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?). (more…)

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.