The Hockney-Van Gogh exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (The Joy of Nature, February 21-June 20, 2021) showcased many ways of representing verdant landscapes. The show featured scenes in France and Northern England depicted in oils, charcoal, and pen and paper, but David Hockney made many of them using an iPad. The exhibit notes for the show explain that Hockney was an early iPad adopter, and now carries one everywhere. He even draws with it before getting out of bed in the morning. Using the “Brushes” app, he produced some of the exhibit’s most striking and enjoyable images.
Hockney’s iPad landscapes were on my mind when the spring semester came to an end and there was a lot of online merriment about Zoom teaching coming to an end. How awful Zoom was, and how terrific that we’ll be in the classroom again in the fall! But…was it really so bad? C. Thi Nguyen, an always interesting and creative philosopher at the University of Utah, wrote a guest post at Eric Schwitzgebel’s blog, The Splintered Mind, making the case that it was so bad. His argument makes use of a simple distinction derived from the work of Heideggerian philosopher Albert Borgmann. A thing “drags you into a complex and textured form of life,” says Nguyen. For example, a wood-burning stove drags you into a form of life involving chopping wood, having the sense of the hearth as the centre of a home, and so on. When a thing is replaced with a device, you wind up with something completely reducible to its output. Central heating offers just heat, not a textured from of life. Likewise, he says, Zoom is just a sterile device that delivers an output—contact with students. Lost in the transition from classroom to Zoom is the whole way of life involved in teaching. Nguyen especially felt the loss of his wonderfully pressure-free daily commute.
David Hockney’s iPad seems like the paradigm case of a mere device, something that just delivers an output: user-generated patterns of colour. There’s a lot of “way of life” bound up in using easels, brushes, canvas, stretchers, and so on: menial tasks, or perhaps the company of assistants who do these tasks. There’s much less obviously a form of life associated with using an iPad. But is there no form of life? True, the world of messy painting tools is absent, but iPad artists have the form of life that involves being able to paint in bed, and anywhere else they wish. iPads have their associated habits and rituals—charging, asking for the Wi-Fi password at cafes, visiting Apple Stores, experiencing the effortlessness of an apple pencil, getting new apps. Likewise, Zoom classes do drag us into what might be called a form of life. They do away with a lot of the visual cues that give instructors preconceptions about students and give students preconceptions about instructors. On a more basic level, iPads and Zoom aren’t really simple producers of outputs; they offer users an interesting problem-space to enter into. Just as it takes know-how and artistry to start and maintain a fire in a wood-burning stove, it takes know-how and artistry to use an iPad to create landscapes or Zoom to create classes. A gadget is involved, but the processes aren’t as simple as using a thermostat to turn up the heat.
I learned to love Zoom the hard way—by first hating it. How strange to be face-to-face with 25 people at once, not to mention seeing one’s own face constantly. To make a year of virtual teaching bearable, I worked on how to make use of the medium, with the help of some great Zoom tutors and videos. The contact you achieve through Zoom isn’t just any contact, but a particular sort of contact that you can shape by taking advantage of the medium’s built-in potential and by adding on other online tools. Like Hockney’s iPad landscapes are not just paintings, but on an iPad, Zoom classes are not just regular classes, but remote. They involve new elements, like the Zoom session’s subterranean chat; and like break-out sessions, which aren’t exactly the same as the small group meetings that can take place within a classroom. The “share screen” function of Zoom facilitates the instant and easy sharing of all sorts of online material, by both instructors and students. A particularly useful strategy is creating a shared online document on which students can respond to questions and carry out tasks, without the jostling or self-consciousness you would have if you invited a classroom full of students to inscribe their thoughts on the blackboard.
Now, however artfully Zoom and an iPad are deployed, they involve looking at screens, and not interacting in the real world. Some of us want to dip our brushes into real blobs of paint—or enjoy head-to-toe interaction with other three-dimensional human beings. But I have yet to see a reason to think that those preferences for real world interaction are the preferences we ought to have. Computers and iPads may be devices, colloquially speaking, but in Borgmann’s sense, they are rich and potentially satisfying things.