Tag Archives: books

Scriptocentrism and the Freedom to Think

As a comment on my previous blogpost on books, a friend sent me (through Facebook) a link to a blogpost about a petition to Amazon with the following statement:

The freedom to read is tantamount to the freedom to think.

As this friend and I are both anthros+africanists, I’m reacting (perhaps a bit strongly) to that statement.

Given my perspective, I would dare say that I find this statement (brought about by DbD)… ethnocentric.

There, I said it.

And I’ll try to back it up in this blogpost in order to spark even more discussion.

We won’t exhaust this topic any time soon, but I feel there’s a lot we can do about it which has rarely been done.

I won’t use the textbook case of “Language in the Inner City,” but it could help us talk about who decides, in a given social context, what is important. We both come from a literacy-focused background, so we may have to take a step back. Not sure if Bourdieu has commented on Labov, especially in terms of what all this means for “education,” but I’d even want to bring in Ivan Illich, at some point.

Hunters with whom I’ve been working, in Mali, vary greatly in terms of literacy. Some of them have a strong university background and one can even write French legalese (he’s a judge). Others (or some of the same) have gone to Koranic school long enough that can read classical Arabic. Some have the minimal knowledge of Arabic which suffices, for them, to do divination. Many of them have a very low level of functional literacy. There’s always someone around them who can read and write, so they’re usually not out of the loop and it’s not like the social hierarchy stereotypical of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages in Europe. It’s a very different social context which can hardly be superimposed with the history of writing and the printing press in Europe.

In terms of “freedom to thinik,” I really wouldn’t say that they’re lacking. Of course, “free thinker” has a specific meaning in liberal societies with a European background. But even this meaning can be applied to many people I’ve met in Mali.

And I go back to the social context. Those with the highest degree of functional literacy aren’t necessarily those with the highest social status. And unlike Harlem described by Labov, it’s a relatively independent context from the one in which literacy is a sine qua non. Sure, it’s a neocolonial context and Euro-Americans keep insisting that literacy in Latin script is “the most important thing ever” if they are to become a true liberal democracy. Yet, internally, it’s perfectly possible for someone to think freely, get recognition, and help other people to think without going through the written medium.

Many of those I know who have almost nonexistent skills in the written medium also have enough power (in a Weberian sense) that they get others to do the reading and writing for them. And because there are many social means to ensure that communication has worked appropriately, these “scribes” aren’t very likely to use this to take anything away from those for whom they read and write.

In Switzerland, one of my recent ancestors was functionally illiterate. Because of this, she “signed away” most of her wealth. Down the line, I’m one of her very few heirs. So, in a way, I lost part of my inheritance due to illiteracy.

Unless the switch to a European model for notarial services becomes complete, a case like this is unlikely to occur among people I know in Mali. If it does happen, it’s clearly not a failure of the oral system but a problem with this kind of transition. It’s somewhat similar to the situation with women in diverse parts of the continent during the period of direct colonialism: the fact that women have lost what powers they had (say, in a matrilineal/matrilocal society) has to do with the switch to a hierarchical system which put the emphasis on new factors which excluded the type of influence women had.

In other words, I fully understand the connections between liberalism and literacy and I’ve heard enough about the importance of the printing press and journalism in these liberal societies to understand what role reading has played in those contexts. I simply dispute the notion that these connections should be universal.

Yes, I wish the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (including the (in)famous Article 26, which caused so many issues) were more culturally aware.

I started reading Deschooling Society a few weeks ago. In terms of “insight density,” it’s much higher than the book which prompted this discussion. While reading the first chapter, I constructed a number of ideas which I personally find useful.

I haven’t finished reading the book. Yet. I might eventually finish it. But much of what I wanted to get from that book, I was able to get from diverse sources. Including that part of the book I did read, sequentially. But, also, everything which has been written about Illich since 1971. And I’ll be interested in reading comments by the reading group at Wikiversity.

Given my background, I have as many “things to say” about the issues surrounding schooling as what I’ve read. If I had the time, I could write as much on what I’ve read from that book and it’d probably bring me a lot of benefits.

I’ve heard enough strong reactions against this attitude I’m displaying that I can hear it, already: “how can you talk about a book you haven’t read.” And I sincerely think these people miss an important point. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that their reading habits are off (that’d be mean), especially since those are well-adapted to certain contexts, including what I call scriptocentrism. Not that these people are scriptocentric. But their attitude “goes well with” scriptocentrism.

Academia, despite being to context for an enormous amount of writing and reading, isn’t displaying that kind of scriptocentrism. Sure, a lot of what we do needs to be written (although, it’s often surprising how much insight goes unwritten in the work of many an academic). And we do get evaluated through our writing. Not to mention that we need to write in a very specific mode, which almost causes a diglossia.

But we simply don’t feel forced to “read the whole text.”

A colleague has described this as the “dirty little secret” of academia. And one which changes many things for students, to the point that it almost sounds as if it remains a secret so as to separate students into categories of “those who get it” and “the mass.”

It doesn’t take a semester to read a textbook so there are students who get the impression that they can simply read the book in a weekend and take the exams. These students may succeed, depending on the course. In fact, they may get really good grades. But they run into a wall if they want to go on with a career making any use of knowledge construction skills.

Bill Reimer has interesting documents about “better reading.” It’s a PowerPoint presentation accompanied by exercises in a PDF format. (No, I won’t discuss format here.)

I keep pointing students to those documents for a simple reason: Reimer isn’t advocating reading every word in sequence. His “skim then focus” advice might be the one piece which is harder to get through to people but it’s tremendously effective in academic contexts. It’s also one which is well-adapted to the kind of online reading I’m thinking about. And not necessarily that good for physical books. Sure, you can efficiently flip pages in a book. But skimming a text on paper is more likely to be about what stands out visually than about the structure of the text. Especially with book-length texts. The same advice holds with physical books, of course. After all, this kind of advice originally comes from that historical period which I might describe as the “heyday of books”: the late 20th Century. But I’d say that the kind of “better reading” Reimer describes is enhanced in the context of online textuality. Not just the “Read/Write Web” but Instant Messaging, email, forums, ICQ, wikis, hypertext, Gopher, even PowerPoint…

Much of this has to do with different models of human communication. The Shannon/Weaver crowd have a linear/directional model, based on information processing. Codec and modem. Something which, after Irvine’s Shadow Conversations, I tend to call “the football theory of communication.” This model might be the best-known one, especially among those who study in departments of communication along with other would-be journalists. Works well for a “broadcast” medium with mostly indirect interaction (books, television, radio, cinema, press conferences, etc.). Doesn’t work so well for the backchannel-heavy “smalltalk”  stuff of most human communication actually going on in this world.

Some cognitivists (including Chomsky) have a schema-based model. Constructivists (from Piaget on) have an elaborate model based on knowledge. Several linguistic anthropologists (including yours truly but also Judith Irvine, Richard Bauman, and Dell Hymes) have a model which gives more than lipservice to the notion of performance. And there’s a functional model of any human communication in Jakobson’s classic text on verbal communication. It’s a model which can sound as if it were linear/bidirectional but it’s much broader than this. His six “functions of verbal communication” do come from six elements of the communication process (channel, code, form, context, speaker, listener). But each of these elements embeds a complex reality and Jakobson’s model seems completely compatible with a holistic approach to human communication. In fact, Jakobson has had a tremendous impact on a large variety of people, including many key figures in linguistic anthropology along with Lévi-Strauss and, yes, even Chomsky.

(Sometimes, I wish more people knew about Jakobson. Oh, wait! Since Jakobson was living in the US, I need to americanize this statement: “Jakobson is the most underrated scholar ever.”)

All these models do (or, in my mind, should) integrate written communication. Yet scriptocentrism has often led us far away from “texts as communication” and into “text as an object.” Scriptocentrism works well with modernity. Going away from scriptocentrism is a way to accept our postmodern reality.

Advertisements

Why I Need an iPad

I’m one of those who feel the iPad is the right tool for the job.

This is mostly meant as a reply to this blogthread. But it’s also more generally about my personal reaction to Apple’s iPad announcement.

Some background.

I’m an ethnographer and a teacher. I read a fair deal, write a lot of notes, and work in a variety of contexts. These days, I tend to spend a good amount of time in cafés and other public places where I like to work without being too isolated. I also commute using public transit, listen to lots of podcast, and create my own. I’m also very aural.

I’ve used a number of PDAs, over the years, from a Newton MessagePad 130 (1997) to a variety of PalmOS devices (until 2008). In fact, some people readily associated me with PDA use.

As soon as I learnt about the iPod touch, I needed one. As soon as I’ve heard about the SafariPad, I wanted one. I’ve been an intense ‘touch user since the iPhone OS 2.0 release and I’m a happy camper.

(A major reason I never bought an iPhone, apart from price, is that it requires a contract.)

In my experience, the ‘touch is the most appropriate device for all sorts of activities which are either part of an other activity (reading during a commute) or are simply too short in duration to constitute an actual “computer session.” You don’t “sit down to work at your ‘touch” the way you might sit in front of a laptop or desktop screen. This works great for “looking up stufff” or “checking email.” It also makes a lot of sense during commutes in crowded buses or metros.

In those cases, the iPod touch is almost ideal. Ubiquitous access to Internet would be nice, but that’s not a deal-breaker. Alternative text-input methods would help in some cases, but I do end up being about as fast on my ‘touch as I was with Graffiti on PalmOS.

For other tasks, I have a Mac mini. Sure, it’s limited. But it does the job. In fact, I have no intention of switching for another desktop and I even have an eMachines collecting dust (it’s too noisy to make a good server).

What I miss, though, is a laptop. I used an iBook G3 for several years and loved it. For a little while later, I was able to share a MacBook with somebody else and it was a wonderful experience. I even got to play with the OLPC XO for a few weeks. That one was not so pleasant an experience but it did give me a taste for netbooks. And it made me think about other types of iPhone-like devices. Especially in educational contexts. (As I mentioned, I’m a teacher)

I’ve been laptop-less for a while, now. And though my ‘touch replaces it in many contexts, there are still times when I’d really need a laptop. And these have to do with what I might call “mobile sessions.”

For instance: liveblogging a conference or meeting. I’ve used my ‘touch for this very purpose on a good number of occasions. But it gets rather uncomfortable, after a while, and it’s not very fast. A laptop is better for this, with a keyboard and a larger form factor. But the iPad will be even better because of lower risks of RSI. A related example: just imagine TweetDeck on iPad.

Possibly my favourite example of a context in which the iPad will be ideal: presentations. Even before learning about the prospect of getting iWork on a tablet, presentations were a context in which I really missed a laptop.

Sure, in most cases, these days, there’s a computer (usually a desktop running XP) hooked to a projector. You just need to download your presentation file from Slideshare, show it from Prezi, or transfer it through USB. No biggie.

But it’s not the extra steps which change everything. It’s the uncertainty. Even if it’s often unfounded, I usually get worried that something might just not work, along the way. The slides might not show the same way as you see it because something is missing on that computer or that computer is simply using a different version of the presentation software. In fact, that software is typically Microsoft PowerPoint which, while convenient, fits much less in my workflow than does Apple Keynote.

The other big thing about presentations is the “presenter mode,” allowing you to get more content than (or different content from) what the audience sees. In most contexts where I’ve used someone else’s computer to do a presentation, the projector was mirroring the computer’s screen, not using it as a different space. PowerPoint has this convenient “presenter view” but very rarely did I see it as an available option on “the computer in the room.” I wish I could use my ‘touch to drive presentations, which I could do if I installed software on that “computer in the room.” But it’s not something that is likely to happen, in most cases.

A MacBook solves all of these problems. and it’s an obvious use for laptops. But how, then, is the iPad better? Basically because of interface. Switching slides on a laptop isn’t hard, but it’s more awkward than we realize. Even before watching the demo of Keynote on the iPad, I could simply imagine the actual pleasure of flipping through slides using a touch interface. The fit is “natural.”

I sincerely think that Keynote on the iPad will change a number of things, for me. Including the way I teach.

Then, there’s reading.

Now, I’m not one of those people who just can’t read on a computer screen. In fact, I even grade assignments directly from the screen. But I must admit that online reading hasn’t been ideal, for me. I’ve read full books as PDF files or dedicated formats on PalmOS, but it wasn’t so much fun, in terms of the reading process. And I’ve used my ‘touch to read things through Stanza or ReadItLater. But it doesn’t work so well for longer reading sessions. Even in terms of holding the ‘touch, it’s not so obvious. And, what’s funny, even a laptop isn’t that ideal, for me, as a reading device. In a sense, this is when the keyboard “gets in the way.”

Sure, I could get a Kindle. I’m not a big fan of dedicated devices and, at least on paper, I find the Kindle a bit limited for my needs. Especially in terms of sources. I’d like to be able to use documents in a variety of formats and put them in a reading list, for extended reading sessions. No, not “curled up in bed.” But maybe lying down in a sofa without external lighting. Given my experience with the ‘touch, the iPad is very likely the ideal device for this.

Then, there’s the overall “multi-touch device” thing. People have already been quite creative with the small touchscreen on iPhones and ‘touches, I can just imagine what may be done with a larger screen. Lots has been said about differences in “screen real estate” in laptop or desktop screens. We all know it can make a big difference in terms of what you can display at the same time. In some cases, two screens isn’t even a luxury, for instance when you code and display a page at the same time (LaTeX, CSS…). Certainly, the same qualitative difference applies to multitouch devices. Probably even more so, since the display is also used for input. What Han found missing in the iPhone’s multitouch was the ability to use both hands. With the iPad, Han’s vision is finding its space.

Oh, sure, the iPad is very restricted. For instance, it’s easy to imagine how much more useful it’d be if it did support multitasking with third-party apps. And a front-facing camera is something I was expecting in the first iPhone. It would just make so much sense that a friend seems very disappointed by this lack of videoconferencing potential. But we’re probably talking about predetermined expectations, here. We’re comparing the iPad with something we had in mind.

Then, there’s the issue of the competition. Tablets have been released and some multitouch tablets have recently been announced. What makes the iPad better than these? Well, we could all get in the same OS wars as have been happening with laptops and desktops. In my case, the investment in applications, files, and expertise that I have made in a Mac ecosystem rendered my XP years relatively uncomfortable and me appreciate returning to the Mac. My iPod touch fits right in that context. Oh, sure, I could use it with a Windows machine, which is in fact what I did for the first several months. But the relationship between the iPhone OS and Mac OS X is such that using devices in those two systems is much more efficient, in terms of my own workflow, than I could get while using XP and iPhone OS. There are some technical dimensions to this, such as the integration between iCal and the iPhone OS Calendar, or even the filesystem. But I’m actually thinking more about the cognitive dimensions of recognizing some of the same interface elements. “Look and feel” isn’t just about shiny and “purty.” It’s about interactions between a human brain, a complex sensorimotor apparatus, and a machine. Things go more quickly when you don’t have to think too much about where some tools are, as you’re working.

So my reasons for wanting an iPad aren’t about being dazzled by a revolutionary device. They are about the right tool for the job.


Blogging and Literary Standards

I wrote the following comment in response to a conversation between novelist Rick Moody and podcasting pioneer Chris Lydon:

Open Source » Blog Archive » In the Obama Moment: Rick Moody.

In keeping with the RERO principle I describe in that comment, the version on the Open Source site is quite raw. As is my habit, these days, I pushed the “submit” button without rereading what I had written. This version is edited, partly because I noticed some glaring mistakes and partly because I wanted to add some links. (Blog comments are often tagged for moderation if they contain too many links.) As I started editing that comment, I changed a few things, some of which have consequences to the meaning of my comment. There’s this process, in both writing and editing, which “generates new thoughts.” Yet another argument for the RERO principle.

I can already think of an addendum to this post, revolving on my personal position on writing styles (informed by my own blogwriting experience) along with my relative lack of sensitivity for Anglo writing. But I’m still blogging this comment on a standalone basis.

Read on, please… Continue reading


Dismissive Naysayers (Rant)

Ok, I must really be in a ranting spree… 😉

Feels kind of good. 🙂

Don’t worry, it won’t last. 😎

So… Why is it that people occasionally seem forced to be dismissive with people who like something that they themselves happen not to like? You know, in culinary articles, movie reports, political rallies, book reviews… Quite frequently, a negative description of a cultural item will read like “if you like this, you must be an idiot.” Instead of the more useful: “I don’t like this and I think it’s flawed in some ways but if you’re in the mood for this kind of book/meal/movie/experience, you might enjoy it. I respect your tastes, I just don’t share them.”

Now. Some people who know e might think I’m talking about them. I’m not. Really, I’m not talking about anyone in particular. Not even about a category of people. I’m just describing a behavior. At least, I’m trying to.

Even though this is (yet another) rant, I don’t think I’m even really complaining about this kind of behavior. I’m just talking about it. Venting, yes, ok. But not really whining/complaining/dismissing. I know it sounds like something else, but I’m pretty sure I know how I feel about the whole thing. No, I don’t particularly enjoy this behavior. But I can deal with it. I’m fine. I don’t want to eradicate the behavior. I just elucidate.

I’m mostly talking about my puzzlement at this behavior. IMHO, if you don’t like something, there’s really no use in ruining it for other people. I mean, is it supposed to be funny, or something? Is it a way to brag about having a sophisticated palate, about being well-read, about having attained a high degree of media literacy?

Now, I’m sure I’ve done exactly the same thing on occasion. If I don’t enjoy it too much from other people, I hate it coming from my own sorry self. It just doesn’t correspond to my way of thinking about basically anything. If I’ve done it, I guess it might have come from a weird dynamic in which I entered by mistake. Not that it’s an excuse. I don’t need an excuse for something which is not inherently bad. But I do want to understand what’s going on.

I keep wondering how people would react when they are told something like “you’re an idiot for loving a person like this.” That, I’m pretty sure I never said to anyone. If I ever did, something really strange must have happened. But it does happen occasionally. And I wonder how people feel because it might be a path to awareness. Not that an appreciation of “a thing” is in any way similar to an attachment to a human being. But the dismissive sentiment seems to me relatively similar in both cases.

Maybe I’m wrong. About the whole thing. Maybe I just don’t get it and some people just have “superior taste” about everything than anybody else and when they say “it’s bad,” it really means that there’s no way to ever appreciate this thing in any context if you’re a worthy human being. Sure, it’s possible.

I just prefer being an hedonist. 🙂

And I prefer venting occasionally. Not on a regular basis. 😉


Crazy Predictions: Amazon Kindle

 

Yeah, I tend to get overly enthusiastic about new devices. And so does a large part of the “tech press.” But, once in a while, a device comes which pretty much everyone predicts will fail. So, recently, I’ve been thinking about playing devil’s advocate with those predictions. Basically, stating that some device which seems to be doomed from the start (”a dud,” “another DOA product”) will in fact succeed. Kind of a creative exercise.Case in point, Amazon’s just released Kindle eBook reader:Amazon.com: Kindle: Amazon’s New Wireless Reading Device: Kindle StoreThe consensus opinion seems to be that it’s “too little, too late” or that the product doesn’t meet its set goals. In other words, a big “hype factor” (hyperbolic language surrounding its release) for something which isn’t that revolutionary.  Tech enthusiasts aren’t impressed. But they do get to think, yet again, about books from a technological standpoint.I happen to think that the Kindle will likely fail. But if it does eventually succeed, what will I need to rethink?

  1. Screen readability trumps everything else.
    • I tend to read a lot of things (including student assignments) on computer screens. But many people keep saying that they can’t read from a computer screen for a very long period of time. If E Ink is in fact so much more readable than a computer screen that it makes a real difference, maybe the Kindle is one of those things you adopt once you try them.
  2. The hardcover’s form factor can work.
    • Looks like the Kindle is too big to fit in a pocket. “Conventional wisdom” (and experience with Newton MessagePad devices) says that handheld devices should fit in pockets. So, if the Kindle works, it means that the form factor isn’t an issue. And, in this case, there’d be some logic to it. Compared to a hardcover book, the Kindle is relatively small. And it’s incredibly small when compared to the number of books it could replace. I tend not to like hardcovers because of their form factor but having a single hardcover to replace any number of books and magazines could make me change my mind.
  3. There’s room for single-function devices.
    • What is already discussed with the Kindle is that multipurpose devices (say, Apple’s iPhone) can serve the “book-reading function” to a certain extent. If it is the case, then people are unlikely to spend as much on a device which only does one thing than on a device which can do a number of things. Yet, “book-reading” is among the trickiest things computer-based technology can do and a case is often made for a device which “does one thing and does it well.”
  4. Free wireless access is a “killer app” and Sprint’s EVDO (used by Kindle) could do. For now.
    • I tend to think a lot about free wireless connectivity, these days. In my mind, the stage seems to be set for the true “wireless revolution.” So I imagine convenient devices which do all sorts of neat things thanks to ubiquitous wireless access, either from cellphone networks or from computer networks. In fact, I keep imagining some kind of “cross-technology mesh network device” which could get connectivity through WiFi/WiMax and/or cellphone 3G, and redistribute it to other devices. Partly the model used for the OLPC’s XO, but brought to an even broader concept. Speeds are sufficient at this point for simple use and there could be ways to alleviate some bandwidth problems.
  5. People are willing to pay for restricted content.
    • I’m a proponent of Open Access and I really think openness is the direction where most Internet-manageable content is headed. But it’s quite possible that people are passionate about some compelling content that they will be willing to pay for access to it regardless of what else is available. In other words, if people really want to read some specific books, they are going to pay for the privilege to read it when they want. That’s probably why some public libraries have fees on best-sellers. I still don’t understand why people would need to pay to access blog content, but maybe paying for blog content will make blogs more “important.”
  6. Not needing a computer is a cool feature.
    • Some people simply don’t have computers, others only have access to public computers, yet others would prefer to leave computer use as a part of their work life. It’s quite likely that, as a standalone device, the Kindle could win the hearts of many people who would otherwise not buy any portable device. In fact, I kind of wish that other handheld devices were less reliant on computers. For instance, even MP3 players with wireless capabilities usually need to be connected to computers on occasion (though Microsoft’s new Zune firmware does eliminate the need for a computer to synchronise podcasts). The difference can be huge in terms of “peace of mind.” Forgot to add new content to your device? Easy, you can fetch it from anywhere.
  7. Battery life matters.
    • At this point, most handheld devices have pretty decent battery life in that you only have to recharge the batteries once a day. But, if the Kindle really does get 30 hours of battery life, it could have an excellent “peace of mind” factor. Forgot to plug in your device, last night? That’s ok, you still have a long time to go before the battery is drained. When you’re travelling for a few days, this could be really useful as it’s often annoying to have to recharge your devices on a regular basis. There’s also something to be said about non-volatile memory (that’s one reason I miss my Newton MessagePad).
  8. Design style needs not be flashy.
    • The Kindle looks rather “clunky” from pictures but it seems that part of this might be on purpose. The device isn’t meant as a fashion statement. It’s supposed to be as “classy” as a book. Not sure the actual device really looks “classy” in anybody’s view but there’s something to be said about devices which “look serious.”
  9. People don’t need colour after all.
    • Grayscale displays have been replaced by colour displays in most handheld devices, including MP3 players and PDAs. But maybe colour isn’t that important for most people.
  10. Jeff Bezos is a neat fellow
    • Maybe the current incarnation of the Kindle is just a way to test the waters and Bezos has a broader strategy to take not only the book world but also all the “online content” world with the Kindle. So, maybe the next Kindle will do audio and/or video. And maybe, just maybe, it could become a full-fledged “Internet appliance.”

So… Just for fun, I’m predicting that the Kindle will be a huge success.