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8 August 2013
I sat in my office a few hundred yards from Oxford Circus surrounded by journalists, all of whom were gazing intently at their screens or desperately searching the web.
This wasn't the normal press day rush to find a story, they were looking for webcams or streaming TV coverage of the May Day demonstrations and embryonic disturbances their media colleagues had been hyping for weeks. Squeals of delight greeted the discovery of an independent media site that was reporting live form the heart of the group penned into the crossroads, or when a particularly good postage-stamp size video image looking down Regent Street appeared. They looked at me strangely when I pointed out that the "real story" was happening right outside their windows.
A constitutional scholar in the US has just published a book that touches on the implications of such digital myopia. Professor Cass Sunstein argues in his new book Republic.com that far from opening up people's perceptions and experiences, it is contributing to a process where we are increasingly living in an ideological cave made up of favourite websites and media streams. This is not quite the same as the tired postmodern argument that the real has disappeared - it is worse. It is the argument that real simply isn't as important.
Such post-structural musings bring me onto law. Traditionally, its rhetorical structures and practices and its arcane forms have been deeply rooted in the real. Talking to clients face-to-face, facing witnesses in court, dealing with colleagues in the firm or in chambers - it's all been very, erm, interactive.
Now the College of Law is to offer students the chance to qualify virtually. The college predicts its distance-learning initiatives using websites and email will "radically change" the way lawyers are trained.
Chief executive of the college Nigel Savage argues the new technology will enable the college to concentrate on what it does best: "Small group learning and face-to-face individual teaching." He says that the technology will back up that teaching.
In a previous incarnation, I taught in a university at the time when distance learning was moving from print to IT. It was seen as an excuse to increase class sizes and for the new universities to make more money. It was also seen as breaking the relationship that was the basis for any real learning.
Of course there is a need for people who cannot access traditional establishments, particularly legal ones, to be enabled to train. But training is different to learning and learning happens when students and teachers are in an environment.
Technology cannot provide a virtual environment that is transparent enough for the student and teacher to forget the technology and concentrate on the learning. One day the virtual 3D world with avatars will make time and space dissolve, but not yet. But of course the current crop of IT-enabled does provide an environment and it is the particular nature of that space that needs to be addressed.
There is a real danger of a fetishisation of the technology. Sitting in front of a screen, even a PDA or a cellphone, is a media experience. It comes between the communicating partners. It may facilitate that exchange of information but it sets up a particular sort of relationship and space, a seductive one, as the virtual journalists indicate.
This does not mean that new communication technologies should not be used to smooth communication and allow access to information. It means that trainers and academics must concentrate on an all-round learning experience if we are to turn out lawyers who can function in the real as well as the virtual.