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.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.
That difference can be summarized in two words: It disappears.
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.and
You’re not just looking at Wired.com through a browser, you’re holding Wired.com 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
- Current Music:Bright Lights - I'm Gonna Stab You
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.
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.
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:
- Last week, NCTE released The Genteel Unteaching of America's Poor, a brief report by Kylene Beers exploring the link between class and access to innovative teaching.
- Earlier, Alex Reid unpacked Kathleen Blake Yancey's report on 21st-century writing.
- The Writing Center at ASU recently released a series of podcasts on writing for grad school.
- Both Tenured Radical and Annie Em take on those masterpieces of narrative: student excuses.
- Several people flagged David Silver's recent Digital Media Production and Eating San Francisco assignments.
- Dr. No is in fine form, sharing thoughts on The Plague(rism) and a grading quandary all of us have been in before (as evidenced by the many, many more helpers suggested in the comments). Plus, the mention of ShamWow allows me to link to the University of Alberta Writing Center's GramWow video.
- What would talk of assignments be without a discussion of assessment? Jason Jones discusses his online grading method and proposes a better one and Nels provides insight into his own methods.
- Delaney Kirk offers up some student feedback on the value of enforcing classroom rules.
- K8andcat ponders Teaching sensitive topics and the importance of praise, appreciation, and forging connections with students.
- Alex Halavais meditates on teaching, academia, and the importance of informal, unexpected, collaborative learning.
- When I read Alan Cann's Lies, damned lies and frustration, I couldn't help thinking about my freshmen and their ability to "do" basic grammar.
- Scott Eric Kaufman asks the eternal question What would you title a post about a student's parent trying to beat you up? Yikes.
- For those new to t-t jobs, Gayprof has some advice. Dr. Crazy supplements the list with advice for those at non-research schools.
- Sisyphus ponders the wonderful joy that is the job search in a time of hiring freezes and budget cuts.
- Dave Perry offers sage advice on the importance of an online profile for grad students, young scholars, and anyone interested in the future of the profession.
- David Silver, who always has interesting things to say about Twitter, offers a thick-thin schematic for categorizing tweets. This sparked a response from Random Access Mazar and a useful explication in the comments.
- Chuck Tryon, tired of the "Twitter=pointless narcissism" meme, makes a case for Twitter's ability to foster communication and build community.
- George Online joined the iPhone
cultcommunity the other day, and I thought his March 8 tweets about needed academic apps were worth noting.
- A new TwitRhet Twitter group is up and running. Thanks Karl Stolley! (Also be sure to check out TwitRhet).
- If you're looking to get into Twitter, Paul Bradshaw is raving about Twitterfall. (Contrary to the title, it's not just for journalists.)
- Alex Reid reacts to the recent Hacking Education conference.
- On Science of the Invisible, Alan Cann wrestles with the future of MicrobiologyBytes and online community. Don't skip the comments; interesting points are made.
- Patrick Murray-John explores using Zotero and OpenLibrary as part of a Giant EduGraph.
- Lisa Spiro posted a second Digital Humanities in 2008 wrapup. Fabulous reading, as is Part 1.
- Chuck Tryon points readers to a fascinating series of documentary shorts called Five Days on the Digital Dirt Road.
- Annie Em, who's loving her comp classes this term, is soliciting suggestions for memoirs by younger women writers and meditating on her school's new LGBT club and the changing gender/sexuality climate on her campus.
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.
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 )
(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.