Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

How Robert Jordan Saved My Kindle

Saturday, March 6th, 2010

Amazon’s Kindle is a great idea in principle.  A compact device, capable of holding thousands of electronic books, with an electronic ink display that is easy on the eyes and makes it possible to read in full sunlight (even at the beach, sipping on a Mai-Tai).  After close to a year of owning one, here are my thoughts on the device.

First, the Kindle is great for reading fiction.  It’s super handy to be able to bring only this device along with you and have access to a vast library of books.  In particular, the late Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time collection has recently been converted to Kindle format.   The series is being released one at a time on a monthly format, with the books after Jordan’s death being authored by Brandon Sanderson.  Especially for a huge series like this, with each book being a massive issue in and of itself, the Kindle is a lifesaver and makes reading the series seem like one long, epic, uninterrupted fantasy.  Well, at least if you don’t finish the previous books before the next one is released according to the schedule!   I just finished The Great Hunt for the second or third time, and it still reads wonderfully.  What I enjoy most about the Wheel of Time series is the epic scale — politics, battles, character development, and fantastic geographies and creatures all come together to tell an incredible story.  The quality of the series does begin to taper off after the fourth or fifth books, from what I hear, though I haven’t yet read that far myself.  As of yet, the series has not been completely finished by Sanderson.

What the Kindle is not great for is reading academic texts.  The process of moving an article in PDF format, for example, is quite cumbersome and involves emailing the file to a special email address and then waiting for it to be converted.  Then, tables and figures are distorted and squashed, and the text is difficult to read in its non-Kindle-native format.  Also, the speed of Kindle functions (bookmarking, annotating, etc.) is extremely slow and makes the process of cross-referencing data or looking up notes and sources pretty painful.  Until the speed of these operations can be improved, I’m using mine strictly for fiction.

Technology as Distraction

Monday, March 1st, 2010

For the last few semesters, I have been participating in the bi-annual book clubs for the Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning at UCF.  We’ve read several good books, including Save the World on Your Own Time, by Stanley Fish, and Why Don’t Students Like School, by Daniel Willingham.  This semester, our book selection is Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, by Maggie Jackson.

Jackson’s argument in this book is simple: we’ve been seduced by technology, coddled into a state of needing instant gratification by social networking and ubiquitous media, but we’ve also lost something of ourselves along the way.  The argument is not entirely new; Sven Birkerts wrote a similar cautionary tale in 1994’s The Gutenberg Elegies as hypertext technologies were just arriving to the mainstream, but Jackson’s book, released in 2009, considers more recent technologies including social networking sites, modern video games, and cutting edge robotics.

I started off being pretty defensive about digital media and taking issues with the rhetorical strategies used by Jackson.  Here are my first two responses for the book club, typed up earlier this semester:

Thoughts on the Introduction and Chapter One:

While I found myself constantly nodding in agreement while reading along with the introduction and first chapter of Maggie Jackson’s Distracted, I’m hoping there is more to support her argument later in the book than just a heaping of anecdotal evidence and (admittedly interesting) stories from the past.  She is a good writer, and I find her prose to be both interesting and engaging, but her ideas seem to drift away from her topic at times as though she is randomly selecting books from her bookshelf and sifting through to find examples of technologies gone awry.  Her central argument is that network connectivity and multitasking technologies have taken away from our ability to pay attention.  This is the ability to think deeply, carefully, and critically, and as a result to form deep and meaningful cultural relationships.  The idea is something Sven Birkerts wrote about almost 20 years ago in The Gutenberg Elegies as he bemoaned the arrival of the hypertext revolution.  Jackson’s positioning of contemporary electronic culture as a society poised on the brink of a new Dark Age is both interesting and frightening, but seems a bit hyperbolic to this reader.

For instance, there is a great deal of good being done with technology as well that is seemingly glossed over or ignored thus far in the book.  Consider recent uses of social networking technologies for political protests (Iranian protesters), philanthropy (the ease of quickly donating money to support Haiti rescue efforts and have it charged to your cellular phone bill), public policy awareness, digital ethnography (capturing and making available original source materials to a worldwide audience), community-building, and forms of collective intelligence where knowledge is shared and applied based on a community-model rather than an individual.  Granted, these examples are fairly recent, but certainly there are other areas in which Jackson could have polled for counterexamples to her thesis.  Many of these technological forms she attacks are still very young, so I’m not sure I would completely demonize them before their nature has been fully investigated.  I’m thinking in particular of video games, which she attacks in her introduction based on Johnson’s work, but which in recent years have sprung an amazing variety of rhetorical, critical, and activist-based games that make arguments in a procedural way not possible through static media.

What I am taking away from this so far, and what I think is so important and so often overlooked, is the idea that networked communication technology in and of itself changes how we think and how we interact with other humans.  I’m not sure I would go so far as to suggest modern digital media as a shortcut to “culture’s dead end,” (p. 15), but even in the relatively few years I have been teaching I have witnessed numerous examples of my own students having trouble (whether trouble in motivation or ability) with exercises involving more than a modest amount of creativity, intellectual rigor, or original research.  The Wikipedia generation does indeed hold true the idea that information is always only a keystroke away, and I think Jackson’s discussion of the perils of PowerPoint, and her summaries of Tufte’s and others’ criticism of the tool, are both worth paying attention to.  I just wonder if she might have made her point better through her fabulous collection of research rather than through her exaggerated and oftentimes unsupported claims.  As one reviewer on Amazon notes, at times, the book seems like “a product of the culture it describes.”  I’m looking forward to the next few chapters to see if she will introduce some more substantial evidence to support her claims.”

By the end of the next chunk of reading, however, I was already settling in a bit more comfortably with her writing and her argument.  Below is my second response:

Thoughts on Chs. 2-4

After finishing the next few chapters of Distracted, I find that many of my initial thoughts about the book remain the same.  Jackson exaggerates, cherry picks statistics and features, and relies on an appeal to pathos that is at times off-putting and unnecessary.  I now have a respectable collection of “death by technology” stories at my disposal should there ever become a need for them.

Specifically, reading the book as an academic who spends his time working with technology, I am irritated by passages such as this one found on pg. 59:

It’s intriguing that reputation management demands and inspires skills that are strikingly similar to those needed for successful gaming: a sense of mastery, an ability to remain aloof, an instinct for ranking others.

Sure, you might argue that these are potentially useful skills for gaming, but what about curiosity, exploration, dedication, and determination?  Certainly one could argue with equal fervor as to the rightful place of these skills in this list.   Similarly, the pejorative use of “the undo generation” to describe young gamers also ignores the many positive benefits associated with this mentality — for instance, the ability to take risks and apply novel solutions to complex problems.  If the solution fails, the learner has not sacrificed much in the process, and she tries again.

However, despite these irritations, I now realize that many of my qualms with the book are due to my frame of reference when reading the book rather than the content itself.  The book appears to wish to speak to our souls rather than to our intellects.  Jackson deftly intermingles poetry with prose, narrative with science, anecdote with experiment, in order to support her ultimate claim that technologies, lifestyle concessions, and social changes in both the personal and professional realms have led us to the brink of a humanistic catastrophe.

Will she offer suggestions on how to save our souls?  I eagerly await Chapter Five for the answer.

Lasting Impressions

As I move towards the end of this book, I am more and more impressed with what Jackson has managed to do, despite some of my snarky comments above.  While I do not always agree with her tactics or even her arguments, I certainly appreciate her willingness to dive deeply into her exploration of technology and its impact on humanity.  In addition to collecting an outstanding body of research to support her arguments, she actually seeks out personal connections and interviews with the scholars, scientists, and practitioners who are creating these technologies as well as the everyday folks that are impacted by them.

I have a few more chapters to finish in the book, but I’ll be updating this post with final impressions after I’ve finished it.