicholas Humphrey

Some evolutionary psychologists believe that art is not a true biological adaptation. As in much of evolutionary psychology, there are often multiple explanations for the prevalence of any one modern behavior, and explanations for our demand for beauty is no different. Developing an infallible evolutionary explanation is often impossible. Adding to the uncertainty of any explanation is the fact that while “behavioral activities are directed by nervous systems, and nervous systems are structures,” there may be thousands of underlying structures controlling a signal behavior. Furthermore, any one structure may be involved in a multiplicity of behaviors.

These complications are what give rise to behaviors and traits that are known as “by-products”. Evolutionary by-products are “characteristics that do not solve adaptive problems and do not have to have functional design.” In the words of Steven Pinker:

The mind is a neural computer, fitted by natural selection with combinatorial algorithms for causal and probabilistic reasoning… It is driven by goal states that served biological fitness in ancestral environments… That toolbox, however, can be used to assemble Sunday afternoon projects of dubious adaptive significance.

With Pinker’s paradigm in mind, could beauty and the arts just be an evolutionary byproduct, a “Sunday afternoon project”? Could Beethoven’s Fifth and van Gogh’s Starry Night just be “cheesecake for the mind”?

Under the byproduct viewpoint, arts are basically to humans what the orange spot was to Tinbergen’s gulls, i.e. a “supernormal stimulus.” For example, it is posited that primate color vision developed in order to recognize ripe fruits. If this is the case, along with our color vision we should have psychological mechanisms that are stimulated by, or drawn to, those brightly colored fruits. Is it possible that brightly colored paintings are merely acting as a supernormal stimulus to our evolved fruit gathering mechanism? Perhaps. After all there must be thousands of “beautiful” paintings of fruit baskets hanging on museum walls.

But if beauty is just a side effect of our type of color vision, shouldn’t other primates with similar visual systems be able to identify, i.e. be stimulated by, aesthetic beauty? That is in fact, not the case; “Rhesus monkey visual systems are so similar to ours that they are often used by neuroscientists as experimental models for human vision. Yet they show no hint of the aesthetic preferences that we might expect as side-effects of having our sort of vision.”

While plausible, the byproduct explanation lacks when explaining why we call such vast array of different things “beautiful”. A beautiful painting might be a bright visual stimulus, but what about a beautiful poem, a beautiful landscape or even a beautiful math theorem? Surely the term beauty would not have such pervasive applicability if it were a side affect of fruit consumption.

At the mid point between art as a by-product and beauty as an adaptation, we stop at Nicolas Humphrey and his seminal 1973 paper, The Illusion of Beauty. Humphrey argues that man’s concept of beauty is an unintended consequence. However Humphrey begins to depart from Pinker’s strictly by-product, “cheesecake”, philosophy when he examines beauty as a motivation for practice.

Humphrey describes the fundamental source of beauty as “likeness tempered with difference” and “all beauty may by a metaphor be called rhyme.” For Humphrey, we find beauty in slight variations in pattern – like complimentary shades of green in an arboreal landscape. His argument claims that this attraction to rhyme is a by-product of the adaptive functions of classifying. Humphrey then, however briefly, posits an adaptive role of beauty – “through the experience of beauty in works of art we learn to learn.” In other words, according to Humphrey, we find things beautiful that drive us to practice classifying. For instance, by finding poetry beautiful, one begins to practice and learn the subtleties of language. Understanding subtle distinctions in language and demeanor is a skill of paramount necessity in social settings. Certainly someone who has a propensity to practice these distinctions would have a clear advantage in such social situations.

While on the cusp of acknowledging beauty’s adaptive benefits, Humphrey still says, “man-made beauty is a lie…Beethoven merely capitalized on a human faculty which was developed for quite other reasons.” However, in a seeming contradiction, he simultaneously acknowledges that men benefit by studying “beautiful” works of art like Beethoven. He also argues that psychologists today could understand more about the learning process by understanding what attracts us to beauty. But if Humphrey acknowledges that attraction to beauty facilitates learning, and if the ability to learn correlates with higher fitness, does it not follow that any ancestor who had the ability to discriminate “beauty” from “non beauty” would have a higher capacity for learning and thusly evolutionary advantage over those who do not?

III. The adaptive benefits of an eye for beauty.

Beauty is an adaptive effect which we extend and intensify in the creation and enjoyment of works of art and entertainment

– Denis Dutton

Understanding how behaviors like tool use or preferences for sweet gained an evolutionary advantage requires little imagination; understanding why those with an eye for beauty left more progeny than their competitors, however, requires slightly more. In the years since Illusion of Beauty, advancements in the field of evolutionary psychology have given us more thorough explanations for our demand for “beauty”. Individuals like Denis Dutton and Geoffrey Miller have contributed greatly to the search for an ultimate explanation for beauty. Examining their two viewpoints in conjunction provides a clear explanation on how an eye for beauty allowed our ancestors to thrive.

Denis Dutton has devoted his career to providing a deeper understanding of aesthetic beauty. While Dutton considered himself to be primarily a philosopher, he clearer understood the guidelines for explanation in biology; “an explanatory hypothesis for some emotion or cognitive faculty must begin with a theory of how that faculty would, on average, have enhanced the reproductive chances of the bearer of that faculty in an ancestral environment.”

In the words of Dutton, “Beauty is evolution’s way of arousing and sustaining interest, fascination, obsession in order to encourage us to make the most adaptive decisions for reproduction and survival.” Consider a few things we consider beautiful. For starters, imagine this stereotypical beautiful landscape painting. This work of art has mountains across the skyline, a foreground of low lying grasses with a few small animals, trees with branches closes to the ground, and a small lake in the distance with winding path leading us to it. This imagery clearly imitates the ideal Pleistocene savannah in which we evolved. Developing an attraction to this exact scenario would give our ancestors the greatest odds of survival and reproduction. This preference evolved in the savannah, and has spread through the entire human gene pool. In support of this theory, Dutton points out that this exact scene is regarded as beautiful worldwide, even in cultures that do not have such landscapes.

Next consider a newborn baby. While one is surely most attracted to his own child, it is nonetheless quite easy to find a cute baby. We consider babies beautiful, not because of cultural inundation of cherubic figurines, but because making babies beautiful was nature’s way of sustaining our interest (i.e. investment) in them. In other words “Evolution’s trick is to make them beautiful to give you the pleasure of just looking at them.” Evolution could not make babies or landscapes taste pleasurable like it did to apples and other sweets, so their visual aesthetic does the job instead.

Dutton, however, only answers a part of the story. He is correct that beauty helps us “make the most adaptive decisions for reproduction and survival”, however it is Geoffrey Miller that reminds us that the number one thing species should be “aroused by” and have a sustained “interest, fascination, [and] obsession” for is good genes. In a sexually reproducing species, the only way to succeed evolutionarily is to find a good mate. Furthermore, if these offspring are going to survive, this mate must be of high genetic quality. The potential mate is going through a very similar strategy, and wants to be similarly assured of genetic quality.

Sexually reproducing species throughout the animal kingdom face this same problem of garnishing and sustaining a mate’s interest. Most commonly in mammals, the male is the one doing most of the convincing. In order to advertise their genetic fitness, many males develop extravagant fitness indicators, of which the principal example is the peacock’s tail. The tail serves no other purpose other than advertising to the female that he is so fit that he can afford to commit energy to this large, costly tail. These tails are examples of Zahavi’s handicap principle for fitness indicators. The principle states that in order to be reliable a trait must have high enough costs that competitors of lower fitness could not imitate it. In short, these fitness indicators allow peacocks with good genes to differentiate themselves from competitors.

A fitness indicator does not have to be a physical trait. Some displays, like the male bowerbird’s nest, are what are known as extended phenotypes. The bowerbird’s nest is a reliable indicator by virtue of the difficulty and high costs associated with its production – the nest contains month’s worth of effort, construction and resource gathering. Low fitness rivals are simply unable to spend that much on their nests and still survive, and are therefore unlikely to ever pass on their low fitness genes.

For humans, reliable fitness indicators are of utmost importance. For one, due to concealed ovulation in human females, most offspring are the products of longer-term relationships. Thusly, if your goal is reproduction, sustaining a mate’s “interest, fascination, [and] obsession” over a long period of time is of key to reproductive success. Furthermore, humans are a largely monogamous species subject to mutual mate choice. While the norm in the animal kingdom is for males to flaunt their fitness, and females to be choosy, in most long-term human relationships, males and females are of equal choosiness. This causes pressures by both sexes to both produce reliable indicators, as well as be able to discriminate the legitimacy of the other sex’s indicators. This dual-sided arms race between innovation and discrimination is most likely how art began to appear in the evolutionary record.

As is the way of human beings, we are constantly coming up with novel ways to supply our demands, and a supply for the demand of reliable fitness indicators is no exception. In the words of GF Miller, “When we talk about the evolution of art, perhaps we are really talking about the evolution of a human tendency to make material objects into advertisements of our fitness.” Just like the way that at some point in their history high fitness bowerbirds began to produce extravagant nests, at some point around 1.6 million years ago, man began creating works of art. These “artists” were not producing the art for its own sake, but rather to differentiate themselves from lower fitness rivals; “the fundamental challenge facing artists is to demonstrate their fitness by making something that lower-fitness competitors could not make, thus proving themselves more socially and sexually attractive.” These first examples of hominid artistic displays were finely crafted, non-functional, Acheulean hand axes. Being able to produce one of these fine hand axes were displays of intelligence, motor control, planning ability, conscientiousness, as well as spare time. As division of labor was across sexual, and not functional, lines these hand axes allowed some males to differentiate themselves in an undifferentiated world. In other words, the ability to produce hand axes became an extended phenotype of our ancestors – as subject to sexual selection as the bowerbird’s nest.

The male production of artisan hand axes was only a part of the story. Equally important in the origins of art was the discernment of females. While the physical demands of stone tool production may have prevented female hominids from producing hand axes, it does not mean they lacked the cognitive capacity to do so. The mental processes for identifying a well-made hand axe are highly correlated to, if not identical to, those for producing the axe. In many cases in the animal kingdom it may be more beneficial for a male to dupe the female with a low quality indicator (thereby reaping the mating opportunity with low cost), however in humans, males should desire females with excellent discernment capacities for the sake of both their daughters and sons; “The peacock does not need the peahen’s appreciation of a good tail—he needs only the tail itself. But for men to make good art, they must embody the same aesthetic discrimination as women. While decorating themselves, they must be able to access the same aesthetics that women will use in judging their decoration. Given this twist, the runaway aesthetic theory predicts sexual similarities.”

IV. Conclusion

It was not necessary for hominids to favor great artists over great hunters or great mothers. It was necessary only for them to favor those who showed taste and talent in their everyday self-ornamentation over those who did not, all else being equal.

– Geoffrey Miller

So what is art? There is sculpture and painting, play and poem, music and dance. Furthermore there are not only these classic genres; but there is also the art of war, of sex, of cooking, of business, and more. Accordingly, human capacity for the appreciation of “art” cannot be reduced to any one sensory stimulus, or preference for any one behavior. At its core, we appreciate art because our ancestors developed a preference, not for art in and of itself, but for the talent, discrimination, and taste required for its production and consumption. In short, artistic supply is human ingenuity’s response to our demand for things done well, our demand for beauty.


Postscript: So this was first update/post is years – been meaning to share with many of you and remembered that .html is so much sweeter than .docx. This is one of my favorite papers from my time at Amherst College – a place where I could not stop digging deeper on perhaps the most fundamental question(s) – “where do we come from and why do we do what we do”. The straight lines of supply and demand didn’t do it for me, nor did the (absurd?) assumptions of complete rationality in game theory. Through curiosity and serendipity – my entire world view was re-examined and shaped by the discovery and exploration of evolutionary psychology and human origins. While I no longer have the luxury of exploring the topic in a structured manner with amazing professors on a daily basis – ev psych remains my intellectual passion and applying its lessons and principles influences nearly all facets of my personal and professional life – design, development, dating, networking, sales, management, friendship and of course, aesthetic appreciation. For disclosures sake, I’ve downgraded this posts academic viability by removing the footnotes and adding the Bloodhound Gang reference (while I may miss writing papers like this who in the world thinks back and has found memories of writing a bibliography. woof.) but am happy to clarify, share sources, and hopefully – discuss with you.

Step 4. Define business model, make a Prezi, pitch

Here is the Prezi I put together for the Judges presentation. Startup Weekend was an incredible experience and I look forward to sharing some more thoughts on it. It was a great way to get the rush of starting a business without any hard commitments.

I had/have no specific intentions of staying with the idea, but the more I think about our progress over what was really only 20-30 hours of productivity, and the lead-generation business model we came up with, it might just actually be a good idea. The model is basically Clear meets Social meets Groupon. We could even start with a Groupon API until we have the traffic to do it internally.

I would love to hear your thoughts.


P.S. If you haven’t tried Prezi – check it out at Prezi.com. You’ll never pitch with a .pdf again

Step 3. Make it Pretty

Calling it a night.

Lots of pivots today. Getting seven people to agree on an idea is not easy. We discussed a weight loss app for about 3 hours. Several others for a few hours.

Glad we committed to something and looking forward to making our pitch tomorrow.

1.0 & 2.0 News Feed

The (indefinite) digital transition

By almost all available metrics the publishing industry is being turned on its head. We all have seen headlines like “eBooks overtake paper books” or “Apple kills the textbook.” Administrations all over the country are talking about an iPad pilot or a BYOD policy.

Clearly tools like Kindle, iPad, and JSTOR are resources that have laid the foundation for this digital revolution. Some people, like McGraw-Hill’s Brian Kibby, believe there is imminent “total transition from a reliance on print textbooks to a full embrace of digital content and learning systems.” There are many factors driving the use of eBooks, including access, portability, environmental sustainability, distribution and what I refer to as “eBook benefits” (search-ability, quick annotations, sharing). In aggregate publishing statistics, the eBook is clearly winning – Amazon has been selling more digital copies than print copies since mid-2011.

But what is the current state of print vs. digital within higher education? Apple may claim an iBook revolution, but three generations into the iPad, has this revolution arrived? To sum up the findings of the following survey, far from it.

Educause 2012
Game Changers Business Plan Competition

This fall, I presented an overview of my app eHighlighter (a personal research assistant that uses your iPhone’s camera to bring “eBook benefits to Paper Sources”) at the Educause Game Changers business plan competition in Denver. I created this survey (and its methodology) with the hope of having some quick numbers to reference on my Prezi. Almost 3,700 results later, however, I recognize that I had some pretty legitimate data.

Survey Methodology

When students are accepted to college, one of their first steps may be to join a “University ABC Class of 2016″ Facebook group. These groups often reach 90%+ participation rates and can contain thousands of members. Occasionally they are university controlled (or require the applicable .edu address to join), but, more often than not all you need to join the group is an “accept” from the group admin, who is probably a student.

Sorry for Spamming
(honesty is the only policy)

After a few hours of requesting membership into every group with over ~1,000 members for search terms “Class of 2016, ’15, ’14,” I had been accepted into 180 groups. After 5 minutes I had received almost 40 responses; after an hour, over 1,000 responses.

After the posting the message above across all the groups I was admitted to, I ended up with 3,698 respondents across over 180 colleges and universities. The respondents came from large and small, public and private, geographically diverse colleges and universities.

Class of
Over 180 Colleges Represented

(The newer the class, the more recently the group was created, the are more active the members. This accounts for the disproportionate responses.)

“Academic Reading Preferences” Results

There are two factors holding up the digital transition, supply and demand. Here is the current demand landscape:

Question 1: What is your preferred method for academic readings?

Q1 Results

Well that wasn’t even close. A whopping 77% of students still want to read from a paper source. I have to say that the results did confirm my intuition, and most people I ask which method is most preferred guess paper as well (except the people who say tablet, sorry guys you’re wayyy off). But did you really think it was this stark a contrast?

It is interesting to note that this paper preference is not an access issue. If you filter the results by the 1,090 students who said they were tablet owners (iPad, Android Tablet, or Kindle), there is almost an identical preference profile:

Tablet Owner Profile

Question 2: Why?

I’ll start by saying I could have done a better job structuring this follow-up question, as my distracting multiple choice option “Ease of Use” took about 90% of the responses.

But luckily 632 responded in free form. Here is a sample of those responses

Q1 Response:

Paper Digital
• Less distracting. • Search capabilities
• The existence of the internet interferes with my ability to focus. • Ctrl+F
• I get distracted on the computer/other electronics. Also I can highlight and take notes easily in a book. • Easy to scroll through/ can search for specific words
• Easier for my eyes • Availability
• I like being able to hold the paper and highlight and take notes on the reading itself. • I payed for this computer why not use it for everything I possibly can.
• It makes it easier to learn because you can annotate the text. • Environmentally friendly and efficient

 

Students who prefer paper are not technology-phobes, late adopters, or just out of touch, they have legitimate reasons to study off of a paper source. Any time a student is on their computer, tablet, or phone, they are only one click away from an hour-long detour down their Facebook newsfeed. Physical books also allow for reading with a highlighter, creating marginalia, and recalling the spatial location of an important passage.

There is also a clearly inertia behind papers prevailing dominance. While digitalization is taking place and the current college generation grew up with a desktop, even the earliest technology adopters have spent almost their entire literary life, from Hooked on Phonics to AP Biology, reading off of paper. This historical bias will eventually erode as tablets make their way into Kindergartens, but if the higher ed landscape is still a paper majority, I can’t imagine the average primary school classroom with tablets anytime soon.

At the same time, students are also starting to realize that there are some great “eBook benefits” available that can often outweigh the paper benefits. It can take hours to transcribe highlights over to a Word document, while Kindle highlights can do it in seconds. Have a joint research project? Email those notes and highlights to your group. Need a quote about from Thomas Jefferson to back up your paragraph on the Declaration of Independence? Just search “Jefferson” in your Evernote. Are you really benefitting from the hours creating that bibliography? Not exactly. Enter Zotero, Mendeley and EasyBib.com.

There are a myriad of inefficiencies in knowledge transfer (aka learning) from paper. I think we can all agree that e-mail has a slight edge over the USPS. My whole thesis behind eHighlighter was that more students will start to recognize these digital benefits, they will start to expect them across their entire research process, even from paper. In its current form, eHighlighter is a tool that helps blend these two preference profiles. It’s not a 100 year solution (neither was the fax machine), but it is a useful tool for this indefinite digital transition.

Question 3: About what percentage of your academic reading THIS YEAR is from a paper source?

Preference is one thing, but what is it like in practice? On average, respondents said that 65% of their classroom reading for this academic year occurs on a paper format (print outs, book, textbook, journals, etc.)

As compared to last year, 50% of respondents said they are reading “more digital,” while 25% said “more paper,” and 25% said no change.

Clearly the trend will continue increasingly towards digital formats in the coming years. But do we really see a day in the immediate future when students, even if they want to, will be able to go 100% digital? Demand is only one part of the equation.

On the supply side, only 11% of books have been digitized to date, and copyright concerns are stalling complete digitalization. Additionally, academic institutions across the globe have million volume libraries that will take decades to obsolesce. Popular Mechanics recent list of “110 Predictions” puts the Library of Congress in our pockets somewhere between 2023-2062. In other words, as long as we’re using “apps” on “phones”, you will still have to get at least some of your research from paper sources.

Question 4: Which of the following do you own?

While this next set of data may not be perfectly in line with the theme of the post, it is compelling nonetheless – especially considering the sample size:

Device Profile

The survey shows that 80% of higher ed students today own a smart phone. While Android owns over 50% market share in activations, iPhone clearly dominates in the college market.

One takeaway is that developers/businesses looking to target the largest number of college students should probably start with an iOS app.

Oh, and no one owns a tablet.

Closing

I am by no means trying to argue for a pedagogical supremacy of paper sources or trying to say that their presence will last forever. I am definitely excited about the direction that #edtech is going and will continue to support, promote adoption of, and hopefully invent transformative digital technologies for the classroom. ll I’m saying is that we’re not there yet. Again, we’re only 3 years into the iPad. It’s not like the textbook reshaped education in 1443.

My road to entrepreneurship, #edtech and eHighlighter

I started my first business, AllCollegeStorage, six years ago when I was a Freshman at Amherst College. In 2012, AllCollegeStorage provided summer storage and shipping to 14 colleges and boarding schools throughout the East Coast. While the business is going great, it is highly seasonal around the beginning and end of the school year, which has always allowed me to have additional bandwidth. At the beginning of my Junior year of College, I also started a sister company, AllCollegeLaundry, and joined the two together under the parent company All College, Inc. Facing graduation in May 2011, I had to decide if I was going to stick with the entrepreneurial route, or head off to banking or consulting like many of my peers. As you can tell, I chose the former.

Even though All College grew 150% last year (my first at it full time – without the distractions of schoolwork, college life, or varsity lacrosse), I had some new found time to think, look, and yes, start another venture.

While All College is my baby, and I am passionate about the entrepreneurial path in almost any direction, logistics itself is not something I am particularly passionate about. As any one who knows me can tell you, I am passionate about technology, and perhaps mobile devices specifically.

Motorola_Envoy
Where it all started – tech snob since age 7

I put all of the blame for being a tech snob on my father (in the best way possible). When I was a child, he was always getting the latest PDA. I would play with it when it was new, and then inherit it myself when he moved on to a newer model. Anyone remember 1994′s Motorola Envoy? That was my first PDA (I was 7). When the Palm Pilot v1.1 came out, I became the owner of v1.0, and was bringing it to class in the 4th grade. That evolution continued with the first wireless Palm Pilot (7th grade), the iPAQs (high school), and finally reached a great culmination with the iPad my senior year of college.

I think it was those first PDAs, and my application of them in the classroom, that cemented my passion for what we call #edtech. My stance on technology is that anything that can be outsourced to technology absolutely should be outsourced to technology. Here’s my favorite illustrating example. Some people say that they do not like a GPS because it makes them worse at getting around when they do not have one. My response – do you feel the same way about a map? The wheel surely makes us worse at carrying heavy stuff when we don’t have one, but I think we can all agree on the beneficial merits of the wheel use.

I’ll admit, I get a lot of eye rolls to that spiel. Is using a wheelbarrow really the same thing as an iPhone in the classroom? Should tech be in the classroom at all? My take is that there is NOTHING new about technology in the classroom. Technology in learning is as old as pedagogy itself…chalk, the printing press, the written word and even language itself are examples of technology.

Our primary biological advantage as humans is our ability to innovate – to assemble all the patterns, categories, and resources at our disposal in novel ways. Outsourcing tasks away from our “meat brains” to technology (like Evernote is trying to do with memory), it allows us to reduce our cognitive load. This freedom then allows us to do what technology cannot – come up with new ideas, to see the world in a way no one else has, to write a paper that has never been written before.

In the immediate future, every student will have a smartphone in their pocket, and with them at all times. We just need the mobile apps to support these students in productive ways. (For further information on this topic check out Project Information Literacy’s study “How College Students Manage Technology“)

Which brings me to the topic of my new startup, Research Habits Digital. While I believe mobile applications in the classroom has (and will have) nearly ubiquitous application, we have to start somewhere. Our current focus is on optimizing the discovery, research, and collaboration process. Clearly tools like Kindle, iPad, and JSTOR are resources that have laid the foundation for this digital revolution. This adoption of complete digitalization is perhaps a precursor to a next level of collaboration tools. While some, like McGraw-Hill’s Brian Kibby believe there is imminent “total transition from a reliance on print textbooks to a full embrace of digital content and learning systems”, we don’t see it that way. The fact is the majority of academic research is still done on paper. This delay stems from two factors – supply and demand.

Supply side – only 11% of books have been scanned to date, and copyright concerns are stalling complete digitalization. And its not just books that will need to be digitized. For example, of the 55 million objects in circulation in the the New York Public Library (the largest circulating collection in the world), only 20 million of them are books. Furthermore, every academic institution in the world has a multitude of paper sources that will take decades to obsolesce.

Demand side – in a recent survey I conducted of 3,962 higher ed students across 180 colleges, a whopping 77% said they preferred studying from paper (19% computer, 3.5% tablet). This was not an access issue – if you cross section the 500 respondents who own iPads, 71% still prefer reading from paper. While preference does not always match practice, respondents said that 65% of their reading actually occurs from a paper source. What did they like about paper? It was less distracting, easier to read, and easier to highlight. What did respondents like about computer? Search-ability and note taking ability.

eHighlighter
Launched August 2012

Joining these two worlds in the goal of our first product eHighlighter. Our motto “eBooks benefits. Paper sources.” means students can read from the available and preferred paper media, while getting the digital benefits they desire like search-ability, easy annotations, citation management, and collaboration. The App uses your iPhones camera to allow readers to highlight, annotate, and share their notes.

eHighlighter launched on the App Store at the end of August. We quickly reached 10,000 users and have a 4.5 star rating on the store. And while the app is fully functional, it is our MVP, and I might even go so far as to say it is a public beta. The product is currently free for download and unlimited use. We are now working hard on our first feature release, which will include the most called for features and some UI refinements.

We certainly have a multitude of directions that we could go with this product, and a backlog of feature requests, including calls for an Android edition. We hope to continue to release additional features and products as we move forward, but for the immediate future, we are a bootstrapped company, with a single developer. Of course if the right investor came along, we might be able to ramp up development, but my top focus now is keeping a unified and streamlined vision for product development.

Validating startup ideas are all about reducing risks. We believe our v1.0 has eliminated the risk “will people use and value this product”. Our biggest question moving forward is “will our target customer pay for this product”, and following from that “do we have the right target customer”? Finally, we working with the reality that while there is boom in edtech investment, is there really a boom in edtech revenue? After all, higher ed students are not exactly flush with disposable income. Accordingly, we are evaluating multiple avenues for monetization. We truly believe that our product, and the multitude of highlights and source information that it generates, can translate to some valuable analytical information for students, educators, and publishers alike.