The Computer: A Cathedral for the Digital Age?

The Book of Kells is a remarkable annal of world history. It is amazing that monks took dead animals, plants, and colored rocks then created a masterpiece of art of out them. It is intricate, delicate, and just flawed enough to emphasize the fact that it was made entirely by human hands. Cathedrals are similar marvels for obvious reasons. Imagine constructing an enormous building by trial-and-error. Cathedrals are a kinesthetic learner’s dream.

When my educational tech group got a tour at Trinity College, we were asked to think about the connections between the Book of Kells and the “new literacy” that has to come with the digital age. There are the obvious connections — in order to navigate the Book or the Internet, a viewer must possess background knowledge, have a degree of literacy either in text or images (preferably both) and possess the cultural literacy required to understand each in the their context. For me arose a separate underlying theme: access. By putting on my proverbial historian’s cap, I began to see the Book of Kells as a window, much like the screen I am looking at on my computer…and much like the tympanum of a cathedral. Tympana are the images that are created over archways of cathedral doors. During the medieval period, they were viewed as gateways between the material world and the spiritual world of the cathedral within. God’s word was conveyed in pictures for all the people to see and understand, even if they could not read the gospels that inspired the tympana. These gateways gave illiterate viewers limited access to doctrine – just enough to create a common set of values between the communities of the learned and unlearned. The Book of Kells likely bridged the world views of the Christian monks who created it with the Celtic peoples they served and protected during the Viking invasions. They would have had greater access to the meaning of the text, being literate and being its creators. The fact that they shared the text makes it important. Whatever our reasons for sharing something of this kind, the result is always in the end greater access to something new.

So what does the Internet bridge? How does a computer screen serve as a window onto the digital world? What happens when different kinds of people gaze through that window? That in my opinion is key to learning how to handle the Internet as well as present it to younger generations. This blog is an attempt to at least open the topic, if not provide some structured answer to the questions contained in said topic.

If we can imagine a screen as a tympanum, we can imagine the entire computer as a cathedral. All information is contained within, and its most essential parts are in its bowels, in places that few could enter and hope to navigate (cathedrals were largely cut off from the general populace — they were either not permitted in, or were only allow on its edges — the ambulatory.) Few are able to access its inner workings. Anyone living in the developed world has access to a computer if they so choose, but few are able to say, fix a computer when it is broken, program it to do as they wished it to do, or even use the computer to its fullest extent. The keyboard and screen are like the tympanum and the ambulatory of a cathedral.

My central concern in this blog is about access. Educators tend to automatically assume that access is good, that all people (read: students) should have as much access to knowledge as possible, and I think a critical mass of us also believe that every child has the ability to have the same access. Consider again cathedrals:

1) Were people were willing to join a religious order and give up marrying or having children to get access to the inner sanctum of a cathedral?

2) Was it adequate to know the basics of what a cathedral did for most people?

3) Could one appreciate and comprehend the importance of a cathedral without full access to it?

Of course, the answer to these is yes. It all depended on the desire and the circumstances of the person who stood under the tympanum. When a computer user sits in front of a screen, he or she is in essence making a similar choice or responding to circumstances that affect that choice. The same would be true for a person viewing the pages of the Book of Kells. Did they want to read the words on the page, or was it enough to look at the pictures and accept the power of the words without understanding every detail of their meaning?

Do you have to thoroughly understand all of the pictures below in order to enjoy a Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, to meditate over the intricacy of the Book of Kells or to use a MacBook Pro…? All of these are schematics of one kind or another that lead to greater understanding, but one must choose to acquire that expertise. However, the novice can expect something from these images as well.

Educators are too hard on themselves when it comes to teaching technology.  They assume far too often that children are either illiterates or monks, or worse yet, that the only way to be “literate” tech-wise is to be a monk. Educators are rarely creators of technology, so they seem to forget that creators both desire and welcome the limited access of most computer users for age-old and obvious reasons.  I think too many times educators do not accept hierarchies of understanding. We’ve been trained for too long to believe every child has the potential to become an “expert,” or needs to be one. Because of the technology gap that often happens between teachers and their students, a certain desperation descends over the classroom where teachers cannot properly assess what their students actually know. “More than me,” does not mean “illiterate vs. monk,” but the emotional response of many educators elicits that dynamic. Just remember: as the Book of Kells kept monks busy, so do computers keep technicians employed. The continuum  of understanding in technology is in part what drives breakthroughs. Creators respond to demand. Understanding the meaning of a tympanum does not an artist make, but it does create a person who has the vocabulary to talk to one, which in turn inspires the artist to do something more to up the ante on a viewer’s experience. Any student of art history studies the competition between towns to make bigger and better cathedrals as viewers became educated enough to demand “something better.” The Book of Kells is a culmination of a number of attempts at creating contemplative, ceremonial books.

What an educator should do, then, is set his or her students in front of the screen and give them the basic meaning behind the experience of using a computer. As computers become increasingly more intuitive in their design, the easier this will become. Computers are becoming more intuitive to use already because the dynamic that drives technology is as I have suggested. It’s just that educators have been left out of the loop during this process. The discipline of education has been too slow in confronting computers in the classroom. The “door” of this cathedral has been left closed. The Book of Kells is never opened to a salient page for our audience, so-to-speak.

Just as important as teaching computer competence is teaching computer compatibility. The artists who were responsible for the Book of Kells used iconography that went far afield of orthodox teachings in the medieval Church to give access to the unlearned. The book is rife with “pagan” motifs that any cleric in Constantinople would have convulsed at such a text being made. (At the time the Book of Kells was created, the Iconoclast movement in the Byzantine Church was in full swing — Eastern Christians destroyed their image-heavy products just as Celts were at the height of their production.) This suggests that the best educators will use already existing language to make technology accessible to their students, irrespective of its use relative to “traditional” or authoritative models. Monks were willing to meet the general populace where they were in order to promote the Gospel at Kells. I would argue these monks had a better grasp of the “local lingo” than most educators do on technology today, so that the process was less painful for them than it is for us. The analogy should be clear here in that teachers need to meet their students half way and use strategies that are familiar to students. I am sure a lay observer at the monastery at Kells would have been very surprised to see a mythical creature for lore serving as a symbol for a saint, but the image and the text supporting it surely conveyed more meaning as a result. My students were stunned and pleased that I saw FaceBook as an academic tool. Imagine what it must have been like to be a medieval observer of the first tympanum. Making biblical stories both beautiful and familiar must have been quite a sight. The unexpectedness of it probably made the experience more interesting.

By the way, cathedral designs revolutionized how laypeople related to the Mass. Cathedrals were also huge projects that trained and employed unprecedented numbers of people. I can think of no better connection between cathedrals and computers than that. Aren’t computers changing the environment in the same way? The very notion of social interaction has been challenged and expanded as the Internet has become commonplace.

How we make computers into cathedrals I’m not one-hundred percent certain yet. Having the image in my mind of what a computer is does help me consider where to go next.

P.S.: As an added bonus, I thought I would show a neat little trick on how I found the Book of Kells image I used:

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