On Premature Obituaries

The PC Officially Died Today,” announced Nicholas Carr in The New Republic and on his blog.  The cause of its death?  The Apple iPad, of course.

To Carr, the iPad represents a new era of personal computing, where users access the vast database of the Internet and all the media of the past, rather than using their computers primarily for software like Word.  The new computers are “portable, flexible, always connected.”

Although I was starting to think my college education was almost useless (practically speaking), it turns out that a few key ideas from the field of media studies can help understand Carr’s article.

Most strikingly, the declaration of the PC’s death – though it makes for a great article title – may not be entirely accurate.  When TV came along, it made filmmakers uneasy about their industry; by some accounts, the book should have perished by now.  Granted, Carr is talking about two forms of a particular technology, but the general point is that we should be hesitant to proclaim sharp breaks and total replacements (the media-studies term is “supercession”) rather than examining the ways in which old and new forms of media interact with and adapt to each other.  Maybe we’ll get tired of constantly being wired to the Internet (emails alerts ringing, Skype windows popping up) and desire a simple device where we can work, uninterrupted, on things like art and writing.

The same applies to the view of the computer as the ultimate multimedia device, “absorb[ing] the traditional products of media—songs, TV shows, movies, games, the printed word.”  It may be able to transmit all the entertainment we could ever want, but it can’t mimic the social experiences and cultural traditions of watching TV, going to the movie theatre, or reading a book.

But one of the most important points that Carr makes – a point that’s been made about journalism as well – is that periods of transition create instability and confusion, a jumbled mass of solutions to questions like “What’s the future of computing?”  Carr cites Acer and Asus netbooks, e-readers like Kindle and Nook, and smartphones like the iPhone and Nexus One.  “In some ways,” he writes, “personal computing has returned to the ferment of its earliest days, when the market was fragmented among lots of contending companies, operating systems, and technical standards.”

Well, good.  To figure out a solution – or, at least, the current path to take – we need lots of options.  We need to try things out, and see how they work, how they fit into our lives, how they shape our experiences and interactions.  If the iPad emerges victorious, then maybe we can start talking about the death of old PC’s.  Maybe.

A Liberal Arts Manifesto

This sentimental article, In Defense of the Liberal Arts, caught my eye.  I am currently finishing a philosophy degree in my university’s Arts Faculty, but I consider myself to be a scientific thinker and have become increasingly skeptical about the methods and subject matter of the liberal arts.

Unfortunately, Jon Meacham’s article doesn’t provide much insight into the benefits of a liberal arts education, except the broad claim that it nurtures creativity.  Students of liberal arts, he explains, have “a habit of mind that enables them to connect ideas that might otherwise have gone unconnected”; they may become the entrepreneurs of tomorrow who define the future of our economy.

If training the creative entrepreneurial mind is the goal, however, a liberal arts education isn’t ideal; Meacham himself notes that expertise in Homer and Shakespeare has a questionable economic value.  Students could be taught to think creatively about the related subjects of technology, business, and economics, for example – the details of which are exceedingly relevant to economic success.

But I don’t mean to downgrade the liberal arts.  Reflecting on my own education – a blur of reading hundreds of pages and writing nearly as much – I have benefited in ways that will serve me in the future.  I have learned to understand alternative viewpoints; to see patterns and make comparisons; to clearly articulate my own ideas in writing.  More broadly, I have learned that the answers to life’s questions – whether philosophical or political, theoretical or practical – are not as straightforward as they might appear.

Questioning the benefits of any particular education is certainly valuable.  In fact, it might be useful to offer students a wrap-up course within their department, explaining major themes and take-away lessons.  The practical benefits of some courses of study may be more apparent than others, but I suspect that they’ll all retain their place in university culture – if only as knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

The Age-Old Question

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how important it is to research happiness – the most prized and elusive goal of nearly all human beings, a concept born in the B.C.’s and still puzzling modern man.  It’s no surprise that the most emailed NY Times article today is Nicholas D. Kristof’s The Happiest People.

Based on several indexes, the happiest people seem to be the Costa Ricans.  Kristof offers several reasons for this: investment in education rather than an army, beautiful beaches, environmental friendliness, and a healthy economy due to computer-chip exporting and American tourism.

The bit on education may be the most significant here.  Education increases our knowledge and challenges us with new ideas, which improves our personal decision-making and multiplies the possibilities we see in the world.  (I guess ignorance isn’t bliss?)  The Greek word for happiness actually means “flourishing,” and to flourish in the world requires knowledge of that world and knowledge of the self.

Beyond that, there’s little insight to gain from the example of Costa Rica.  There may not be any causal relationship between the factors that Kristof picked out and the country’s average happiness level (8.5); maybe they have friendlier salespeople, or less traffic (or lower standards).  And any broad-brush claim about happiness in a population can’t capture the complexity of each individual’s psychology, the thousands of factors that affect whether and to what extent any particular Costa Rican is happy.  (I’m sure some Costa Ricans aren’t happy about their country’s carbon tax.)

So the mystery of happiness remains a mystery, as expected.  But that won’t stop readers from clicking eagerly on the title “The Happiest People,” or from seeking out success and love to bring them happiness – nor should it.

Wake up and ditch the routine

In my last post, I suggested that we live such hectic lives that we have forgotten how to truly enjoy ourselves – not the most novel of observations, but perhaps one that few of us stop and do something about.  A recent article in the NY Times, How to Train the Aging Brain, indirectly points out another: we’re all stuck in routines, from routine behaviors to routine ideas and beliefs.

(The article’s actually about how challenging our existing viewpoints can create new neural pathways and keep the middle-age brain in better shape.  But I think the point is broader.  After all, shouldn’t young adults also want to keep developing their brains, even if it’s not improving their short-term memory?)

I myself am a victim to routine; I wake up at the same times, take the same buses, go to the gym on the same days, and order the same drinks at Second Cup.  And sometimes, in the midst of this routine, I “wake up” and wonder what’s been going on.  Why am I not thinking about what I’m doing?  Why does my mind feel so foggy?  Do I really want a small green tea with lemon?

And that’s just the beginning.  In the realm of ideas, the stakes of routine thinking are even higher.  Making decisions based on unconsidered beliefs and principles, we affect the lives of ourselves, our friends and spouses, and the children to whom we pass on these dusty dogmas.  It’s the difference between lending a helping hand and turning away in apathy, plainly speaking the truth or wandering in a maze of lies, pursuing an exciting career or sacrificing our dreams.

So I think all brains should be trained to avoid the routine – not just to increase brainpower, but for something much more important: happiness.