I think most professional educators are in my situation: they’re under constant pressure to shift more and more of their teaching further and further into the e-world. Now, I wouldn’t be writing these words with any expectation that someone might actually read them if the Internet didn’t exist. My objections are not Luddite: I do not dream of an EMP which will wipe out every trace of manmade electricity. What I deplore is the indiscriminate embrace of every new device and application to come down the pike as if its mere novelty were adequate proof of its superiority to earlier ways. I’m bothered by “instant access”. It induces young minds to become impatient with sifting evidence and easily reconciled to the first answer to pop up. I’m bothered by the “keyword search”. It trains novices to reduce complex issues and intricate connections to a bumper-sticker simplicity.
Perhaps most of all, I’m bothered by something that might be called the “cattle in the slaughterhouse chute” phenomenon. Young people who have been fed on the Internet and its attendant technologies the way chicks are fed on seed may think that the path of their Web-surfing is wholly self-directed—but in truth, it’s being tirelessly and minutely monitored so as to produce an ever straighter, faster-running mainstream. Creativity and individuality are vanishing. As people define themselves more and more in terms of what they see and what they post on the Net, on Twitter, and the rest, they unconsciously grow more and more tribal—more wedded to “trending” formulations and more conditioned in their thought by a rather narrow range of clichés.
Yet, as I say, the pressure to cave in professionally is irresistible. I must take care to speak only in veiled terms here, because I might indeed lose my job if I were to denounce what I see with blunt precision. The craze is too general, and backed by forces too powerful: it has reached the proportions of cult hysteria. Enough to say that, in the very middle of a complicated semester full of classroom challenges, I and my colleagues have all been commanded to make time for learning the lingo of still another software program. The orders issue from the offices of functionaries who have never sat through any of our classes and never taught any of their own… yet they warble to us, in endless emails and tutorials, “This will make your grading so much easier!” or, “This will involve your students so much more deeply in the class!” (Pardon me if I amend the warbles with proper grammar… though the intensifier “so”, properly speaking, requires a result clause that never seems to appear.)
A few days ago, a colleague half-commiserated with me by confiding that she, too, once shared my misgivings. Then she undid the consoling effect of her words by adding, “Later I realized that my students actually learn better online. They don’t pay any attention to me in class since their eyes are always on their Smartphones. So use their Smartphones.” I wanted to cry out, “But you’re making my case for me! That’s exactly why we should not be doing this! They’re already in Stage Three, and we’re facilitating their transition to Stage Four instead of trying to heal them back into Stage Two!” I just kept quiet, however. What’s the use?
As I’ve written before (in venues besides this one), the fusion of the human and the robotic—mystically called the Transhuman by strange beings like Al Gore—is supposed by many to be a lead-pipe cinch by mid-century, and we will only accelerate that glorious day by making our children think more like computers as AI is fine-tuned to think more like us. Maybe my colleague is right: maybe I’m looking at it all the wrong way. Maybe, if those who want to climb on board the Starship Horizon all rush out to dive into the robot’s waiting arms, we few recalcitrants will be left in peace. Maybe when the Hybrids launch vast expeditions to colonize other solar systems, they will leave a smattering of us lesser primates to tend our gardens, bury our dead, and rear our young. In their environmentally awakened higher consciousness, why would they want to exterminate us, in light of how much they do for the kangaroo rat? And in the amplitude of a quasi-life that needs no food and drink other than a wall socket, why would they tax us into misery? We shall represent mere curiosities for them, on rare occasions when they notice us at all.
I can live with that. Bring it on.