Thursday, 9 November 2017

Not on a circle—but where? - vocabulary for ditigal micro-natives (Anne Rooney)

I looked after MB the other day while her parents were working nights. She is three, nearly four.

MB: “I have a new movie. Will you put it on, please?”
Me: “Where is it?”
MB: “It’s not on a circle.”

This, it turns out, means the movie is not on a DVD. It’s a movie bought on Amazon Video and stored on the Cloud. (Happyending: we found it.) But look at how the increasing number of things-that-are-no-longer-things presents a challenge to the burgeoning vocabularies of our young people. The location of the movie can be give only by where it isn't—it isn't where I expect it to be (like so many things).

A film, when I was young, could be seen only in the cinema and was manifest as reels of acetate. When my kids were young, a film was either in a rectangular box or ‘on a circle’, but it was still a thing. Now there are lots of ‘things’ MB deals with daily that have no physical manifestation. Music, if not randomly on the radio, is on Spotify or iTunes; it can be turned on by saying ‘Alexa, play The Magic Flute’ or whatever. Movies are on Netflix or, if you own them, somewhere on the Cloud. Photos are on phones and computers, but rarely pieces of paper. Some books are on the iPad if she is on a plane (but paper otherwise). We are woken not by an alarm clock but an alarm, which can be on a phone, or can be the ever-adaptable Alexa. A plethora of previous ‘things’ have become instead experiences, divorced from physical objects.

In a little while, MB will be answering my question about the movie with ‘in the Cloud’ or ‘in our Amazon library’ but that—especially the latter—requires a concept of navigating a virtual realm that is currently beyond her grasp. I was trying to explain evaporation to her yesterday, and the concept of gas was elusive: once something becomes invisible, where does it go? It’s still there. But… where? There. The concept of the Cloud is even harder as there is nothing there, just electrons jiggling in a different way. Information theory is beyond her for now. (Even I, as grown-up, struggle with some aspects of information theory. I’m afraid of dooming her to Neitzschean madness as she tries to grasp the ungraspable. I’m afraid of it for myself, too.)

We first learn language by rooting it in experience and physicality. Children learn nouns first; proper nouns to name the people around them and useful nouns like food, milk, spoon and cat. A lot of nouns now, though, are metaphorical, divorced from the physical. The ‘Cloud’ is a metaphor for the nebulous sense we have of the nowhere that information is. It feels as though it’s out there, just out of reach, and now we have a cloud icon, like something from a weather forecaster’s map, that lets us think of it as a thing (because we like physicality really). But it’s not a thing; it’s a configuration of electrons on a server (or, rather, many servers) somewhere.

The ‘virtual’ world really means the not-here world, and even the not-there world. The opposite of a world, in fact. Of course, even a movie on a circle is only a movie when you watch it. The circle is just a DVD. But, in Aristotelean terms, a DVD is a potential movie—the movie is actualised when you play it. The movie in the Cloud has no physical embodiment that can even be called the potentiality of movieness. Because, really, there’s nothing there. It’s all smoke and mirrors, all empty space and energy. It’s not on a circle any more. And we don’t have enough language yet.

MB: “I have a new movie. Will you put it on, please?”
Me: “Where is it?”
MB: “”


Penny Dolan said...

Been thinking of this post all day. A circle and what then? Such an interesting problem.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Things certainly have changed! I remember thinking as a child how nice it would be to be able to buy films like records. Video came along, then DVD, and now...? The Cloud. Streaming. Whatever. I am glad to have access to physical objects and have a huge DVD collection. I could manage a Netflix account or some such, with 100 g a month download, but most of my viewing is done curled up in bed at night with an old computer as my DVD player.

But you're right, the whole language is changing, and what will be next, I wonder? VR? 3 D viewing? Will we all, like the characters in Sean Williams' novels, be fitted with special lenses at birth and carry the Internet with us?

Andrew Preston said...

Augmented Reality (AR) is more likely; less isolating than Virtual Reality. At least, that is the mood music emanating from the developers at Apple.

catdownunder said...

I remember our "Audio-Visual" lectures in teacher training college - using what my nephew would call "pre" dinosaur technology!