Wednesday, November 16, 2011

BURN, BABY, BURN! Should We Plan On Bringing Marshmallows To The Forthcoming University Book Burnings?

Our “short intermission” a while back turned into a rather lengthy hiatus from the blog-iverse.    

Meetings, appointments, an unexpected speaking request and this particular NYG&B honor upended my formerly well-planned schedule.  Ah, well . . . best laid plans and all that…

Today, rather than return to the “food is family” series, I have been moved to comment on an interesting piece that appeared a few days ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Regular readers will of course recall my concern with the current “If Only Everything Were Digitized and Free” meme that is sweeping through both academic and genealogy communities.

Remember – I actually LIKE online digitized stuff.  I take pains to point out that I’m not really a Luddite. I do, however, like to remind folks about the Law of Unintended Consequences, thus reinforcing the oft-quoted concept that the “best laid plans of mice and men” are sometimes not completely thought through.

If this is not quite sinking in because I’m intentionally understating the obvious, just refresh your memory of the “memory hole” that George Orwell described in 1984.  Here’s the definition from the website dedicated to preserving Orwell’s “newspeak”; just scroll down to “memory hole”.    Hint: it’s also worth going back to the novel to read how the memory hole was used to “disappear” stuff. 

While, on one hand, digitization of records and texts makes distribution easier, on the other, digitization of records and texts also makes alteration and obliteration of information easier.  Photoshop, anyone?

Moreover, I frequently take pains to point out that digitization is NOT a means of preservation, but rather a medium of distribution. Problem is, it’s widely perceived by “non-professionals” to be “preservation.”  Once it's been digitized, who cares about the originals. The web is rife with stories about elected local government clerks who view records digitization as THE solution to expensive long-term records storage issues.

Fact – simple solutions to complex problems often do not work out for the best.  If you ever – back in the 70s or 80s – decided to use one of those then state-of-the art “magnetic” photo albums for your irreplaceable Polaroids, you will know exactly whereof I speak.

But, to get back on track, and all of the above having been said, consider for a moment the thesis behind Marc Prensky’s article, titled In the 21st Century University, Let’s Ban (Paper) Books .

Prensky suggests that total book digitization is the foreseeable future and that the total transition to digital formats and e-readers will be much like the transition from cuneiform to paper and from manuscript scrolls and parchments to printed paper books.  It’s just one more step on the path of intellectual progress.  Inevitable.  The Future.  O, Brave New World.

Disregard for a moment the copyright, quality control and access issues that may be involved here. Think instead about Prensky’s future world of learning.

He envisions an interesting university of the future:

In this bookless college, all reading­­—which would still, of course, be both required and encouraged—would be done electronically. Any physical books in students' possession at the beginning of the year would be exchanged for electronic versions, and if a student was later found with a physical book, it would be confiscated (in return for an electronic version). The physical books would be sent to places and institutions that wanted or needed them. Professors would have a limited time in which to convert their personal libraries to all-digital formats, using student helpers who would also record the professors' marginal notes.

An interesting choice of words, that.  Think about it: students “found with” paper books;  books “confiscated”, the “limited time” for professors to “convert their personal libraries”, using impressed student “helpers.”  There are echoes of Ray Bradbury and his Fahrenheit 451 and other scarier, stranger places mothballed in the dark recesses on the brain that these words conjure up

Perhaps Prensky is envisioning a Margaret Atwood-like digital dystopia.  Or perhaps, as some of the commenters suggest, this is all some kind of Jonathan Swift-like satire.

Presnky is a bright guy.  He has a number of academic credentials and a host of books and articles under his belt.  He introduced and talks a lot about the “digital native” and “digital immigrant” concept that he pioneered, as well as using games as teaching tools.

Still, when he writes, he can be controversial.  At very least, he makes folks think and sometimes makes them angry.

Remember – this article appeared in The Chronicle Of Higher Education, after all.  Lots of its readers are – well – higher educators.  Who teach in colleges.  And research universities.  Their comments are more incisive than lots of the stuff you will find on the internet and well worth reading.  And, as might be expected, not everybody agrees that digital universality is a particularly good thing.

Consider, for example, the thoughts of a person who is self-described as “beck6818:”

There is no doubt that technological advances have increased access to information, but I do not believe the goal of education is simply to increase access. My students have access to plenty of resources, but they haven't the slightest idea about how to sit and think, and no amount of digitizing will help that.

I love this.

This is exactly what I stress in my lectures.  Genealogy is NOT just looking stuff up and copying it down.  In this digital age, with so much electronically available, this is the easy stuff.    

Real genealogy, however, is the HARD stuff. It’s about forming questions, considering all possibilities and devoting substantially more time to record analysis than to record collection and digitization.  In short, it's all about thinking.

In the end, a totally electronic, book-less university may well be the world of the future.  There may come a time when lots of folks think that everything that’s available digitally is all there is and all there ever was.

The scary part is that they may also think that it’s all correct and true.  After all, it’s digitized and online. 

What could possibly go wrong with that idea?

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