Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Kindles, Smart Phones, and Mechagodzilla

Let's discuss the tech questions today. PeterLC asks,

"Is Kindle and the like a good thing or a bad thing? Do these computer options promote reading or do these detract from the written word?"
Every new advance brings fevered cries that what was good in the old ways is under threat. Is it true? Like always, yes and no. The VCR did not spell the end of movie theaters, but reinvigorated them, so too I think, the ability to one click buy books from your computer or mobile device will actually lead to a more robust book market. I think more people will buy more books. Does that mean people will read more books? To some degree, I do.

At the same time, what it will also mean is that research will become more and more an on-line affair and people will no longer find themselves lost in the stacks. If you can get right to the book you think you'll need, there will be less of a chance to find what you really need, but didn't realize you did. Being in a physical location surrounded by related books leads to chains of thought that may not occur otherwise and subtle, accidentally discovered links may be less likely to be made. Then again, it also means that authors do not have to spend day after day working on an index, so a mixed bag, indeed.

71 asks,
"Has the ubiquity of smart phones, tablets and laptops in the classroom changed the dynamic of it? I recall that when questions arose that you didn't immediately have some thoughts on (or an answer to), you would jot them down (in your state of the art PDA) and come back the next class with an answer. I imagine that something approximating an answer to (or at least pointing one toward an answer to) many of those stumpers is readily available via Google. Do students get more involved in answering questions with these resources glued to their palms? Do they call you out more often for passing on dubious information (not that you'd ever do that!). This post related to the recent Fish-Boghossian hoopla got me thinking about this: http://www.newappsblog.com/2011/08/pundit-makes-stuff-up-is-refuted.html. As the author of the post puts it: 'The issue I want to raise is: what becomes of “general knowledge”, or rather the social value of having lots of it, now that anyone with a phone or tablet can simulate the possession of a well-furnished mind?'"
Actually, the classroom and the Q&A has changed very little. The instant availability of facts is a good thing, but my job is not to provide facts, but to help the student create a framework in which the facts have some sort of meaning. We now have more paints on the pallet, but we still need to make a picture out of them. Everyone now may have a lot of knowledge since we all possess various forms of external brains, but using that knowledge for wisdom and understanding still requires work. What I love about the Q&A is not just the novel facts, but the way they inevitably lead to a wonderful narrative (or many) that lets you take that fact and use it to generate more questions or a deeper appreciation of the subject.

C. Ewing asks,
"Godzilla or Mechagodzilla? Which one is more frightening? Which one is cooler? And why do bad things always seem to happen to Tokyo?"
Japan, as we all now realize, lives in a very precarious spot on the globe because of the location of the edges of the tectonic plates. Earthquakes and tsunamis can be devastating for them. So, you'd think their fictional monster which embody their existential fears would arise from nature.

But no, both Godzilla and Mechagodzilla are the result of human technology. Godzilla from radioactive fallout -- a fear whose source is easily identifiable -- but the result of unforeseen consequences of the human war machine. Just like the Frankenstein of Hollywood (though, not of Mary Shelly), Godzilla is meant to show us that we can never be sure of the ultimate results of our tinkering with nature. We may think we control the universe, but really we are just playing with forces we cannot completely have a handle on. As a result, we may end up facing something terrifying and huge that we never envisioned.

Mechagodzilla, on the other hand, is a direct created result of human aggression. When we seek only power, we create weapons that are incredibly deadly, but as a result they may move beyond our ability to control them. Our technology may come to control us and the results may not be pretty. Both monsters are the result of hubris and unforeseen consequences, but it is the latter that scares me more.

I know the last question was meant to be funny, but I think there is an interesting conversation to be had there. I think that the Cold War marked a major change in the Japanese psyche and by embracing a pacifist constitution after a war-filled history, the idea of Japan -- even artistically -- destroying someone else's cities was really out of bounds. As a result, it's always Tokyo that gets it.