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Beating the dead iHorse: Now it's my turn

My Friday began with a text from a fellow Mac-head friend. "U gonna b in line 2morrow?" Ignoring his irritating use of abbreviations (dude, you have an iPhone with spellcheck and auto-complete!), I tapped out the same response I've given, in various media, to other friends, colleagues, and family members: the iPad's not for me, or for you. The iPad is interesting not for its tech, but as an example of Apple's skill at persuading important members of the tech press that new products are game-changers. The former copywriter in me marvels at the company's rhetorical ability, but the ex-indie rock punk in me can't help but roll its eyes at the "duped masses, man."

The particular piece that set me off (and inspired me to write after nearly a year of comps) is Dylan F. Tweney's Why We Are Obsessed With the iPad. Far more than Pogue's Evening at the Improv-esque "techies compute like this, but non techies compute like this!" review in the NYT, Tweney's approach encapsulates the maddening tendency of tech journalism to identify Apple products as possessing some mysterious "it" that will change the world 4ever, dude. Tweney begins his piece with the typical disclaimers:
the iPad has fewer features than a comparably priced netbook. Yes, it’s tied to an app store controlled by a single company that has proven to be both capricious and prudish in the kinds of content it approves. And yes, it won’t run Adobe Flash, instantly crippling many websites.
Sounds like a real POS at this point, but wait...there's more.
But the iPad is an important device just the same, because it’s simple and it’s fast...there’s something seriously different about Apple’s tablet.

That difference can be summarized in two words: It disappears.
In other words, the iPad is "ready to hand" in the Heideggerian sense. It becomes an invisible tool through which we engage the world. We do not experience it as thing-in-itself, but use it as a tool. As Dobromir G. Dotov, Lin Nie, and Anthony Chemero illustrate in their recent A Demonstration of the Transition from Ready-to-Hand to Unready-to-Hand, the concept of ready-to-handness can be extended to apply to human-computer interactions. The iPad, in this conception, is a window to the Web with a negligible effect on the user's interaction with the Web.

This conception is problematic for so many reasons. The one that troubles me the most is that it serves to hide the machine's function as a terministic screen *. If the tool disappears, then its shaping power disappears, too. It is already difficult to sense how our unquestioning use of Web technology fosters a particular engagement with the online world. There's power in the Web's unreadiness-to-hand, because it retains a presence in the mind as a thing—a thing that can be manipulated. The magical vanishing iPad puts a sheen on the Web, turning it into something to be consumed (a point made very well by Cory Doctorow) or interacted with in very specific, controlled ways. (Web 2.0 is so often more "Reply to this" than "make this yourself, sadly.")

As Tweney puts it in his Wired piece,
Instead of living inside a box, content takes over the device. There’s almost no noticeable interface.
You’re not just looking at through a browser, you’re holding in your hands.
You're possessing the site, you're holding it, but what can you do with it? It's taken over the device, eliminating that pesky windowing that Turkle wrote about so long ago. You've got one thing on your screen, and that's all you're doing at that moment. Want to see another page? Click over to another tab. Want to put them side-by-side? Uh... Want to see how a clever HTMLer did something by viewing source? Hmmm... Want to do something else at the same time as you're consuming the Web? Grrr.

The iPad locks in the user in a way that typical computers (and other tablets) don't. Other writers have talked about the lock-in in terms of the iStore and the AT&T "network" (if you want to call it that). I find it more problematic that it locks the user into a way of experiencing the Web and online content. It's a completed thing, a consumable, not an infinitely manipulable text. (In comp terms, you could say it's a product and not a process.) When one views a site on an iPad, with its lack of creation tools and its single focus, one has a different relation to that site than before. This disturbs me as both a geek and a (still n00bish) instructor, because it reflects a far more passive engagement with the texts around us all. It feels like a step back to an older engagement with the world, where interactions with public texts were safely limited to the letters to the editor columns (the "reply to this" box of its day).

This is not to say that I think the iPad is the devil. (In this era of polarized argument, I feel I have to say that.) I'm very interested in seeing it develop and seeing how it's used in the wild. That said, while the tech media want people to think something along the lines of iPad==Moon landing, I think a better construct may be iPad==Audrey (remember her?). I was working at EarthLink at the time, and you couldn't pass a cubicle without hearing people geekgasming over the idea of Internet Appliances. Jump back even further, and I'm at CitySearch surrounded by folks raving about push media. Both of these were the next big thing, but they never gelled. However, the ideas they represented—ubiquitous computing and delivery of Web content—blossomed later on. The companies were ready to make money, but the offerings weren't conceived correctly. It was only later, when we had the concept ready, that the word was at hand (how's that for mangling a little Vygotsky/Tolstoy?)

I believe that tablets and some of the interface changes in the iPad are going to have a major effect on computing, and I believe that the introduction of the iPad, by sparking conversations (or, in my case, orations), is an important step. But I worry that initiatives like Seton Hill's, where students have educators promoting a passive, consumerist, unquestioning engagement with the Web, is bad for students and bad for us as a society.

* I use this term, rather than McLuhanesque "medium," because the iPad goes beyond the shaping of messages to the shaping of reality. Just as a light bulb (to use McLuhan's example) "creates an environment by its mere presence" (8), the iPad creates an environment by its use. But it also shapes its users' discourse about the world and their ability to access the world. back

Richard Powers

"People who used the web turned strange. In public panels, they disguised their sexes, their ages, their names. They logged on to the electronic fray, adopting every violent persona but their own. They whizzed binary files at each other from across the planet, the same planet where impoverished villages looked upon a ball-point pen with wonder. The web began to seem a vast, silent stock exchange trading in ever more anonymous and hostile pen pals." (Galatea 2.0)

Too Long for Twitter: Anti-Social Capital

Brian McNely twittered (tweeted?--this verb form always gives me trouble) a link to the Complexity and Social Networks Blog at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science. In light of the fact that I just came from a meeting with my diss. director in which we discussed Bourdieu's conception of the four types of capital--economic, social, cultural, and symbolic, for those scoring at home--I was quite taken with Gibson's idea. I do think there is some capital in disconnection, in choosing not to participate in a community (while still being recognized as part of that community). The reason for the long italics is that lurkers add an unusual twist. If you lurk at a no-login-required site (for ex., the Straight Dope Message Board), you may show up in the "X number of users online" list, and of course the sysadmin could probably capture your IP, but you are essentially invisible. To gain non-participation capital, you must be recognizably not participating.

The thing is, isn't that just social capital in another form? Not to get all Foucauldian or anything, but refusal of discourse is still discourse; you are still participating in a discourse structure, no?

Gibson's idea becomes even more problematic in the last sentence of the first paragraph:
It's not hard to foresee why someone without such connections would fair better at school, in the workplace, and in their family relations than someone with them, other things being equal.

To borrow a popular term from the big, bad, privacy-invading 'net...wut? This claim is predicated on many, many assumptions: that social networking is anti-educational (an assumption undercut by another Harvard institution); that workplaces are stable and workers need not foster connections outside the shop (when I was freelancing, this skill was vital); and that families are headed by Ozzie and Harriet (family relations can go bad even in the analogue realm, ya know). Sharing a little data at this point ("it's not hard to see"? Really? REALLY?) would be greatly beneficial.

I also cringed at his list of alternative offline activities. Yes, it's tough to exercise from behind a desktop, but the era of portables arrived a while ago. Learning? Sigh. Thinking long and hard about life's problems is inherently connected to writing--write to learn, in the parlance of our WAC crew. Deep thoughts can take place even within the noise of 4chan; that's the cool thing about thought--it happens all the time. "Interacting with those with whom one shares microbes"? Why do we privilege the body in such a way? What makes mediated interactions less "real"?

The final point, non-self-disclosure capital, is little more than the identity theft fear in new clothing. Yes, data gets shared out of its audience online, sometimes to great effect upon people and their bank accounts. Yes, this is a problem, but is it a problem of heavy users? That I don't know. If you're going to blast people for spending too much time online (thus not generating anti-social capital) you are going to foster lower expertise and unfamiliarity with phishing and other popular scam techniques. Gaining non-self-disclosure capital would require more exposure to Internet communities, more skill at navigating online discourse, not less.

As I said, there's the nut of an interesting analysis in there. I just get frustrated when I read a scholar working with social networking--a scholar, I might add, who's almost the same age as I am--who approaches online social networking from such a simplistic angle.

Clay Shirky

 "Even lolcats...even cute pictures of kittens made even cuter with the addition of cute captions hold out an invitation to participation. When you see a lolcat what it essentially says is 'If you have some sans serif fonts on your computer you can play this game too'. And that's a big change, right? I could do that too." (2008 Web 2.0 expo)

Reading Is Essential

As I was reading the entries for the most recent Teaching Carnival, I felt a jolt of excitement that has been missing from most of my reading this semester. Prepping for comps means delving into The Classics. Of course, many of my classics aren't typically recognized as such. Sherry Turkle's Life on the Screen and Allucquère Rosanne Stone's The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age are important to my research but they ain't ending up in ED Hirsch's compendia of cultural literacy any time soon. What with revisiting older CMC texts, classics of rhet theory (so much Plato!), and modern classics of comp theory (my copy of Errors and Expectations just came yesterday), I haven't really spent much time reading what's actually being written about Internet discourse.

Of late, I've been feeling a little down about this whole PhD thing. I feel like I'm going to graduate with the ability to talk about the roots of my field but not anything happening since push technology was the hot new thing. I understand the need to root my knowledge, and I've actually valued being forced to read texts that I wouldn't normally pick up and read on my own (I'm looking at you Edmund Burke), but it's frustrating to look at the 2008 index of Computers and Composition and realize that I've made time to read absolutely nothing. Grr. So as yet another not-as-productive-as-I'd-liked Spring Break draws to a close, I make this promise to myself: I will read at least two articles per week that are a) not on my lists and b) in my area. I'll share what I read each week and hopefully visitors will suggest additional readings. As I go, I'll try and annotate the items I read, both for my use and for future generations of tech nerds.

Sound good? Let's see if I keep to it.


Teaching Carnival 3.3

Welcome to the third installation of the 2009 Teaching Carnival! Spring Break is looming (for some of us, it's already here), which is the perfect time to take a breath and explore the academic blogosphere. Just as a reminder, here's some definitions and a few words of wisdom for academic blog readers. And thanks again to Jason Jones and Kathleen Fitzpatrick for the first two Teaching Carnivals.

Beginning on a non-blog note, 4Cs (the Conference on College Composition and Communication), the big deal gathering in my field, takes place this week. If you've noticed your rhet/comp people making lots of photocopies and fretting about time, that's why. If you're going, Mark Crane has called the hash tag: #cccc09.

(Special tip for my Writing Center peeps...the master list of WC-focused sessions is available from the IWCA.)

Starting off with a key issue, several folks explored issues of writing and literacy:Assignment sharing and assessment are always hot topics:Of course, before you can assign or assess, you need a job. A number of writers tackled the topic of academia and the search for positions therein:Several bloggers considered Twitter and microblogging in general:
Finally there were the entries that didn't easily fit into a larger scheme:Big thanks to everyone who wrote and who submitted links. Remember to nominate entries for inclusion in the Teaching Carnival and tune in to The Chutry Experiment in two weeks for TC 3.4. Thanks for reading!

E-Books in Wired Campus

I love it when I have data to back up my vague feelings. As I mentioned in the last post, I find e-book readers to be fascinating and believe that they could someday be a viable future form for texts. That said, we are still in the "Mr. Watson, come here, I need you" era of e-book hardware development. That seems to be the conclusion reached by Northwest Missouri State. I think the key paragraph is:

Students were initially fascinated with their readers, said Dean L. Hubbard, the university’s president, but they soon became frustrated with the devices’ limited interactivity capabilities — which made it impossible to highlight passages, cut and paste text, or participate in interactive quizzes.
Text on E-Ink tools like the Kindle and the Sony Reader looks super-sharp, but that readability comes at a price for students. These problems are both hardware- and software-related.

As I noted before, you can't write back to the text on most e-Books. You can write notes on a handy nearby computer or note by hand, but that means that the text and the notes live in two different places. That's basically a perfect prescription for lost notes. True, the iLiad includes a Wacom-like screen that allows for annotations, but from what I've read,1)  the brush size is kind of large, and 2) the annotations don't always transfer over to the desktop backup.* 

The other hardware issue is the screen. While there's supposed to be a 9.8-incher coming out sometime this year, most are too small to display an 8.5x11 pdf (the typical format for e-reserves). Thanks to my Eee, I've gotten used to constant scrolling around, but it still irritates me to not be able to see a full spread at full size.

None of the e-book readers I've played with have very good indexing or searching abilities. Without full-text search, much less Yep! or DevonThink, I don't know how I'd be able to manage all the data. The other important lack is, as the NW Missouri students noted, a quiz tool. I think most of my fellow English comp folks wouldn't see this as a major loss, but the German class I'm taking to knock out my foreign-language requirement has taught me the value of a workbook. A good quiz tool would be a godsend.

* I, like most Americans, have never seen an iLiad up close; the only person I know who owns one is a former college buddy living in northern France. He's been using it to plow through the greatest hits of Project Gutenberg.


Second (chance) Life and eBook Read-Onlies

In a surprisingly uncommented-upon (as I write this) essay for IHE, Lev Gonick predicts 11 IT trends for 2009. Most are fairly straightforward—I think anyone paying any attention to the inroads Gmail has made in universities (including my own) knows that more cloud computing is on the way. But there are two that I think warrant more thought.

Going smallest quibble to largest, I think Gonick's fifth item, "e-Book Readers Disrupt the College Text Book Market Place" will be true only if iLiad-like devices with larger screens and annotation abilities, are made available. I stress "talking back" via marginalia, and I honestly can't imagine reading without a pen or word processing notes function in hand.

Moving to the bigger issue, Gonick's fourth item—SecondLife Goes Back to School—actually triggered a double-take for me. the meat of the entryCollapse )

A note about this blog

Rather than torment the Teaching Carnival 3.0 participants with the mishmash that is my main blog, I decided to repurpose this little-used quote blog for the project. Ideally, this will become the main site where pedagogy, online discourse, etc. will be discussed.

English hiring: a "Downfall" meme video

Based on what I've heard around the halls at the U and recent reports from MLA, this Kairos video isn't too far from the mark.

(Thanks to Steven D. Krause for the link.)

I'm not a self-described multimodalist, but I do study online discourse, and I have a lot of assignments involving Web analysis. I've been snooping around the office lately, listening for faculty conversation about the U's two open rhet/comp positions. It's a bit alarming to hear older faculty here—even compositionists, who should remember their own battle for legitimacy—dismiss Web studies as unimportant. One woman told me she didn't bother looking at one candidate's Web-based project because she "wouldn't be able to figure it out." Definitely feeling a little nervous right now.