The iPad and Information’s Third Age

Today we have a guest post by William Rankin, direc­tor of edu­ca­tion­al inno­va­tion, asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of medieval lit­er­a­ture, and Apple Dis­tin­guished Edu­ca­tor, Abi­lene Chris­t­ian Uni­ver­si­ty. ACU was the first uni­ver­si­ty in the world to announce a com­pre­hen­sive one-to-one ini­tia­tive based on iPhones and iPod touch­es designed to explore the impact of mobil­i­ty in edu­ca­tion. For the past year, they have been con­sid­er­ing the future of the text­book. Rankin, who made a brief appear­ance on NBC Night­ly News last night, does a great job here of putting the new Apple iPad in his­tor­i­cal con­text and sug­gest­ing why it may solve the great infor­ma­tion­al prob­lems of our age.

It may seem strange in the wake of a major tech announce­ment to turn to the past—570 years in the past and beyond — but to con­sid­er the role of eBooks and specif­i­cal­ly of Apple’s new iPad, I think such a diver­sion is nec­es­sary. Plus, as reg­u­lar read­ers of Open Cul­ture know, tech­nol­o­gy is at its best not when it sets us off on some iso­lat­ed yet sparkling dig­i­tal future, but when it con­nects us more ful­ly to our human­i­ty — to our his­to­ry, our inter­re­lat­ed­ness, and our cul­ture. I want to take a moment, there­fore, to look back before I look for­ward, con­sid­er­ing the sim­i­lar­i­ties between Guten­berg’s rev­o­lu­tion and recent devel­op­ments in eBook tech­nolo­gies and offer­ing some basic cri­te­ria we can bor­row from his­to­ry to assess whether these new tech­nolo­gies — includ­ing Apple’s iPad — are ready to pro­pel us into information’s third age.

In the world before Gutenberg’s press — the first age — infor­ma­tion was trans­mit­ted pri­mar­i­ly in a one-to-one fash­ion. If I want­ed to learn some­thing from a per­son, I typ­i­cal­ly had to go to that per­son to learn it. This cre­at­ed an infor­ma­tion cul­ture that was high­ly per­son­al and rela­tion­al, a char­ac­ter­is­tic evi­denced in appren­tice­ships and in the teacher/student rela­tion­ships of the ear­ly uni­ver­si­ties. This rela­tion­al char­ac­ter­is­tic was true even for tex­tu­al infor­ma­tion. The man­u­al tech­nol­o­gy behind the pro­duc­tion and copy­ing of books and the immense asso­ci­at­ed costs meant that it was dif­fi­cult for books to pro­lif­er­ate. To see a book — if I couldn’t afford to have my own copy hand-made, a propo­si­tion requir­ing the expen­di­ture of a lifetime’s worth of wages for the aver­age per­son — meant that I had to go vis­it the library that owned it. Even then, I might not be allowed to see it if I didn’t have a priv­i­leged rela­tion­ship with its own­ers. So while the first age was rich in infor­ma­tion (a truth that has noth­ing to do with my per­son­al bias as a medieval­ist), its pri­ma­ry chal­lenge involved access.

Gutenberg’s rev­o­lu­tion, ush­er­ing in the sec­ond age, solved that prob­lem. Dri­ven by one of the first machines to enable mass-pro­duc­tion, infor­ma­tion could pro­lif­er­ate for the first time. Mul­ti­ple copies of books could be pro­duced quick­ly and rel­a­tive­ly cheap­ly — Gutenberg’s Bible was avail­able at a cost of only three years’ wages for the aver­age clerk — and this meant that books took on a new role in cul­ture. This was the birth of mass media. Libraries explod­ed from hav­ing tens or per­haps a few hun­dred books to hav­ing thou­sands. Or tens of thou­sands. Or mil­lions. And this abun­dance led to three dis­tinct rev­o­lu­tions in cul­ture. Though the uni­ver­si­ty ini­tial­ly fought its intro­duc­tion, the print­ed text­book pro­vid­ed broad access to infor­ma­tion that, for the first time, promised the pos­si­bil­i­ty of uni­ver­sal edu­ca­tion. Wide­spread access to bibles and the­o­log­i­cal texts fueled sig­nif­i­cant trans­for­ma­tions in reli­gion across the West­ern Hemi­sphere. And access to infor­ma­tion, phi­los­o­phy, and news led to the dis­man­tling of old polit­i­cal hier­ar­chies and some of the first exper­i­ments with democ­ra­cy (have you ever stopped to notice how many of the Amer­i­can rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies were involved in print­ing and pub­lish­ing?).

But the pro­lif­er­a­tion of infor­ma­tion had a dark side as well, cre­at­ing a new chal­lenge for the sec­ond age: find­ing. Where infor­ma­tion had been pre­vi­ous­ly orga­nized pri­mar­i­ly along rela­tion­al lines, its abstrac­tion into mass-pro­duced books in enor­mous col­lec­tions led to a need for all sorts of new tech­nolo­gies aimed at solv­ing the prob­lem of find­ing: card cat­a­logues, bib­li­ogra­phies, indices. A bar­ri­er of sym­bol­ic com­plex­i­ty emerged between peo­ple and infor­ma­tion for one of the first times in his­to­ry. And the super­abun­dance of infor­ma­tion cre­at­ed a world that by neces­si­ty had to be divid­ed into small­er and small­er sub­sec­tions for orga­ni­za­tion­al rea­sons. As peo­ple began to feel increas­ing­ly dis­con­nect­ed from infor­ma­tion and as its rela­tion­al and con­tex­tu­al aspects began to fade, we saw a trans­for­ma­tion in teach­ing and learn­ing. Hands-on appren­tice­ships and small teacher/student cohorts began to dis­ap­pear, replaced by teach­ers deliv­er­ing care­ful­ly parsed and cat­e­go­rized infor­ma­tion to “stan­dard­ized” stu­dents, all while trapped in class­rooms iso­lat­ed from the world in order to lim­it “dis­trac­tion.” Mir­ror­ing the age’s infor­ma­tion­al tech­nol­o­gy, the assem­bly-line mod­el of edu­ca­tion had appeared, one that was becom­ing increas­ing­ly unten­able by the close of the 20th cen­tu­ry.

Luck­i­ly, and enabled by new tech­nolo­gies, that mod­el of edu­ca­tion is begin­ning to change. Access and find­ing aren’t par­tic­u­lar­ly prob­lems in the world of the Net and uni­ver­sal search, and many of the teach­ing strate­gies of the last age — mem­o­riza­tion, rep­e­ti­tion, a focus on infor­ma­tion over appli­ca­tion — all tar­get­ed at solv­ing the prob­lem of find­ing seem increas­ing­ly irrel­e­vant. In under a sec­ond and with­out hav­ing to under­stand any bib­li­o­graph­i­cal tech­ni­cal­i­ties, I can type a search term into Google’s decep­tive­ly sparse search win­dow and voilà! 50 mil­lion hits. It’s a lev­el of access and ease of dis­cov­ery unprece­dent­ed in human his­to­ry — a new infor­ma­tion­al age. And this new infor­ma­tion­al age is cursed with a new prob­lem: 50 mil­lion hits.

It has become vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble for a per­son to assess the qual­i­ty, rel­e­vance, and use­ful­ness of more infor­ma­tion than she can process in a life­time. And this is a prob­lem that will only get worse as infor­ma­tion con­tin­ues to pro­lif­er­ate. But a quick look at pop­u­lar tech­nolo­gies shows some of the ways peo­ple are work­ing to address it. Social net­work­ing lever­ages select­ed com­mu­ni­ties to rec­om­mend books, restau­rants, and movies. Con­text- and loca­tion-aware appli­ca­tions help focus search results and elim­i­nate extra­ne­ous com­plex­i­ty. And cus­tomiza­tion and per­son­al­iza­tion allow peo­ple to cre­ate infor­ma­tion­al spaces that lim­it the intru­sion of infor­ma­tion­al chaos.

More than many oth­er com­pa­nies, Apple has under­stood this chal­lenge for some time — and has lever­aged these same pop­u­lar tech­nolo­gies to help solve it. One has only to look at the ecosys­tem con­nect­ing the iPod and the iTunes store to see a prime exam­ple. Of course, Apple is not the only com­pa­ny to do so; Ama­zon, Google, and oth­ers have built sim­i­lar solu­tions for peo­ple using their ser­vices. But with the iPhone and iPod touch, and now with the new iPad, I think we’re begin­ning to see some­thing real­ly inter­est­ing devel­op. Espe­cial­ly in the con­text of eBooks, I’m increas­ing­ly con­vinced that we’re at the dawn of a change as rad­i­cal as that dri­ven by Gutenberg’s inven­tion.

How can I make such an auda­cious claim? How can one even assess whether a par­tic­u­lar eBook tech­nol­o­gy will be suc­cess­ful? Any gen­uine solu­tion will have to address the prob­lems of the cur­rent infor­ma­tion­al age — and it will need to con­tin­ue answer­ing the prob­lems of the pre­vi­ous infor­ma­tion­al ages. From what I’ve seen, Apple’s new iPad is the first device to promise this (even if that promise isn’t yet ful­ly real­ized). That is what makes it such a com­pelling can­di­date to be the first plat­form that serves true dig­i­tal books.

Of course, as you may note from that last phrase, I don’t believe we’ve yet seen a true dig­i­tal book. Yes, we have eBooks on a vari­ety of dig­i­tal devices, but they haven’t yet tak­en real advan­tage of their elec­tron­ic sta­tus. Books that are sta­t­ic, don’t allow cus­tomiza­tion, don’t con­nect with oth­er infor­ma­tion on the device, and don’t lever­age social con­nec­tiv­i­ty aren’t the future, no mat­ter how sophis­ti­cat­ed the device that serves them. They’re sim­ply the past repack­aged. Their repack­ag­ing may be inter­est­ing in some cir­cum­stances (air­planes and com­mutes any­one?) but the cur­rent crop of eBooks and eRead­ers sim­ply doesn’t address the infor­ma­tion­al prob­lems of the third age robust­ly enough to be com­pelling for the long term. This is cer­tain­ly one of the rea­sons that the Kin­dle pilot at Prince­ton didn’t go very well. Don’t mis­un­der­stand — the Kin­dle, like the nook and the Sony Read­er, address­es some impor­tant infor­ma­tion­al prob­lems. But I don’t believe it has put the whole pack­age togeth­er in a way that can dri­ve real cul­tur­al change, and that means its adop­tion will be lim­it­ed.

Giv­en what I’ve seen of its fea­tures and approach­es, the iPad shows the promise to engen­der such a change, though much devel­op­ment will have to take place for it to real­ize its poten­tial. Nonethe­less, the inno­va­tion it offers in three crit­i­cal areas is espe­cial­ly com­pelling: acces­si­bil­i­ty, par­tic­i­pa­tion, and cus­tomiza­tion. Cen­tral to all three of these is the fact that the iPad is not a sin­gle-use, stand­alone device; it’s a pow­er­ful, con­verged plat­form with robust devel­op­ment tools and capa­bil­i­ties. Although it has come to mar­ket well behind oth­er eRead­er devices, this aspect alone makes the iPad a cred­i­ble plat­form for the future of the book.

One dif­fer­ence between the iPad and oth­er tablet or eRead­er devices is its new lev­el of acces­si­bil­i­ty. I don’t mere­ly mean acces­si­bil­i­ty in the tra­di­tion­al sense of that word — that this device is portable, gen­er­al­ly afford­able (espe­cial­ly when one thinks of text­book costs), and solid­ly con­nect­ed. Many devices, includ­ing the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of eRead­ers (and full-blown lap­tops), offer this kind of acces­si­bil­i­ty. Instead, I would argue that the key acces­si­bil­i­ty fea­ture of the iPad is its appar­ent “lack” of an inter­face (a fea­ture Apple’s mar­ket­ing is work­ing hard to under­score). Unlike all of the oth­er sim­i­lar devices (includ­ing those run­ning Apple’s stan­dard OS), which require users to learn to nego­ti­ate com­plex sym­bol­ic inter­faces — files, fold­ers, hier­ar­chies, tool­bars, nav­i­ga­tion­al but­tons — the iPad lim­its or even elim­i­nates these in favor of touch, an approach intu­itive even to those too young to read. Pio­neered on the iPhone and iPod touch, this tech­nol­o­gy offers a sim­ple way for users to inter­act with and con­trol con­tent. So instead of see­ing an image on the screen and hav­ing to use a but­ton on the side of the device to “turn the page,” I sim­ply drag my fin­ger across it, and the dig­i­tal page behaves as though it were a real object in the real world. The col­laps­ing of sym­bol­ic com­plex­i­ty into the sim­plic­i­ty of touch enables par­tic­i­pa­tion by new groups of peo­ple — even rel­a­tive techno­phobes — and this mir­rors the increased acces­si­bil­i­ty offered by Gutenberg’s rev­o­lu­tion while low­er­ing the bar­ri­er char­ac­ter­is­tic of most recent tech­nolo­gies.

In Gutenberg’s case, the increase in acces­si­bil­i­ty led to a dra­mat­ic increase in cul­tur­al par­tic­i­pa­tion, and this is anoth­er way the iPad dif­fer­en­ti­ates itself from many of its peer devices. Where­as the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of eRead­ers lim­its most users to the con­sump­tion of infor­ma­tion, mir­ror­ing the con­trol of pub­lish­ing that emerged dur­ing the last infor­ma­tion­al age, the iPad offers (and cer­tain­ly promis­es to offer more ful­ly) a new set of tools for con­tent cre­ation. Put in the hands of read­ers and stu­dents, the robust capa­bil­i­ties of its new ver­sion of iWork, com­bined with access to the com­plete range of apps on the App Store and an entire­ly new gen­er­a­tion of native apps, the iPad could pro­vide access to pro­fes­sion­al-qual­i­ty cre­ative tools that empow­er a new set of par­tic­i­pants. For those inter­est­ed in cul­ture and cre­ativ­i­ty, this is an excit­ing prospect.

Final­ly, the iPad’s blend of social and con­tex­tu­al tech­nolo­gies and its ease of cus­tomiza­tion offer use­ful ways for the device to help users sort, focus, and con­trol the infor­ma­tion around them. The iPad’s net­work­ing capa­bil­i­ties, linked to a new gen­er­a­tion of dig­i­tal books, could help peo­ple dis­cov­er both new texts and the mem­bers of a dis­cus­sion group who could help them process what they’re read­ing. Com­bined with a portable for­mat that allows read­ers to car­ry their books into var­i­ous con­texts, this could be incred­i­bly pow­er­ful. One imag­ines, for exam­ple, a field-guide to forests linked to live dis­cus­sion part­ners, allow­ing a read­er to dis­cov­er the for­est in a new and engag­ing way that offers the advan­tages of both the first and sec­ond infor­ma­tion­al ages. Yet this sort of capa­bil­i­ty also reveals an area where the iPad falls sur­pris­ing­ly short: its lack of a cam­era (let alone two, one for­ward and one back­ward fac­ing) means the device has lim­it­ed capa­bil­i­ties for inter­est­ing emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies like aug­ment­ed real­i­ty — a sta­ple of recent­ly-devel­oped apps. In terms of future eBooks, a vol­ume of Hem­ing­way that could alert read­ers that they were only two blocks from the café Les Deux Magots, for exam­ple, and offer an aug­ment­ed tour of the place or that could direct the read­er of Bron­të to a moor would be trans­for­ma­tion­al indeed. Per­haps we’ll see such capa­bil­i­ties on iPad 2.0.

Will the iPad’s mix of eBooks, media, and cre­ation tools change the world? It’s dif­fi­cult to say. At ACU, we’re cer­tain­ly look­ing for­ward to get­ting these devices in the hands of teach­ers and stu­dents so that we have a clear­er sense. But it’s already clear that in pro­vid­ing a device that address­es the core issues of all three infor­ma­tion ages, Apple’s iPad is the first con­tender to show gen­uine promise.

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Comments (9)
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  • mr. mayor says:

    I like Apple (I own a Mac and an iPhone) and don’t plan on return­ing to PC land any time soon. But, so ear­ly in the game, does ACU need to be so slav­ish in its praise of the cor­po­rate mon­ster that is Apple? Me thinks a lit­tle brake tap might be in order.

  • Iceline says:

    It’s sad that many of the prob­lems Apple has gen­er­at­ed in it’s short past with the App­store are almost will­ful­ly ignored. I expect­ed a more neu­tral and hon­est or at least crit­i­cal view from I myself too have sev­er­al apple com­put­ers and prod­ucts. But like almost any iphone users I know, I jail­breaked it to escape the pow­er Apple has over it’s devices. This won’t be a device where con­tent will thrive to open­ness but one where every pub­lish­er has to answer to Apple or gets removed from the App­store, as they have done it in the recent past more times then I wish to remem­ber.

  • pethr says:

    Ice­line, fun­ny you failed to men­tion the pow­er of tra­di­tion­al pub­lish­ers and media over con­tent and artists. I’m not so sure Apple is the evil here.

  • Bill Rankin says:

    I agree with the spir­it of the cri­tiques here, but under­stand that I was not intend­ing to do a thor­ough­go­ing cri­tique of the the iPad. Instead, I was work­ing to con­sid­er the future of the book and to dis­cuss how one might eval­u­ate one device ver­sus anoth­er. Note that while I’m inter­est­ed in the iPad’s capa­bil­i­ties and see it as hav­ing dis­tinct advan­tages over the Kin­dle, for exam­ple (a device cost­ing vir­tu­al­ly the same), I don’t believe the iPad’s poten­tial has been reached. Still, it’s clear that books are mov­ing to a dig­i­tal for­mat — indeed, that they need to in order to address some of the prob­lems of the cur­rent infor­ma­tion age — and we need to under­stand some of the fac­tors that will influ­ence that move. Obvi­ous­ly, ques­tions of rights, open­ness, inter­ac­tiv­i­ty, and cost will have to fig­ure in, but such issues pre­sume a plat­form a plat­form that is worth con­sid­er­ing seri­ous­ly from a tech­ni­cal stand­point first, and that’s what I was work­ing to estab­lish here. Thanks again for your com­ments, and I think it will be inter­est­ing to see how peo­ple and con­tent con­verge around these devices.

  • Mike Caprio says:

    Thank you for this excel­lent and thought­ful post! His­to­ry gives us so much per­spec­tive and impor­tant con­text. Hope­ful­ly as you say the forces that strive to lock up con­tent won’t win out and only deliv­er us “sta­t­ic” con­tent, prepack­aged for us by cor­po­ra­tions for easy con­sump­tion… every book should be search­able, quotable, attrib­ut­able. I should be able to down­load an elec­tron­ic copy when I buy a paper one! And the device should­n’t be crip­pled undu­ly in its capa­bil­i­ties sole­ly for prof­it seek­ing, and lim­it its promise. I’m sure a future ver­sion will have a cam­era and allow for aug­ment­ed real­i­ty; Apple is sure­ly wait­ing to see what appli­ca­tions will be pop­u­lar for the device before try­ing to add too much to it right off the bat.

  • Steele says:

    Back in the 80s, I owned a book­store and watched as peo­ple spent more and more time watch­ing videos rather than read­ing. Even then, we dis­cussed the future of print and could envi­sion a time when every book/magazine/newspaper would be dig­i­tized to read on our com­put­ers and lines would blur between text, graph­ics and movies. (I once tried to con­vince some investors to go out and pur­chase the dig­i­tal rights from pub­lish­ers, real­iz­ing that they could do so for a song — few con­sid­ered the end of ink and paper 20+ years ago.) We also knew peo­ple who had worked at Xerox labs in Rochester in the 70s and had laid out the future of com­put­ers becom­ing portable note­books that could be used and tossed around like school­books.

    That’s why the iPad as a per­fect dis­sem­i­na­tor of “books” just does­n’t seem so rev­o­lu­tion­ary.

    Con­verse­ly, access to the inter­net and its unlim­it­ed store­house of info from vir­tu­al­ly any­where on the plan­et is the ele­ment that few envi­sioned. More­over, the inter­net as a exchange for lousy infor­ma­tion, unrea­soned opin­ion, infi­nite blath­er, ultra-mun­dane and ridicu­lous images/videos, etc. isn’t some­thing that any of us who were think­ing about a future of easy access to books, news, art and movies ever con­sid­ered. It is the true rev­o­lu­tion.

    It is inter­est­ing to won­der if Apple is doing a great ser­vice in this rev­o­lu­tion by try­ing to fig­ure out a way for publishers/producers/directors to make enough mon­ey so they can con­tin­ue to act as an alter­na­tive set of fil­ters to the viral pop­u­lar­i­ty that now deter­mines what many peo­ple spend their time view­ing online. Whether any­one or any group should be able to trump the democ­ra­ti­za­tion of truth, pow­er, cul­ture, or taste is the sto­ry here.

  • Javierlucero18 says:

    Just won­der­ing why this arti­cle is up but there isn’t an iPad app for Open Cul­ture. Make a brutha hap­py.

  • Bread Nail says:

    I do appre­ci­ate what you said: tech­nol­o­gy is at its best not when it sets us off on some iso­lat­ed yet sparkling dig­i­tal future, but when it con­nects us more ful­ly to our human­i­ty — to our his­to­ry, our inter­re­lat­ed­ness, and our cul­ture.

  • Adam says:

    Oral. Writ­ten. Print. Elec­tron­ic. Dig­i­tal. The iPad is part of at least the 5th age of infor­ma­tion.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.