After my three hour committee meeting, one of my colleagues, Steve, and I had a conversation that began with Twitter and ended up as a general discussion about the coming age of iSolation (trademarked).
Steve told a story of the eerie silence as he approached his classroom and how what greeted him was not an empty room, but a room full of students all interacting with their smart phones, tablets and other devices. No one spoke or paid the least attention to anyone around him or her. I added my own tale of feeling vaguely disturbed by students walking in groups, yet interacting only with their phones and not each other. Unless, perhaps, they were Tweeting or texting the people with them.
The conversation then turned to the push for online learning and how it might be the case that we will see the last generation of students who get to choose between being taught in person and being taught online. Naturally, the push for online learning is driven mostly by economic concerns: having masses of students enrolled in online only classes that are auto-graded (or graded by low paid graders) would replicate the exploitative or automated model (or both) of factories. This would mean far lower costs and thus far higher profits for those owning the machines of education and the lucky few left to run the process.
We did, however, set aside the economic motivation to consider an important question (at least for educators): would the online model be better than the traditional model in terms of providing quality education?
This sparked a side discussion about digital books and digital music. Steve is Jazz person and is of the school of thought that the analog approach is superior to the digital approach-not just in terms of the music but also in terms of the social aspect. He spoke of how he used to go to music stores and be able to discuss music with others of like interest. The idea of joining a Facebook group to post about Jazz had little appeal to him, perhaps even less than the vision of people downloading digital music in iSolation from each other.
I added in my view of books-namely that while I find the Kindle very appealing because it allows me to carry hundreds of books when I travel, I still value the experience of reading an actual book.
Thinking about this, I realized that my preference was based not in any rejection of digital books (I like my Kindle and love the books I sell for the Kindle). Rather, I value the full aesthetic experience of reading an actual book. There is, I contend, a different aesthetic experience when it comes to a physical book: its design, the weight in one’s hand, the act of turning the pages, and so on all create an experience that has aesthetic value and one that cannot be (as of yet) replicated by a digital book. In support of this claim, I made an analogy between seeing a movie and going to a play based on the same story. While the movie will provide an aesthetic experience, the play will provide a different one in virtue of its nature. Likewise, the same would seem to hold for digital books and actual books.
Being a philosopher, I did note that our concern over the shift to the digital world might simply be a manifestation of the usual lamentations of people as they grow older and things are not as they were when they were kids. I imagined my ancestors of long ago lamenting the kids and their new-fangled writing and how it would wreck everything. Why not, I imagined them saying, just stick with speaking and remembering? As such, I believe it is important to consider that my concerns are fueled not by reason but by feeling.
That said, I believe it is equally important to consider that my concerns might have a foundation-that is, worrying about the age of iSolation is not just a matter of yelling at the damn kids to get off my lawn, but a point of legitimate worry regarding the road we are now following.
In conclusion, buy my damn books. Then get off my damn lawn.