The digital life, and nothing but?

I am writing this post from my office in my university. I am typing it into my iMac (Apple Macintosh). Sitting next to it is my iPad, which right now contains some 50 books and other materials; one of the iPad-resident books I am reading is on the future of higher education. If I look beyond my computing equipment to the wall opposite, there are two bookcases in which I have maybe 250 books (I have rather more than that at home). Are these sources of reading in competition with each other, and if they are, which one will win in the end?

The digital ones will, if you follow the perspective of Salford University’s new digital campus at the MediaCity location. The director of this venture describes his facility as follows:

‘This is a digital futures campus. It is not a place you come to read books. It is a place to do real work on real-time digital platforms. You are not messing around – you are in the real world.’

Some of this is at the heart of what we might call the knowledge world, since it extends beyond higher education. There is a school of thought in this world that just thinks digital: the school of MIT’s Media Labs, or of the new Salford venture. There are others who believe that this is all the work of devil, and that those who like digital products and processes are clearly philistines. The reality is probably somewhere in between. But the issue is more important than just a question of technology and platforms. It is about how we handle, disseminate and process knowledge. Digital technology gives us much greater choices, and I am certainly an avid user. But I don’t conclude from this that the world of books no longer has a use beyond aesthetically populating bookshelves. In the end, books are probably still the most durable source of data. I think.

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13 Comments on “The digital life, and nothing but?”

  1. Al Says:

    The recent floods in Dublin knocked out power in the affected areas, leaving peoples devices without charging capacity….
    Do books float?

  2. Beth Duff Says:

    I’ve just been doing some clearing out and have a box of disks of various sizes and shapes that don’t fit any of the drives on my present computer. At least I will always be able to open my books – and (in most cases) buy another copy if needs be.


    • I agree entirely. I attended an excellent presentation at EVA London this year, where the subject of digital storage of artwork came up. It became clear that the best way to archive photographs and art was not as jogs or on disks but as, well, photographs, negatives and originals. Which don’t ever suffer from floppy disks going out of fashion.🙂

  3. Ernie Ball Says:

    I’m as digital as anybody working in the humanities. I have a Linux server I administer that serves up several websites as well as to stream my entire music collection and serve up videos, an iPad and a kindle that I use to read a good many documents of various kinds. But this:

    This is a digital futures campus. It is not a place you come to read books. It is a place to do real work on real-time digital platforms. You are not messing around – you are in the real world.’

    is the worst sort of self-admiring bullshit. The implication that reading books is “messing around” while “working on real-time digital platforms” (whatever that is supposed to mean) is somehow of the “real world” is asinine and has it exactly wrong. Books are where the real world can be found and interacting with digital “platforms” more often than not amounts to pointless fiddling. Who is in the real world: the student in the library reading a book or the one perusing Facebook in the lecture hall?

  4. anna notaro Says:

    *But the issue is more important than just a question of technology and platforms. It is about how we handle, disseminate and process knowledge. Digital technology gives us much greater choices, and I am certainly an avid user. But I don’t conclude from this that the world of books no longer has a use beyond aesthetically populating bookshelves. In the end, books are probably still the most durable source of data.*
    The question might not be *just* one of technology and platforms however I would argue that technology and platforms are crucial enablers of major changes in the way we create, handle and disseminate knowledge, hence they are at the center of our new digital life. Let’s think for a moment of the familiar print paradigm where the role of authors, readers and publishers are neatly separated, the digital world instead invites constant reworking and rewring of all documents. Any individual can quickly position herself somewhere along the producton chain from author to editor, to publisher to reader. This means that the notion of a final document loses much of its meaning and traditional forms of authority tend to be displaced in favour of collaborative forms of authorship. As far as academic scholarship is concerned instead of having first a product, then a peer evaluation, then an editing and publishing phase, scholars can contribute to a collaborative system of knowledge production where all these phases could happen simultaneously.
    Obviously the implications of technological controls on our ability, as a society, to manage the record of our intellectual discourse, which is primarily textual are very serious. However I don’t think that to damn or to praise the eclipse of the paper book is useful at all, what we need to remind ourselves is that new media forms ‘displace’ rather than ‘replace’ older ones and that the Internet can be the place where books, or better a new ‘book culture’ can find renewed vigour. The character of our culture will finally be determined not by the form of words, but by their content and e-books have all the potential to be as good ‘ideas machines’ as print books ever were.
    .

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      That’s unbelievably naive. Few will have the attention span to read Kant when Facebook is one click away.

      • anna notaro Says:

        the argument about the distraction induced by the Internet and the loss of what is called ‘deep reading’ is a very familiar one for anyone familiar with such matters from a scholarly perspective, I could cite studies which come up with exactly the opposite conclusion. E-books are only the latest arrival in an ongoing conversation which began in Mesopotamia 10,000 years ago, I cannot see any reason why they should not work as catalysts for reconnection by engaging our fascination with technology to stimulate reading, by integrating deep concentration with the lure of the machine. Reading can exist in a variety of different forms.

        • Ernie Ball Says:

          If you think that, you’re quite simply blind. Students today are basically incapable of “deep reading.” As for “studies” that show the opposite conclusion, such studies are always easy to find where huge amounts of money are involved (not to mention the fetishization of technology among those who don’t have an immediate pecuniary interest). I can find “studies” that come to the conclusion that cigarettes don’t cause lung cancer and that watching lots of television is great for infants, too.

          As for the snark about “anyone familiar with such matters from a scholarly perspective”: the “scholarly perspective” on such matters is, alas, dominated by arrant bullshit largely because the field attracts only those who are already convinced (sometimes for venal reasons) of the value of the brave new technology. Face it, there’s money (and prestige) available for anyone who comes up with studies about how very educational all this stuff is. There’s no money (or prestige) for naysayers who state the obvious: that electronics are turning our brains to mush. Oh, wait, I’m sorry: electronics are “catalysts for reconnection” with our lizard brains. It’s all good.

          • anna notaro Says:

            Ernie you really make it impossible to have a serious ‘argument’, you are so convinced of what for you is ‘the obvious’ that there is no point in engaging further. The fact that research is sponsored by money and this can influence its outcomes is an ‘obvious’ remark, this does not mean that there are no studies out there ‘free’ from such constraints..As it happens this is one of my areas of research and I am very familiar with the existing literature, however contrary to you I keep an open mind and I’m willing to listen and possibly reconsider even what, for me, are reasonable conclusions, as an academic you should try and do the same sometime..’electronics are turning our brains to mush’ that’s a good one! You know what the Venetian judge Filippo di Strata said about Gutenberg’s invention? ‘The pen is a virgin; the printing press a whore’, we should remember that books too are part of a technological continuum…

          • Ernie Ball Says:

            Yes, you’ve already declared several times that this is your field, apparently expecting me to bow down before your superior knowledge. Unfortunately, you’re in a field that gives bullshit a bad name and is filled with shallow thinkers and half-wits as fascinated as chimpanzees by their bright shiny toys.

            As for keeping an open mind, I’m all for it. Just not so open that your brain falls out.

            Kids today have the attention spans of bumblebees and can hardly go 60 seconds without checking their mobile phones or email or Facebook. I gather you think this is “empowering” and that they are just “learning differently.” So much the worse for you.


  5. If you read the original article, I think the confrontation isn’t between books and other “sources of data”, but between studying (by any means) and doing. It’s not about data at all. Jon Corner “wants to turn the traditional relationship between industry and universities around, so that leading companies come to his students looking for answers to their problems.”

    So he’s really proposing a shift to practice-based learning for the digital knowledge economy. No drama there. But if the opposite of making is “messing around”, perhaps we need to know a bit more about what “messing around” means.

    • anna notaro Says:

      Yes, you are perfectly right Kate to draw attention to the original article. What Mr Corner, founder of Liverpool-based digital production company, River Media actually said was: “This is a digital futures campus. It is not a place you come to read books. It is a place to do real work on real-time digital platforms. You are not messing around – you are in the real world”.
      Such a statement reflects the shift to practice-based learning, as you say in itself not a problem, what I find more problematic is that students are presented with an acritical acceptance of a technology driven future, one where ‘old technologies’ (books) are identified with theoretical, out of touch with reality forms of learning (the old theory/practice dichotomy) instead of appreciating how much coexistence and structural survival of past models survives within ‘new’ technologies. Take the e-book, we haven’t even been able to come up with a different name for it, we must cling on to ‘books’ even in their digital incarnation for a good reason!


      • I don’t know, the more I look at the article I think the focus on the book part of his comment is mischievous journalism–it’s bait to get book-lovers in a lather. And, you know …

        But perhaps it should be the advocates for “messing around”, which we might call “thinking”, who rise up at this point.


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