Counting the cost on technology

Rebecca Solnit has a diary in a recent LRB in which she reflects on the shift in the texture of time that has taken place since the mid-90s. It would be easy to read this piece and start debating some of the generalizations she makes, though I think she steers clear of Luddite cliches. Yet for me the most salient point is that no one actively decided that our new technological era was desirable or beneficial. Or to be more precise: we all just rushed to adopt new technologies basically because they were new technologies, because they sounded cool.

I have long shared Solnit’s view on the destruction wrought by cell phones. Read the rest of this entry »

AUFS and “digital humanities”

How big a stretch would it be to say that we here at AUFS are “digital humanists”?

Calendrical Questions

My method for keeping track of appointments is appallingly primitive — I have a desk calendar in my office at home, and I just write everything on that. In terms of getting all the appropriate information onto the calendar, this actually works better than one would think, given that most appointments are made via e-mail. (In the last resort, I’ll e-mail myself to remind me to write down said appointment when I get home.) Yet the system has one glaring hole: I can only refer to it when I’m at home. It also seems likely that I’m only going to get more busy over time, and so it makes sense to form new habits now when things are relatively calm.

How do you, my readers, keep track of such things? I’ve considered using Google Calendar, which would be convenient given that Shimer uses Google for their e-mail, etc. I’m also due for a phone upgrade this summer, at which point I could get an Android phone so that it would all integrate, preferably without seams. (I’ve also hypothesized that I could put my files in which I take notes on students on Google Docs and have instant access to that, because I’ve noticed that I have a hard time remembering paper topics, etc., to write down once I get back to my office.)

A theory on “digital natives”

One often hears that today’s young people find computers and the internet to be totally natural and easy to use — i.e., that they are “digital natives.” I’m going to say that that’s false, at least of college students.

Some pieces of anecdotal evidence:

  • Getting college students to check their e-mail regularly is often a challenge.
  • College students frequently display a lack of understanding of how basic computer programs work (using manual headings in a word processor, creating manual footnotes, etc.).
  • College students only rarely take advantage of Google or Wikipedia to answer small factual questions for themselves. (If they do look something up, they make a point of mentioning that they have done so, indicating that it’s not taken for granted.)
  • Supplemental online discussions (i.e., within course-management software) are generally no better than in-class discussions.
  • If students give presentations requiring the use of computers, snafus generally abound, even for simple tasks such as opening files.

In short, I’m inclined to suspect that young people do not have a special aptitude or bond with computers and, therefore, that any educational strategy that relies heavily on computer technology is not making education automatically richer or more “relevant” — indeed, for many students, it’s adding an obstacle or impediment to learning.

Technology for the sake of it: With negative remarks about Apple’s new education initiative

I hope it’s okay to say now that Steve Jobs has left us, but it seems like Apple’s education initiative is wrong-headed for all the reasons Kieran Healy cites. It’d be great if Apple could create an “actually good” version of course-management software, but as Kieran says, their idea of interactive textbooks seems like a rehash of Microsoft Encarta.

This leads me to a curmudgeonly observation: it seems to me that we often rush into new technology because it seems new and cool, without really thinking about what works best. Perhaps the Amish have the right idea, though their openness to new technology is probably a little too limited. Take the printed book, for example. Read the rest of this entry »

Kickstarter: A scam?

Gerry Canavan points toward an account of why Kickstarter is a scam. As someone who has long suspected that Chicago’s great start-up, Groupon, may actually be a conscious scam to defraud investors — and I’m so dedicated to this view that I actually read a good chunk of their IPO prospectus — I was of course pleased to see yet another “cool” web service taken down.

The basic point is that Kickstarter amounts to a hugely expensive web-hosting service, which makes its money by skimming a percentage off the financial transactions it intermediates. Yet this is supposed to be okay, because they’re cool people:

People who think outside the box, creative types who don’t want to be told what to do, trailblazers and mavericks with new ideas. They’re rethinking everything, breaking down barriers, and bringing their fresh, youthful flair to overturn staid, conventional, old-fashioned paradigms. These people support lcoal artists, local musicians, local bakeries, local apps and locavorism; social enterprises, organic food, micro-breweries, open source software, peer-to-peer production, collaborative consumption, volunteering, making the world a better place, community-supported agriculture; simplicity, minimalism, spiritual but not religious, being a maker, not just a consumer; digital nomadism, owning less and experiencing more; being your own boss, being passionate, being connected, being involved; DIY and knowing exactly who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning.

Surely we’re all willing to pay a coolness premium.

Withdrawing from exciting new social media: A Twitter fast

For various reasons, I never joined Facebook. First of all, I was never very curious about what my old acquaintances from high school were doing, and I didn’t feel I needed yet another thing to “check” constantly, furthering the destructive cycle of internet addiction. I also didn’t like the lack of control I had over what got shared and with whom — much better to stick to the platform of blogging from that perspective. As the pressure to join grew, I tried to make an end-run around the phenomenon by joining up with the next big thing: Twitter. Over time, I became a prolific Twitterer and recently reached over 1000 followers.

And so it seemed like a good time to ask myself, “Why am I doing this?” Read the rest of this entry »

The iPad as objet petit a

Tablet computing has always been a solution in search of a problem. Attempts to mainstream the idea have come out periodically, and before the iPad, they all failed. I would venture that this wasn’t simply because the technology wasn’t yet ready, but because of conceptual objections that also apply to the iPad: namely, there didn’t seem to be a felt gap in the current regime of computer options where the tablet would go. The tablet feels like an impoverished laptop; if you say you can add a keyboard to enhance its input capabilities, it then seems redundant, just another laptop. Adding smartphones to the mix didn’t necessarily solve this problem, I would say — in fact, it arguably made the need for the “less than laptop”-style computer even less acute.

What the iPad adds to this equation is Appleness. Read the rest of this entry »

Pedagogy that “lives in the cloud”

When I first got my Shimer College e-mail account, I was pleased to see that it is hosted in Gmail — and apparently this summer they introduced a shift making Google Docs and other services available as well. At K College, I already received the majority of classwork electronically, and I specified to the students that they would get comments and grades in the same format (i.e., either paper or electronic) in which they submitted their work. If they submitted electronically, I would leave changes and comments on the file using Word’s “track changes” feature and e-mail it back to them. I found that I was able to leave much more detailed and helpful comments in that format, and students were able to read them much more easily. Some students still opted for the paper method, but I don’t recall any complaints from students about the electronic method.

Now that I have an “official” college-wide Google Docs setup, I’m thinking of using it for all written work — after all, I know for a fact that all students will have an account, so there would be no concerns about the hassle of getting everyone set up to work with it. It would also provide an automatic backup of their work if they composed it in Google Docs itself, and they could obviously upload files created elsewhere if desired.

Does this plan sound plausible to you, dear readers? Are there potential drawbacks I’m not seeing? Should I still allow for the paper option?

The “downward synthesis” of Twitter

The disadvantages of online conversations are well-known and can largely be reduced to the fallout that attends on a lack of physical presence — no reliable way to convey tone, an over-aggressiveness that physical presence would automatically allay, a tendency to overreact in a setting where false impressions can only be dispelled after the one with false impressions has already written a great deal based on and invested a great deal of emotional energy in said impressions, etc., etc. Yet the (potential) advantages are manifold as well: the ability to respond at greater length than is possible in live conversation, the possibility for time-lags wherein one can actually think, etc.

What is less discussed in assessments of the relative merits of online conversation are the very real disadvantages of in-person conversation, to wit: the necessity of communicating in relatively short bursts, the lack of clarity that attends impromptu formulations of ideas, the influence of physical presence in causing everyone to try to avoid sharp disagreement and maintain an artificial comity that keeps conversations from advancing, etc., etc. And there’s also the fact that in order to benefit from these conversations, you have to be physically present at a given time and place. In-person conversations are, in short, no utopia! They can be good, but they can also be a waste of time — or at the very least, they can be dissatisfying, as social pressures of various kinds keep people from getting to the heart of the issue.

One of the most amazing innovations to occur in recent years is the microblogging platform Twitter, which quickly became a way for academics to exchange ideas. What is so remarkable about this technology is the way that it rigorously combines the worst features of both online and in-person communication without any of their benefits — and adds new deficits of its own. Read the rest of this entry »


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