How the E-World and Its Transhumans May Bring a Glorious New Day

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.

Databases Give Us Quick Answers But Don’t Teach Us to Ask Good Questions

I haven’t much time for this tonight… but the subject of technological sabotage eating away at my daily contentment has preoccupied me lately with maybe a dozen pretty powerful examples.  I’ll save the list for a better moment.

Just a footnote, then, about a conversation I had today with a librarian–and it was more of a guilt trip that I was being led along for not linking up my students to an online tutorial about the library’s databases.  Great stuff, those databases… kind of.  Sometimes.  If you have just the right keyword phrase, they save days and even weeks of time.  Take you right to the doorstep.

But what if you have no such handy little golden key?  When I was a very young man, I recall running across a reference in the Gaelic poetry of the sixteenth-century Scottish bard Rory Morrison to a peculiar legend–almost a unique one.  A king was about to execute three men when a young woman approached him and implored mercy for her brother.  Ther king was puzzled by her request, since the other two men were her husband and her son.  Why so much concern for the brother, he asked.  “Because I can get another husband,” answered the woman, “and I can bear another son, but I’ll never have another brother.”  The dazzled monarch released all three men.

This tale is rather precisely analogous to one that Herodotus told of the Persian king Cyrus about two millennia earlier.  Otherwise, it makes no appearance anywhere in the lore of Greece and Rome–or of Germany.  (Of course, Herodotus himself was a Greek… but he heard the story from a Persian.)  It’s one bit of evidence in a long and complicated–but convincing–brief that the Celts were once cultural nextdoor neighbors to Easterners who would become Persians and Indians.

Or I might mention a tale I ran across just last week in the medieval Silva Gadelica.  It has Caoilte relating to Saint Patrick an account about the Fianna’s favorite hunting hill, where the two of them are standing at that moment.  Just to prove his point, Caolite gives a wild yell that summons every game animal from the surrounding forests.  It occurred to me that the short tale would make a very nice footnote to my translation of the medieval Welsh romance Owein, at the point where a one-eyed, one-legged giant bangs a stag over the head until the beast’s bellows bring every animal in the woods.  Both figures are shamanic “masters of the hunt”, fulfilling the same role in a mythic paradigm.

Here’s my point.  How would I ever have happened upon either one of these parallels using keyword searches?  What database could yield the results that wide, serendipitous reading once did for great scholars of myth like Alfred Nutt and Stith Thompson?  Or how many scientists will be struck by the possibility of a new cure or a new cosmic force if they give up messing in the garden or didn’t ride in something like Einstein’s trolley?

Electronic databases can take researches instantly down paths that have already been traveled, and then the travelers can perhaps venture a bit farther.  What they can and will never do is teach minds how to think through sketchy, highly speculative associations rather than through shared words.  And in foreclosing a certain kind of scholarship, they will also suffocate a certain kind of human being.  Our machines will make us think more and more like a machine as their designers are claiming to make them more and more like us.  I’m sure the two will meet somewhere soon–but not on a turf that would have been considered fully human a few years ago.