How often do you still download a document, or go to the site of a periodical you used to get in the mail every week, and approach it as a concrete piece of the physical world? How has the switch from print to digital affected how you engage with what you’re reading/learning?
I grew up convinced I’d been born in the wrong decade. I always thought I should have come of age in the 60s, been a part of a set of movements that were fought by and for everyday people, had the chance to witness “real” change happening. And it only recently dawned on me that the span of my lifetime, and that of my peers, is mind-boggling in a totally different but also unique way. Although the technology revolution is of a different nature than that of the antiwar and civil rights variety, it is also the mark of an amazingly wild and exciting time to be alive.
I often come back to this fact: I typed my college applications on a typewriter. Sometimes I spend whole days coming back to this idea, wondering if there has in fact ever been a time in history in which so much change has happened so rapidly. I also wonder how historians will recount this period in time: are we only at the beginning of what is to come? When/how did this wave of change really start? What social, economic, and political forces impacted the rate and speed of digital growth? How do schools factor into all of this?
But I digress. Really what inspired this post was downloading my first book on iBooks. I’m a recent iPhone convert, and while a big part of why I’ve avoided getting one is related to my klutz factor, a big part of me has resisted the functionality of apps like iBooks that aim to marry the physical and digital. If you’ve ever been to my apartment, you’ve probably noticed my monstrous bookshelf. Even though it holds my most precious possessions, I have a love-hate relationship with the shelf itself. I kind of can’t stand it anymore — it’s been through seven apartments with me over the last decade — and the more information I take in digitally every day, the more I want to purge my life of physical things (like my books — I can’t even believe I’m saying that out loud!!) for if I keep them, the growing intake of digital information will at some point surely seem redundant.
I can’t see myself getting rid of the well-worn tomes that my favorite high school English teacher assigned senior year, the stacks of heavily annotated political economy and education policy literature, my collections of Chris Van Allsberg books and Jacqueline Susann novels, the beautiful knitwear and fiber art books my grandmother gave me from the 70s, or the touchstone texts that guided me through the first years of teaching reading and writing in an elementary school. But then I try to imagine what my iBooks library will look like a year from now — surely there will be more than just one volume sitting on my virtual shelves. So what happens to my actual books? Will I end up purchasing them digitally, too? Will my book collection become a retro conversation piece in twenty years? Will my urge to purge anything in the physical world that I maintain a digital copy of grow? And related to my work: how can public elementary schools possibly keep up?
I went to a presentation at the American Educational Research Association annual meeting this year in New Orleans about the national education technology plan. It was a fascinating symposium that went through a brief history of how the internet has affected students and learning throughout the U.S., and spent a lot of time explaining the plan for the near future. All sorts of innovative ideas were shared about the impact technology is having (and could potentially have) on education, and the capabilities teachers have at their fingertips. The catch is: only if there’s funding. And at this point, the federal education technology plan puts the pressure on the states to back the plan with dollars to make it happen. Of course we all know what’s happening with state budgets: they’re being slashed, and things like education are taking a huge hit.
So in my eyes, we’re at a real crossroads. It’s not a clear-cut crossroads or even a fork in the road exactly — while I’m framing my thoughts here in the context of two distinct bodies (physical and digital), I see them as necessarily tangled. I think a period of time will continue for a while in which most of us will kind of fumble now and then when we try to use an app that replicates something we’re already knowledgeable of tangibly (i.e., a book), but that eventually, the digital world will no longer seem to replicate (or try to imitate) the physical in the same ways.
I have so much more to say about this, but it’s the first week of the semester and I’m completely spent. More tomorrow.