Sunday, 18 July 2010

On (i)Tools and (i)Toys

We have all known have we not, Dear Reader, that the events of yesterday have been inevitable for over a year? The Caxton branch of the Bounford family finally bowed to fate and become a household possessed of (and obsessed with) not just one, but two ipads.

So yes - along with the Victorian music cabinet (a recent ebay purchase collected yesterday evening) it's been an eye-wateringly expensive weekend in this corner of England. But already my only regret is that I didn't bite the bullet earlier. I recall blogging last year that my reluctance to part with cash for a Kindle lay in the fact I couldn't use it for anything other than reading books bought from Amazon. Whereas I wanted one piece of kit I could read from, purchase my groceries on, watch films, view photos, IM with the children from. And here, in the ipad is something that does all that and more. I haven't yet rigged up a camera so I can spy on the chickens via it - but I'm pretty sure it would be possible.

Here I sit, therefore, in the garden blogging on the ipad with it docked into a lovely little portable keyboard (that would also work with my iphone). And I know I've fallen in love - in a way I never did with the Kindle (still defunct on the dresser - looking hopelessly old world and analogue next to this shiny new toy) or even my iphone which - useful as it is - never grabbed me in the way this has. Thanks to Project Gutenberg and the ibooks app I sat in bed last night grazing on Marcus Aurelius, Huckleberry Finn, Shakespeare (mugging up on The Comedy of Errors so I can answer the children's questions when we see it at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park next Saturday). Today I reluctantly went down-market and loaded Dan Brown's Angels and Demons - which Felix was half way through on the ill-fated Kindle. We couldn't find this book on ibooks so loaded the kindle app for free and bought it that way.

So why two ipads? I've been a parent long enough to know that if I'd only bought one - I'd never get a look in. And also Hannah was due a laptop. She'd been eyeing up a Hewlett Packard with a swivel screen (at significantly greater cost than the ipad). And I had an epiphany. There's just no point buying her a laptop, when she will get so much more out of this. Docked to the keyboard she can write essays, while she surfs content online and in books. Through Project Gutenburg she has instant access to the classics and the staples of world literature, culture, philosophy and religion. Not to mention Angry Birds, Facebook, Hotmail, Gmail, YouTube, and all the other mandatory requirements of the modern 14-year old. She has resources at her fingertips I could not have dreamed possible when I was the same age. And moreover all rolled into a bit of kit that's totally seductive and as cool as it comes. Libraries were never this sexy.

I've heard educational and children's publishers talking a lot since the arrival of the ipad about the blurring between books and games that is beginning to take place. I think the change is more fundamental than that. In this instance it's not about the content it's about the kit. Just as interactive whiteboards have changed the classroom, the ipad has crossed a social Rubicon in a way smart phones, kindles, laptops and net books have never quite managed in being both a tool that is necessary and/or useful to achieve constructive work - and a toy that brings entertainment, pleasure, creativity and play. Smart phones nearly got there - but the screen size was always going to inhibit them. When I first saw Steve Jobs proudly holding the ipad aloft - like many others I sniggered that all Apple had done was create an iphone on steroids. But now I'm using one, I'm embarrassed by that cynicism.

Yes, I'm concerned that the infinite variety on offer has a detrimental effect on concentration and self discipline - my own let alone Hannah's. But something in me tells me that in this - and the generations of technology that will follow hot on its heels - there is a blended-experience future for our industry and probably our culture. Unless we want to go the way of the Amish and become a tiny, quaint minority, we have to address the inherent problems through engagement, use and experience - not through abstention.

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