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Friday, January 20, 2012

GarageBand for Philosophy

The introduction by Apple yesterday of iBooks 2 and its companion (and free) application, iBooks Author, will almost surely accelerate the pace at which education at all levels follows the way of music, book publishing, and electronic technology generally. One of the chief purposes of these two applications is to revolutionize the educational textbook industry, inviting more and more authors to create electronic textbooks specifically designed for the engaging functionality of the iPad. The greater presence of the iPad in classrooms, or in the hands of individuals exploring some avenue of knowledge, seems inevitable.

I think about this announcement in juxtaposition with this post by Matthew over at By Way of Beauty, which worries (for good reason) that our culture is drowning in “information” while losing its sense of “wisdom.” In making his point Matthew draws upon the thought of Marshall McLuhan, especially his adage that “the medium is the message”:

McLuhan's idea was this: all media—whether it has content (Internet, books, movies, etc.) or not (cars, light bulbs, etc.)—“amplifies or accelerates existing processes” and can introduce a "change of scale or pace or shape or pattern into human association, affairs, and action", resulting in “psychic, and social consequences.” This, not the content of the medium, is the real "meaning or message.”

For example, the changes in the way we exist brought about by the internet are the real “message” of a medium, not its actual content (what we read through the medium—say, Wikipedia entries, news articles, etc.). 

If McLuhan is right, then innovations such as iBooks2 and iBooks Author will have profound “psychic and social consequences.” They will help advance an age (already well underway) in which education (like music and publishing) becomes more diffuse, more heterogeneous, more disconnected, more ubiquitous, more democratized, more image-based in its rhetorical presentation, more focused on material explanation.

But the “medium” of the new educational technology is not the only challenge the future holds. As content proliferates, the challenge of distinguishing wisdom from information will become all the greater as well. The digital sea is only going to get deeper and more tumultuous, even as the question of how to navigate it remains.

Still, I believe there is an educational opportunity here with the new Apple apps, an opportunity for individuals and enclaves devoted to the tradition of the liberal arts to create new forums of teaching and learning, and thus pass by the desiccated institutions which comprise so much of our educational system here in the United States, at every level, both public and private.

Just think of it as GarageBand for philosophy. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the shout-out! I responded to your other comments on our blog as well.

    I'm reminded of Walker Percy who once mused about television: "What happens to people who watch television six hours a day for twenty years?...Nobody has any idea. We don't know how to think about it." Percy sensed the "message" of the medium of television, the psychic and social change, was the "exhaustion of language."

    But how sweeping of a change has computer technology been, compared with TV? You can't even compare the two. Forget TV - what will a generation look like that's been plugged into the "matrix" since age 7?

    As you noted, we're importing it into every aspect of daily life - education, entertainment, social life, romance, work, etc. And we look at it through a rosy, optimistic lens that only focuses on the wide array of content and unbridled access to it, not on the medium itself (which is the real agent of change). What's the medium's message? This is a question our culture doesn't care to ask. We're too dazzled.

    Being a blogger, I'd be remiss not to acknowledge the great opportunities provided to us by new technologies. Technology isn't inherently evil or bad. But you hit the nail on the head: what is our compass for navigating this digital sea? What destination does it point to? What shore do we keep one eye on?