First, to follow up Monday’s impromptu discussion: I was wondering if books face a future of figurative immolation, not the literal burning of the Alexandrian library (or the crazy Gainesville pastor) but every bit as terminal. Our large-scale cultural turn to e-reading, away from traditional book authorship and publication, raises questions about the long-term durability of the printed word and, hence, of our ability to transmit any legacy at all to future generations.
John Updike had important thoughts about the future of books, late in his life. He disputed Kevin Kelly’s rosy vision of a future of literary mash-ups and “snippets” unmoored from their thus-marginalized and fungible authors.
Books traditionally have edges: some are rough-cut, some are smooth-cut, and a few, at least at my extravagant publishing house, are even top-stained. In the electronic anthill, where are the edges? The book revolution, which, from the Renaissance on, taught men and women to cherish and cultivate their individuality, threatens to end in a sparkling cloud of snippets.
Updike elaborated his concerns in this speech, released as a podcast…
Kevin Kelly, you may then think, is some kind of radical firebrand. But he doesn’t come across that way in our Clock of the Long Now reading today. The most sensible statement in today’s text, though, is Hillis’s response to Kelly’s report of the “complexity scientists” and their mocking of Long Now’s ambitions:
Believing in the future is not the same as believing you can predict or determine it. The Long Now Foundation is not about determining the destiny of our descendants, it is about leaving them with a chance to determine a destiny of their own.
(That’s exactly the point Harrison was making on Monday, right?)
Also in Sunday’s Times Magazine special issue on the future of technology in education, Kelly’s conservative framing of computing as a tool we may pick up and put down at will is measured and reassuring. He quotes his previously home-schooled son, about to enter High School:
“I’m learning how to learn, but I can’t wait till next year when I have some real good teachers — better than me.”
He had learned the most critical thing: how to keep learning. A month ago he entered high school eager to be taught — not facts, or even skills, but a lifelong process that would keep pace with technology’s rapid, ceaseless teaching.
If we listen to technology, and learn to be proficient in its ways, then we’ll be able to harness this most powerful force in the world.
And if we don’t? Not so reassuring. But this seems right enough:
• The proper response to a stupid technology is to make a better one, just as the proper response to a stupid idea is not to outlaw it but to replace it with a better idea.
Jaron Lanier, who– we will read soon– insists that he’s not a gadget (and neither are you), also points out that education does what genes cannot, viz., transfer nongenetic information (“memes”) between generations:
To the degree that education is about the transfer of the known between generations, it can be digitized, analyzed, optimized and bottled or posted on Twitter. To the degree that education is about the self-invention of the human race, the gargantuan process of steering billions of brains into unforeseeable states and configurations in the future, it can continue only if each brain learns to invent itself. And that is beyond computation because it is beyond our comprehension. Learning at its truest is a leap into the unknown.
Leaping can be a good thing, it’s how we get somewhere. But, as Lanier cautions: “Trusting teachers too much also has its perils.” Danger, Will Robinson.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
But on the other hand, Will did always trust his Robot. It’s the duplicitous Dr. Smiths you really have to watch out for.