Today’s the second day we’ll meet. Already the activity is building: in participants’ blogs, on the motherblog, on Twitter, on Delicious, on the discussion forum (open to anyone who’s interested in the conversation–anyone besides s***ers, that is. Registration required). And I’m hoping there’s activity in our New Media Reader as well–scribbles, highlighting, all the marks of a book read closely and well. After using this reader, what I have long called a “cabinet of wonders,” for several semesters, my marginalia have marginalia. Here I wonder if e-books might help out, though I quickly fall back on my quirky and reciprocated love for my own scrawls over the years. I sometimes look at my name in books I got when I was a freshman in college. I think how close my signature is today to the signature of that 18-year-old boy, and I study on that … with all the other changes, it hardly seems possible. But I digress.
Last week we did our introductions and began to talk about the readings. The introductions took a long time, and needed to; a good round of introductions is a necessary platform for community, I think. But we did crowd Vannevar Bush into the end of our time together, and that was a shame. Today I’m going to work hard at diving right into J.C.R. Licklider’s “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” even though I do have some seminar bidness and an ambitious plan for our new Nanos (or is it Nano’s, or Nanoes?).
Many moments from our first meeting continue to haunt me, even a week later. The excitement and the skepticism. The thrill of cognitive speed, and the sense that these things are moving way too quickly for us to be able to make sense of them or choose wisely among the proliferating possibilities. I’m struck by how some folks have dived right in to the various social media we’re using, and how some have not. And of course I worry, about everything: too fast? too slow? authentic? inauthentic? clear? muddled? distant? in our faces?
I’m a worrier by nature–I come by it honestly–but the intensity is a little greater than usual this time, because the truth is that I have unreasonably high hopes for this seminar. I hope that we become a warm and collegial community of learners. I hope that the readings help us realize that computers are metamedia, and that we can shape their uses and amplify their possibilities if we learn more about the intellectual history, the legacy of dreams, that these “universal machines” (Turing) represent. I hope we can begin to understand computers and computing as symbolic things and activities, not as mere stuff. Most of all, I hope that in the readings and discussion, no matter how much disagreement there may be on certain points (we wouldn’t be academics if we didn’t disagree), there will be tremendous fuel for imagination present in our work together, and that both singly and together we can get to some great innovations and catalytic ideas.
I’ve written at length elsewhere about my own computer romance–one that surprised me and even now seems counterintuitive given my primary specialization in Renaissance literature. I never took a programming course. I never took a single computer science course. I wish I had, frankly, and I still may. But all of that is to say that something about the individual and social recursion that high-speed networked computers make possible remind me very powerfully of the best learning experiences I’ve ever had, those times I’ve felt as if an entirely new world has opened up, or that I and my colleagues are writing a book together, a magic book that leads to that entirely new world that is a home we have co-created for ourselves and those who might find it congenial.
Truth is, it’s those books in Donne’s library, lying open to each other, reading each other into shared being. It’s a time-lapse film of a flower blooming. It’s civilization. As Milton put it, it’s repairing the ruins of our first parents. How much repair can be done? I don’t know. Will the tools of repair turn on us and become tools of disrepair and degeneration? Entirely possible, of course, and with many precedents in civilization to point to. Francis Bacon identified the compass, gunpowder, and the printing press as the most significant innovations of the new age of learning we call the Renaissance. It’s easy to see how colonialism, carnage, and cacophony resulted. Yet I still want to explore and find my way back again, and for that I need a compass. Gunpowder can aid in construction and even make for beautiful firework displays (bear with me here–that last one sounds a bit trite to me, even if it’s Gandalf I’m imagining). And the printing press is the platform upon which democracy–and of course my life’s work–are built.
I hope that this metamedium, and the readings we do together as we think about it, will become a platform for complex and shared creativity, symbolic and metasymbolic communication and co-creation. I hope the language emerging from the network effects of a truly global and truly personal communications platform will be a language in which more epics will be written. And most of all, I hope this metamedium will let us scale real school and make it available to every man, woman, and child on the planet.
We can’t even feed and clothe the planet yet, but perhaps the metamedium will help us figure that out more quickly, too–figure it out together.
And now some thanks. My thanks to Tim Logan and the Baylor Electronic Library for supplying the Nanos. My thanks to our interim Provost, Dr. Elizabeth Davis, for the stipends for the participants. My thanks to Alan Levine and the New Media Consortium for taking this seminar on as an NMC event and working hard with podcasts and publicity to create a virtual space for non-local participants. (True to form, the CogDog has already blogged about our seminar, for which many thanks.)
Most of all, my thanks to my colleagues who’ve extended their trust, their time, and their energies into this venture. I’ll try not to let you down.