Apple apparently has announced new plans to make inroads into the education market, boldly claiming to have reinvented the textbook for the iPad, and it gets the dismissal it deserves from Kieran Healy over at Crooked Timber, while Adam Kotsko chimes in with his own criticisms. Both of them get at something that it seems like Apple overlooks in its new desire to replace textbooks with iPads: when it comes to reading lots and lots of text for the purpose of learning information and ideas, it’s really hard to beat books. Healy even cites the popularity of Instapaper as a demonstration that if you have something you really want to (or have to) read, all the flashy graphics and sound an iPad affords you really gets in the way, “You’ll read it because you’re already interested in it, and you’ll even seek out and pay for a way to make the reading and learning experience static and simple, because you don’t want to be distracted.”
What is somewhat unstated here but is, I think, important to this conversation is that what the innovations behind something like Apple’s new initiative overlook is precisely the advantages that books as a technology give us. Writing provided us with a way to store ideas and information and make them available for others (or ourselves) without requiring that we go through whatever specific mental processes first inspired those ideas, and leaving us free to go without the trouble of getting our bodies in close enough proximity to each other and for long enough a time to express these to each other verbally. A book provides the best way we’ve found so far or giving us access to a huge amount of writing, of combining loads of ideas and information into a discrete object we can possess. And we read a book (when we read for information or learning, at least) in order to encounter ideas and information. But this isn’t an instantaneous process, and we don’t always internalize information and ideas on our first encounter with them. What books give us is an object we can manipulate fairly easily, that we can pick up and set down however and whenever we wish. That is, books make very few demands of us in order to be useful. Animations and video and sound, however, always demand at the very least that we sit through them for a certain duration of time in order for them to useful. And they don’t work as well for going back over; we might reread a paragraph or a page or a chapter any number of times in a way that we pretty much never do with informative audiovisual objects. In other words, no matter how smooth the iPad’s integration of flashy audio and video stuff is, in terms of being a textbooks its fundamental utility is still going to be based on how well it competes with a book in providing an undemanding way for us to approach and access ideas and information. If iPad’s are going to replace textbooks, it seems like they’ll have to do it on those terms–somehow making textbooks more convenient, not making textbooks awesome.