13 January 2009

Accepting Technological Change

Nicholas Negroponte is many things, good and bad I am sure, but one thing he may not be becomes obvious from the following quote: He may not be someone who can see beyond his own understanding of technology.

"Learning is many things," Negroponte says in GOOD Magazine, "one of which includes reading. Another is the ability to control, create, and collaborate. Books have sizes for reasons. Keyboards have a size, too. Surely we are not going to force children into literary expression with their thumbs. A laptop is a window, a contemplative experience, nomadic not mobile. The cell phone is a point of contact, a burst medium, interruptive in both good and bad sense. It is a lifeline in any sense. The device itself, however, should not be confused with connectivity. Laptops need to be connected too. Would I want an unconnected laptop over a connected cell phone. No. No more than I would want to be driving a car with brakes and no steering wheel."

"Books have sizes for reasons"? "Keyboards have a size, too"? Could these statements somehow be true?

There was a time when "books" were carved into stone tablets. Later they came as scrolls on papyrus or a very thin lambskin, written without punctuation or even space between words. At some point they became large leather bound "books." Or small pamphlets. Or the original "pocket" poetry books young swains carried with them on walks in the fields with the lassies they romanced. Mass transit created the desire for the contemporary paperback (something to read on the streetcar, el, underground, subway) and the "tabloid" ("Berliner") size newspaper (because turning pages of The New York Times on a rush hour Lexington Avenue Express train requires an advanced degree in origami). Along the way, each new variation seems to have opened reading up to more people.

Keyboards have, in their short lifespan, moved from steeply-sloped narrow configurations to the flat, wide keyboard I'm typing on now, to the semi-QWERTY of my Blackberry Pearl to the miniaturized virtual form of the iPhone or Storm. How we use them has changed as well. "Typing" - as we know it, that is "touch typing" - was created for secretaries to quickly convert the boss's handwriting, or shorthand, into a "typed" form. If you notice, those who "write" - that is create - on a keyboard are often much less exact in their typing techniques and often do need to look at the keys. Now half the population types with their thumbs. We type different things than we used to, in different ways, on keyboards unthinkable just a few years ago, with amazing new technologies (predictive spelling). Again, the more the "fixed" notion Negroponte sees has faded, the greater the variety of people who can join the party.

Negroponte is committed to a "form" for his technology. Yes, he's invested years in the OLPC computer, and yes, it is a brilliant thing. But while he and his team were hidden away working, technology changed, and the mobile phone grew up, and whole new visions and understandings of how information flows developed.

We do this all the time. We mistake the thing for the reason. The "reason" in Negroponte's case is global access to information, communication, and education. But the "thing" is a computer form that he is comfortable with - even if the mobile phone that every family already needs might be the more logical system for the users he wants to help.

The "reason" behind learning to read in school is to offer students a gateway to the information and culture they need. The "thing" is the bound book with alphabetic characters printed in ink - even if other delivery systems have arrived which might make more sense for many students.

The "reason" behind learning to write in school is communication and creativity... well, I could go on and on.

Technological change is difficult. A professor of mine commented last semester on his confusion when he collects student phone numbers these days. "There used to be just two or three area codes in a class," he said, "but now your phone number is more likely to say where you came from than where you live now." There are many people still confused by the fact that more than half of our phone calls are made to people, not places. Or that text messages have replaced many calls, and have morphed into something different entirely.

A New York Times article on the "death" of the Polaroid Photograph brought these issues together for me. As did Karen Janowski's blog on Obsolescence.

Information technologies only last until a new technology supersedes it. The first cave painting probably dealt a blow to those early human artists who drew only in the dirt, and it has progressed from there.

So, it might seem odd to someone under, say, 25, but there was a time when people really wanted to see their photographs right away, not wait 3 to 5 days after dropping them at the drugstore. So Edwin Land developed the Polaroid, and it changed many things - from parties to asking for that part at the hardware store (now you carried a photo of the broken plumbing piece in) to, yes, amateur pornography (which no longer had to be placed in the hands of that kid in the FotoMat). Whole art forms sprang up in response.

Polaroid never displaced traditional film because it couldn't do "everything" film did. Duplicates and enlargements were expensive and difficult. There were limits to the cameras. We might think of this in the same way we'd say that cassette audio books couldn't fully replace print. But digital photography swept away both "film" and Polaroid - and most photo stores - because it did everything both could do. Not at first, of course. I remember my first Sony digital camera which recorded its images on a floppy disk. Great Zeiss lens, but... you understand. Beyond that, digital photos have changed, fundamentally, the way we take, see, and share photographs.

Some may miss film, darkrooms, all those photo albums and shoe boxes crammed with pictures. That's legit. Still, if we "bring pictures" to a share at a family gathering these days we are most likely to plug the camera into the TV and show them, or we have already posted them on Flickr. The experience is different. It has changed. But it is not necessarily worse.

Photography no longer means "film" or silver oxide or physical prints. You no longer have to sweat for years with an enlarger and trays of chemicals to be a photographer. Hell, now you can be a photographer with nothing more than that phone you've got. But this has not destroyed photography, nor has it invalidated the work of those old artists of film. If anything, it expands the audience and opportunity.

The same is happening with "written" communication. It too is becoming unbundled from the "thing." And this bothers people. Someone in a class last semester said that listening to a book was not as legitimate a way to read because it was "easier." The National Endowment for the Arts still doesn't think you are reading right now - whether you are using your ears or your eyes to take this text in. Others talk of the smell of paper, of holding the book, in ways reminiscent of those lamenting the vanished photographic darkroom.

And Nicholas Negroponte thinks a phone is just a phone, and won't give up the specific size and weight of his laptop computer. And that writing with thumbs is somehow not "writing" but typing on a QWERTY keyboard is.

But the world keeps spinning. And it is essential - in this Year of Universal Access - to remember the reasons why we want children to read, to write, to listen, to see, to understand. And for us to focus on giving them those operational, comprehension, and analytical skills they'll need to work with the flow of information coming their way. And then we have to prepare them for a world in which the delivery and interactive systems for that information will be ever changing, and ever expanding, so that they can grow up into learners able to make the best decisions for themselves - given the world they will live in.

Technologies change. Yes, they even change reading. That's all right. Reading is something apart from the technology. Helen Keller read one way. I read another. You might read a third way. Who knows what your students will do.

- Ira Socol
who is finally starting to recover. thanks.

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