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. Yes, it has obvious drawbacks — poor searchability above all. Yet for the primary purpose of actually reading, I don’t think we’re ever going to top it.
This is not to say, however, that e-books will inevitably fail — because the Western consumer seems more than content to embrace new technologies that actively undermine the purposes they supposedly serve. Take cell phones, for instance. They obviously serve a valuable purpose of allowing us to make phone calls “on the go.” Yet as phones, they’re miserable. I hate talking on cell phones, particularly indoors, which is where the majority of phone calls are made. We’d all probably be much happier with a landline, which never drops calls and has much clearer sound, supplemented by a cheap cell phone. As a society, however, we’ve all basically decided on the shittier option, presumably because it seems cooler or more convenient on some superficial level. Why keep the antiquated landline when I can make all my calls with a glorified tin can and string?
The same goes for wireless internet access. Again, it’s great for “surfing the web” “on the go.” But it’s nowhere near as reliable as an actual hardwired ethernet connection. Most of us, I’d say, don’t really move our laptops — and I’m going to leave my complaints about the universalization of laptops as an exercise for the reader — to more than two or three locations within our house, and it would not be any harder to wire a house for ethernet than it is to wire it for cable TV (i.e., jacks spread throughout the house). Yet because wireless seems cooler, and because plugging and unplugging occasionally is marginally inconvenient, we opt for the shittier option for all of our internet use, rather than as a helpful supplement for when we’re out of the house.
Of course, the biggest example ever is the individual automobile. The nation used to have a network of train lines and street cars that provided amazing freedom of motion, without requiring every adult to regularly operate a huge and dangerous piece of machinery and without requiring them to take on the sunk cost of the car, insurance, etc. The appeal of the car is obvious — flexibility and independence. Yet it’s only like that when only a small minority of people are actually driving cars. Instead of relying primarily on the robust network of shared means of transportation, supplemented by occasional use of cars for certain uses (i.e., deliveries, people living in rural areas, etc.), we as a society went for the shittier option that is making us miserable and destroying the environment on top of it.
People criticize the inefficiencies of a centrally planned economy like the Soviet Union, and there’s obviously truth to that — but sometimes I think the only real “benefit” of decentralized capitalist dynamism is that there’s no one to blame when the destructive equilibrium is inevitably reached.