Learning things. (One.)

(I sat on my back porch yesterday and, instead of brainstorming project ideas, this came out. Well, this and a lot of other words that I’ve broken down into shorter pieces. This is Part One.)

The other day, an older woman chastised Richard* for owning a Kindle. ‘Oh no! You have one of those things.’

Horrified, she went on to say that she didn’t like them and the she preferred to ‘feel’ and ‘smell’ books.

Richard replied ‘I prefer reading them.’

Me too. I read e-books and paper books and listen to audiobooks. It’s all good as far as I’m concerned.

Many years ago, Umberto Eco came to the University of Ottawa and Richard and I went to see him, even though I (at least) was profoundly intimidated by being in the same room with one of the cleverest people in the universe; it didn’t matter that I was sitting in an audience of hundreds and wouldn’t have to debate him on the finer points of colloquial Latin in 3rd century Constantinople. Also, I’m fairly sure that he toned down his talk so that laypeople/non-semioticians could understand what he was saying.

The theme was Text and Hypertext and, as this was a million years ago (okay, probably 1997/8), I don’t remember all the nitty-gritty details, but the talk was, essentially, about the future of books. This is long before the Nook or the iPad were even imagined and the Newton was being withdrawn from the market for encouraging cannibalism (probably).

He theorized that, in the face of the World Wide Web, which was just marvellous in the mid-to-late-1990s, kids, that people would choose text (books) for pleasure, for fiction, etc. because reading off of a computer monitor (big CRT ones) was unpleasant for reading (he even got into serifs vs. sans for ease on eyes), but that hypertext (the Web, in all its linkiness) would take over reference material. He saw this as a good thing. He won me over. Hell, I’m still (mostly) won over now.

Perhaps because I don’t keep up on academic theorems, especially in disciplines I’ve never studied, I have reservations too. The Kindle and tablet computers have started straddling the text-hypertext world, because it is possible to browse away from what you’re reading to look things up, to tweet passages, etc. Mine is impossibly old (not in actual, but in technological terms) and it is tricky to do this, and I love my Kindle BECAUSE I can treat (99% of the time) it like a special book containing all books I’m reading, in a compact package, with no other bells and whistles. I can read it without distractions, unless I keep my phone too close by. Developments to make reading devices play music and movies seems like a very bad idea.

So, yes, in the 1990s, the interwebs exploded and our attention spans and ability to focus on a single task dwindled in ways I didn’t expect. I thought Microsoft Encarta was how the future of learning would look – it was really cool to switch up elliptical orbits on a slow-moving model of a moon. I guess, like Bill Gates, I saw limitations to how far computers could go and how much they’d take over our lives. I didn’t think I’d have to retreat to writing things on paper with ‘look up this reference you KNOW exists later’ marks so that I don’t end up watching videos of hippos farting that were linked off from the sidebar on an article in the Toronto Star about the latest slut march.

See? Tangents. Was that such a problem in the last millennium? Has it made us better people to have the ability to get sucked into Wikipedia vortices where looking up when the French first did atomic tests in the Pacific results in, four hours later, finding out more than anyone ever needs to know about Ed Gein, with no idea how you got there? (My younger brother says all Wikipedia roads lead to Hitler, but in my experience, it’s usually serial killers and disfiguring diseases. I’m not sure what this says about either of us.)

(End of Part One of Three.)

* I am beginning to worry that Richard is turning into the Dave of my stories, so, if you are so inclined, you can read this in a perplexingly accented, snail-paced drawl. Or just rest assured that he is a real person. Also, yay me! I finally figured out anchors!

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