Archive for the ‘Gadgets Don’t Surf’ Category

When I was a kid, I had a Fisher-Price Movie Viewer, and I can still remember turning that crank and watching, over and over again, the scene from Bambi where Thumper tries to teach the awkward fawn how to stand up and walk on the frozen pond. There was no sound, and the clip couldn’t have lasted much longer than 30 seconds, but it was lots of fun. I was grateful then to have even a slice of the movie.

More than 30 years later, with the release of the Blu-Ray edition of Bambi, Disney is introducing something called Second Screen, an app that allows you to sync your laptop or iPad with your HDTV. While the movie sweeps by on the TV, you can paint pictures on your iPad, put together puzzles, “explore” trivia, etc.

Disney calls it “a revolutionary movie watching experience,” which I find pretty odd, because it’s instead a revolutionary distraction from the movie watching experience. We’ve had special features for almost as long as we’ve had home video, but as far as I know they’ve never run concurrently with the main event (I don’t count actor/director commentary). Has it come to the point that we need a slew of “interactive” pursuits to mitigate the burden of having to sit still (for a whopping 69 minutes, in this case) and give a landmark film our undivided attention?

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There’s a Windows 7 commercial going around that’s fascinating in a hinting-at-eugenics kind of way. It shows a wife sitting at the computer trying to arrange her family for a holiday photo, but hubby and kids won’t sit still, won’t smile—they’re just so unruly! So the wife goes “to the cloud,” replacing frowns and uncooperative forms with more appropriately placid images (how exactly did she get them to cooperate for these shots?) that won’t embarrass her when she posts them on Facebook. The tagline is priceless: “Windows gives me the family that nature never could.”

The lesson to be learned here is that even the most notorious human “imperfection” (adolescent obnoxiousness, for instance, or an aversion to taking pictures) can be “corrected” with one photoshop program or another, and of course they must be corrected—unruly family photos on Facebook simply won’t do. I find it especially interesting that the commercial seems to air, in my area at least, almost exclusively during NFL telecasts. I would link to it here, but, curiously, it’s no longer available on YouTube.

Compare this spot with the recent “iPad is delicious” commercial, whose tinkling piano soundtrack continues to plague my waking days. Fortunately (or not), that one is still available for viewing:

The implication here is not that machines can gloss over unwanted human expressions and behavior, but that machines demonstrate or possess desirable human qualities (and human senses, possibly). The iPad is delicious, is artistic, is literary, is memories, when of course it isn’t any of these things. The iPad is literary in the sense that you can read books on it, artistic in the sense that you can draw or paint on it, but do we call a collection of paper books literary? Do we call a blank canvas and a box of paint artistic? The iPad itself doesn’t read or draw, and won’t make you a better reader or drawer, but that’s the message here.

I realize that both ads are geared to sell products, and that marketing is built on hyperbole, but I don’t doubt that the faithful buy into the posthuman (yes, that’s a real word) program.

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Jaron Lanier, a virtual reality pioneer, inventor, musician, and author of the Web 2.0-critical You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, had this to say in The New York Times Magazine (“Does the Digital Classroom Enfeeble the Mind“) about the drive to “empower” schools with learning technologies:

The problem is that students could come to conceive of themselves as relays in a transpersonal digital structure… What is really lost when this happens is the self-invention of a human brain. If students don’t learn to think, then no amount of access to information will do them any good.

That last sentence should be emblazoned above the door of everyone who makes decisions about what goes on inside classrooms. Information is not knowledge, though the conflation of the two has become inveterate in the digital age. Our collective compulsion for trivia has become a way of life, no doubt, thanks to Google and 24/7 access, but trivia is not knowledge either.

If someone asks me where the phrase “a handful of dust” comes from and why it has literary significance, I can find out quickly by typing the first few letters into Google. I can then read a snippet of the Wikipedia entry that appears at the top of the page: “A Handful of Dust is a novel by Evelyn Waugh published in 1934.” If I click on the link and read the first paragraph of the entry, I will discover that the title of Waugh’s novel is taken from a line in T.S. Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land.  However, if I want to know what Eliot’s poem has to do with Waugh’s novel, and what the two authors are trying to say in their respective works, then I’m going to have to stop clicking around and start doing some serious reading.

In other words, technology can’t do the real work for us, and there can’t be any knowledge without that committed effort, without striving.

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