Is the laptop going the way of the codex; technological nostalgia in the iPad imperium

My colleague John Fea over at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, pointed me to this essay by Alex Golub on the relative merits of the iPad and the laptop.  For Golub, the iPad is indispensable, but, as he puts it “it’s not a laptop and it never will be.”  Golub goes on with a litany of limitations that, in fact, I mostly agree with–too hard to produce things, too hard to multi-task, etcetera, etcetera.

On the other hand, I’m struck by the degree to which his lamentations strike me as just the sort of thing people are saying about the demise of the book.

Perhaps I am one of the old generation who will someday be put to shame by nimble-fingered young’uns tapping expertly away on their nanometer-thick iPad 7s, but I don’t think so. People may get used to the limitations of the device, but that doesn’t mean that it’s better than what came before.

In fact, I see this as one of the dangers of the iPad. I see them everywhere on campus, and I wonder to myself: Are my students really getting through college without a laptop? Frankly, the idea seems horrifying to me. I don’t doubt that they can do it — I worry what skills they are not learning because of the smallness (in every sense of that word) of the devices they learn on.

Read more:
Inside Higher Ed

Substitute the word “book” for every reference to laptop and you’ve got a pretty good rendition of the typical concerns with the demise of the codex, profs in horror at the idea that students may someday come to their classes without books in hand and they may be required to teach students from text on a screen. (Who am I kidding, the thought horrifies me still).  As if somehow there were an inherent depth or proficiency of knowledge that is unavailable through this other form.  My college began an iPad experiment this year, and so far there’s been quite a bit of success, even if there are also hiccups.  Just yesterday I read an interview with Clive Thompson who is reading War and Peace on his iPhone.  On his iPhone!

As I said, I’m reading War and Peace on my iPhone. But you can’t tell I’m reading War and Peaceon my iPhone. When I take my kids to the park and they’re off playing while I’m reading War and Peace, I look like just some fatuous idiot reading his email. I almost went to CafePress and designed a T-shirt that said, “Piss off, I’m reading War and Peace on my iPhone.”

I mildly object to the notion that people look like fatuous idiots answering their email.  It’s what I spend about 80% of my day doing.  Nevertheless, I agree with the sentiment that simply because the embodiment or the tools of our intelligence are unfamiliar, we should not assume intelligence and learning aren’t present.

We’ve had the codex for about two millennia in one form or another.  We’ve had the laptop for less than 40.  I admit to being just a bit bemused at the foreshortening of our nostalgia for the good old days.

1 thought on “Is the laptop going the way of the codex; technological nostalgia in the iPad imperium

  1. Dermot McCabe

    All this talk about codex, laptops and iphones calls to mind Ralph Waldo Emerson’s comment in his essay, Self Reliance: “his notebooks impair his memory; his libraries overload his wit.” I have, for some time, had the uneasy feeling that, as the ease of access to raw data has increased, the depth of knowledege extracted from that raw data has diminished because the attention we give to what we read is so fleeting.

    Although I have not reached a satisfactory conclusion on nature of reading from different media, I know myself that reading a printed book is different from reading from a screen or an electronic device like the Kindle. I ask myself why. I think I can dismiss the possibility that it is the fear of technology because I am an Electronics Design Engineeer and I enjoy the challenge of new technologies.

    I am veering towards the idea that technology appears to present such an abundance of information that it engenders an anxiety that one is barely scratching the surface of knowing. With an electronic device, the ever present feeling is that there is an gigantic and immeasurable volume of information just behind the page you are reading. And, because knowing, in my opinion, is the bulwark against the human fears that assail us all, the palpable sense – when reading from an electronic device – that we are barely scrathing the surface of knowledge is disturbing and panic inducing.

    I contrast this with reading from a printed book. With the printed book we know straight away the limitations and extent of the book. There is an immediate comfort in this and, for me at least, I digest the material at a more leasurely pace. I feel I can linger over the ideas presented to me and spend more time to fully analyse and comprehend what I am reading. There is a greater sense of control and satisfaction. I feel that I have a more in depth experience and, certainly, a far more satisfying learning experience.

    Dermot McCabe


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