It's a fictional streetscape we wander, here, a metropolis whose buildings, boulevards, and back alleys are in a constant state of flux. This is every place, and yet, no place at all - a city of dreams and a dream of a city.

Here, we explore the life and work of Ivan Illich and his circle of collaborators. There's no comprehensive index to the articles published, but we invite you to use the Search box, to the left, and to explore the Archive links that appear at the bottom of each page. Comments are welcomed.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Next up, the digital truant officer?

In writing Deschooling Society, Illich warned against an institution - compulsory schooling - that imposed a myth-making ritual on society. While advertising itself as a great leveler, giving everyone an equal chance to "make it," school actually reinforces social inequality. Even before the book was published, however, Illich saw that the schooling industry had embarked on a mission to turn the entire world into a classroom. This global classroom, as a later book called it, would, whether people asked for it or not, constantly teach them about what to think and do in all aspects of life, from getting along at work to thinking about their bodies to playing games to choosing food to making love.

The upshot is that teaching is seemingly everywhere, now, from endless shelves of "self-help" books to every kind of workshop in "personal growth" to the quasi-scientific nutrition labels on jars of jam.

And now, thanks to digital technology, the instructional lessons built into objects of all kinds are taking a grand leap in intensity. Consider Nikon's new model D3100 camera, with a "guide mode" that suggests different effects and adjustments for each photo it snaps - soften the background, or freeze motion, as the NY Times describes in a brief article today. Its headline: "A Camera With A Tutor Built In."

This is only the beginning, we're sure. Built-in "help" routines have been standard fare in desktop computer programs for many years now, with perhaps the most intrusive one being that animated paperclip that once coached users of Microsoft Windows. Now, though, almost every gizmo is potentially its own best tutor, quietly watching over our shoulders, kibitzing, and perhaps even insisting that we do things the "right" way. What's more, these tools - as desktop computers already do - will periodically report back to their manufacturers about their own status and about how we're using them, too. Tools are no longer tools; increasingly, they are simply the extensions, or limbs, of a much larger machine, a colossal system that, by system-theoretic definition, incorporates us, as well.

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Santa Rosa, California, United States
Writer, photographer, music fan; father and husband living in northern Calif.