Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, August 10, 2009

the inevitable

In an article about the (possible) end of textbooks, we hear this comment:

“Kids are wired differently these days,” said Sheryl R. Abshire, chief technology officer for the Calcasieu Parish school system in Lake Charles, La. “They’re digitally nimble. They multitask, transpose and extrapolate. And they think of knowledge as infinite.”

Okay, we’ve been over all this before. No, they’re not “wired differently” from anyone else; surprisingly few of them are “digitally nimble”; they don't multitask — no one does — ; and they hardly think of knowledge at all.

All that duly noted, the article is almost certainly right that there are better alternatives to the traditional textbook, at least for most subjects. And the superiority of digital alternatives to textbooks can be defended, if people will just take the time and trouble to think and explain.

But thinking and explaining can be difficult, which is why most proponents of new technologies fall back on two standard lines: (1) Human Nature Has Irreversibly Changed , and (2) Beware Lest the Wheels of History’s Juggernaut Crush You. I swear, these people are going to make technophobes of me yet.

The latter one is especially annoying, perhaps because it’s (in my experience) more common. Take this comment, for example: “Our ideas about what reading is will have to change to keep up with what is going on in a digital culture.” Which just makes me want to say: No, they bloody well won't. My ideas about what reading is don't have to change at all, and if they do change they will do so because I have discovered new ideas that interest or provoke or delight me, not because I am obliged to “keep up with” anything. Anyone who wants to read books while ignoring the internet is free to do so, and I’m not convinced that such a person will be intellectually impoverished in comparison to, for example, me. I’m online a lot, but I’m online because I want to be, not because the tides of history are compelling me to be. I can choose otherwise — we all can, and we all need to remember that we can.

(One of the most thoughtful recent reflections on the idea of the inevitable comes from Kevin Kelly, but KK is too prone to believing that whatever ends up happening must be inevitable, and he fails to make the vital distinction between the inevitability of an event or a development and the non-inevitability of any given person's participation in that event or development.)

More on this tomorrow.


  • "I’m online a lot, but I’m online because I want to be, not because the tides of history are compelling me to be. I can choose otherwise — we all can, and we all need to remember that we can."

    No, no, no. You want to be online a lot, Alan, because there are a lot of interesting things being said online - which you would miss if you shunned the online world (or to put it less negatively, which you don't want to miss since it's interesting and useful). Isn't that the meaning of "inevitable" in some sense?

    Which is not to say that I agree with the article that the textbook will get replaced by something else.

    In my chosen field, at least, the online world has become inevitable! I do research in system design, interaction design and the technologies of business communication - and I wouldn't know anything about the latest ideas if I didn't read the tech blogs. How much more inevitable can the online world get?

  • I hear what you're saying, scritic, but I don't think I agree. I am online a lot, as I say, but not nearly as much as I used to be. I have maybe half as many feeds in my RSS reader as I did in my time of highest online involvement, which was (roughly speaking) in 2007. And think about this: in 2007 I read 20 books (outside of my schoolwork); this year already I've read 45. I'm finding online life less interesting in comparison to books lately. So we can choose, we can change. Online presence isn't inevitable.

  • All good points - and I agree that at some point most of us who read online have to make hard calls about what to read and what not to read. And man, it's such a hard call to make.

    But at no point is it possible to stop reading the blogs altogether. Instead, the question becomes one of subscribing to 5 blogs (and which 5) as opposed to 50 or 100.

  • You don't think it's possible to stop reading blogs? Surely there are people who have done it, just as there are people who have given up their televisions.

  • The only thing that we might say in defense of the claim that kids today are "wired differently" is that it's true that our experiences do help shape our brain's "shape" (for lack of a better word). Our memories, habits, tendencies, etc. are neural paths - think of them as sort of like paths in the forest. Which helps explain why habits persist as they do. So it could be the case that children exposed to a lot of electronic media at a young age would be a bit differently "wired" than, say, some kid born in the 19th century. But even if that is true, isn't part of our job as educators to push back against some of that?

  • Bryan, I think the language of "wiring" or "hard-wiring" is misleading: when people use that kind of language they usually want to convey the notion that something is fixed and unchangeable. But that's not true in this case. Our brains are extraordinarily plastic and adaptable. Young people (like older people) have habits, but habits can be changed. With effort!

  • "You don't think it's possible to stop reading blogs? Surely there are people who have done it, just as there are people who have given up their televisions."

    Yes, of course, it's possible to stop reading blogs but only at the risk of not being as up-to-date as you would be otherwise. Sort of like a college professor who stops reading books and research papers.

    I agree there are lots of professions still where reading blogs doesn't matter (many of my friends don't, for e.g.) but for certain professions it has become inevitable.

  • I am a college student. I was told to read this blog and respond to it in a paper. I agree with the fact that the internet is used a lot. But, Scritic, you have a choice in what you read and what you do not read. I don't normally read blogs. I would deffinately not to "keep up with the times". If I wanted to do that, I would watch the news instead of reading what other people thought of the news. You can stop reading an opinion, you can also stop writing about it. That's all blogs are, ways for people to express their opinion for all to read. And, to be honest, I probably wouldn't have read trhis is it wasn't assigned. So, I CHOOSE to write back, keep the conversation going, and i CHOOSE to never write again. It's all about choice, and that's all life is, a bunch of choices.

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