A Philosopher's Blog

The iSolated Age

Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 20, 2013
Cover of "Kindle Wireless Reading Device,...

Cover via Amazon

After my three hour committee meeting, one of my colleagues, Steve, and I had a conversation that began with Twitter and ended up as a general discussion about the coming age of iSolation (trademarked).

Steve told a story of the eerie silence as he approached his classroom and how what greeted him was not an empty room, but a room full of students all interacting with their smart phones, tablets and other devices. No one spoke or paid the least attention to anyone around him or her. I added my own tale of feeling vaguely disturbed by students walking in groups, yet interacting only with their phones and not each other. Unless, perhaps, they were Tweeting or texting the people with them.

The conversation then turned to the push for online learning and how it might be the case that we will see the last generation of students who get to choose between being taught in person and being taught online. Naturally, the push for online learning is driven mostly by economic concerns: having masses of students enrolled in online only classes that are auto-graded (or graded by low paid graders) would replicate the exploitative or automated model (or both) of factories. This would mean far lower costs and thus far higher profits for those owning the machines of education and the lucky few left to run the process.

We did, however, set aside the economic motivation to consider an important question (at least for educators): would the online model be better than the traditional model in terms of providing quality education?

This sparked a side discussion about digital books and digital music. Steve is Jazz person and is of the school of thought that the analog approach is superior to the digital approach-not just in terms of the music but also in terms of the social aspect. He spoke of how he used to go to music stores and be able to discuss music with others of like interest. The idea of joining a Facebook group to post about Jazz had little appeal to him, perhaps even less than the vision of people downloading digital music in iSolation from each other.

I added in my view of books-namely that while I find the Kindle very appealing because it allows me to carry hundreds of books when I travel, I still value the experience of reading an actual book.

Thinking about this, I realized that my preference was based not in any rejection of digital books (I like my Kindle and love the books I sell for the Kindle). Rather, I value the full aesthetic experience of reading an actual book. There is, I contend, a different aesthetic experience when it comes to a physical book: its design, the weight in one’s hand, the act of turning the pages, and so on all create an experience that has aesthetic value and one that cannot be (as of yet) replicated by a digital book. In support of this claim, I made an analogy between seeing a movie and going to a play based on the same story. While the movie will provide an aesthetic experience, the play will provide a different one in virtue of its nature. Likewise, the same would seem to hold for digital books and actual books.

Being a philosopher, I did note that our concern over the shift to the digital world might simply be a manifestation of the usual lamentations of people as they grow older and things are not as they were when they were kids. I imagined my ancestors of long ago lamenting the kids and their new-fangled writing and how it would wreck everything. Why not, I imagined them saying, just stick with speaking and remembering? As such, I believe it is important to consider that my concerns are fueled not by reason but by feeling.

That said, I believe it is equally important to consider that my concerns might have a foundation-that is, the worries about the age of iSolation is not just a matter of yelling at the damn kids to get off my lawn, but a point of legitimate worry regarding the road we are now following.

In conclusion, buy my damn books.  Then get off my damn lawn. 🙂

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8 Responses

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  1. WTP said, on February 20, 2013 at 9:51 pm

    You’ll note that when the subject is the degeneration of social values, Mike is quick to point out that such has been the complaint for generations and such concerns lack a broader historical perspective. But when the value-nuetral tools that make life better for us all start to intrude on his personal needs, well this requires more serious consideration.

  2. drewdog2060drewdog2060 said, on February 21, 2013 at 2:57 am

    Technology can bring people together, for example individuals who meet via the internet, go on to get together in person and form relationships in the real (off-line) world. I live and work in London. When I travel on the train and tube their are people busily engaged in using mobiles and other forms of technology rather than interacting with their fellow passengers, however many others are engrossed in print media (the Metro London’s free newspaper), consequently it isn’t simply a case of new fangled technology separating us from our fellow man. Geographical factors also play a part. In larger cities people tend to ignore one another more than they do in smaller communities so people in larger conurbations tend to be more isolated and i-solated than those in country villages and smaller towns.

  3. T. J. Babson said, on February 21, 2013 at 7:23 am

    Seems like it would be all too easy for hordes of people to be sucked into living a virtual life instead of a real one. Has anybody read “Ready Player One”?

    • WTP said, on February 21, 2013 at 9:43 am

      But isn’t reading a book just another form of being sucked into a virtual life instead of living a real one? Much as drew*60 says above.

      One other thing I meant to mention, the students in “Steve’s” class…Steve has no idea what exactly they are doing on those devices. If they’re communicating with Grandma or a friend from high school instead of the random stranger in the class room, so what? The devices are just give people more options on what to do with their instances of free time. It’s all a rather odd observation coming from someone who spends an inordinate amount of time playing web-based video games. Or writing books, for that mattter. Though he does kind of touch on that in the piece.

      • T. J. Babson said, on February 21, 2013 at 1:29 pm

        “But isn’t reading a book just another form of being sucked into a virtual life instead of living a real one?”

        Not exactly. In a book you are reading about the actions of others. In a virtual on-line existence you are an actor in a Matrix-like alternate reality.

        • WTP said, on February 21, 2013 at 1:50 pm

          Well, yes. Books are still an alternate reality, but reading a book is even less of an existence. Books have been flawed for centuries in that they lack this valueable “input” aspect. Once a book goes awry there’s no changing it until/unless a second edition is printed. And even then, society is still stuck with all those flawed copies.

  4. biomass2 said, on February 21, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    Mike mentions online courses here. I posted this reply to his 1/9 MOOCs article after reading a 2/19 NYT online editorial.
    “First, student attrition rates — around 90 percent for some huge online courses — appear to be a problem even in small-scale online courses when compared with traditional face-to-face classes. . . . . . . [the courses] may be fine for highly skilled, highly motivated people, but they are inappropriate for struggling students who make up a significant portion of college enrollment and who need close contact with instructors to succeed.
    . . .. . . ..
    “Interestingly, the center found that students in hybrid classes — those that blended online instruction with a face-to-face component — performed as well academically as those in traditional classes. But hybrid courses are rare, and teaching professors how to manage them is costly and time-consuming. ”


    With this selection, I’m suggesting the obvious . Just as some handle old age or social progress better than others, some handle technological progress better than other. I can say with reasonable certainty that progress will continue. As it steams ahead, some will desperately grasp what was, some ,stumbling , will grumble, but keep up. .And some will manage to face change and master it. At least some of our future is in the hands of those who will not surrender the past.

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