Final: Lost in the Funhouse

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Sometimes gaining and losing are more intimately related than we like to think. And some things cannot be moved or owned. Some light does not make it all the way through the atmosphere, but scatters.

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, 2005

I have a simple job. I’m a teacher. Yes, believe it or not. It’s simple. Very. That’s right.

To Teach: to show or point out; to present or offer a view.

To show what? Point out what? Present and offer what?

The answer is the simple part: the heart. To show and to point out, to present and offer the heart of the matter; often this matter is in a text such as Solnit’s: “Sometimes gaining and losing are more intimately related than we think”; that “some light does not make it all the way through the atmosphere, but scatters.”

We can lose something, even painfully so, and gain by it too – a terrible beauty is born, writes Yeats in Easter 1916. And when light scatters about – but particles – it’s very difficult to find the meaning in the loss that will release us from the guilt of gaining.

Too long a sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart./O When may it suffice? wonders Yeats. Indeed.

Most times the heart is the student’s a teacher aims for – compassion, empathy, understanding and, most of all, full spectrum realization. And yet other times it’s my own that I’m reaching for trying to connect my heart to the student’s.

But the simple act of teaching is challenged: In this world, one where light scatters, “The present state,” says Guy Debord in The Society of the Spectacle “in which social life is completely taken over by the accumulated products of the economy, entails a generalized shift from having to appearing: all the effective ‘having’ must now derive both its immediate prestige and its ultimate raison d’être from appearance.”

Appearance: the action of coming forward into view or becoming visible (c.1400-1869); the action of coming before the world or the public in any character (c 1671-1880); that which appears without material; a phantom or apparition (c. 1488-1834); money paid to a (leading) sportsman or sportswoman for participating in an event (1977-1981).

The privileged place of Appearance makes any straightforward attempt to reach for the heart a challenge because the mere materialization of social power, which has assumed a social character and makes individuals dependent on it, transforms, into real beings, images, figments and behavior. Illusion becomes the norm, how we experience the world – and each other. No truth evident here. Nothing is real.

Instantly, teaching becomes difficult; it becomes complex, challenging, strange given that material reality is wedged between the student’s heart and the teacher’s. Reciprocity, which is essential for happiness, is lost and hostility takes over since it is the prodigal child of aggressive self-interest. Self-interest is the sole arbiter of success and value in the academy that feeds the culture: the professor that thinks his is the only course students take, so students are overworked, mindlessly responding to carefully orchestrated questions meant to solicit a single answer or two – busy work; the student that believes she merely has to get through, not worried about learning, rather about finishing, while reaching for the next rung that will get her ever closer to the penthouse at the helm of the economic system. A conveyor belt that privileges a move away from the heart and towards material reality.

Materialism and self-interest go hand-in-hand; all else, including people, must be shunned – and there goes reciprocity. Thus we find ourselves lost, floating in an open sea of confusion, living lives on the boundaries of meaning, never quite getting there, never quite getting at truths, comfortable numbing our haze. Welcome to the Aderrall Generation.

“Whether Adderall is a life-changing medicine or an unfair performance enhancer depends on whom you talk to” writes Kyle Fink in the first of a two part series, “Living in the Adderall Generation: Part 1,” in the Middlebury College Campus. “What is clear is that we are now living in the Adderall Generation, a reality that is rarely talked about but apparent just below the surface. You may not have a prescription or snort the drugs on weekends, but psychostimulants are here to stay, and they have the potential to affect nearly every aspect of life at the College.”

In Living the Adderall Generation: Part 2, Fink tells us that, “While most students the Campus talked to began their psychostimulant usage at the College, [Dean of the College] Collado pointed to a new wave of applicants who are being stimulated and pushed to their maximum from young ages,” suggesting that this is a larger problem in the culture; however, since many – if not most – of the students attending elite, competitive schools such as Middlebury are from the upper socio-economic strata of society, this might suggest that the early pressure is manufactured by the need to locate the student in an appropriate – and socially mobile – rung in a vituperative economic system.

This also suggests that the focus of learning is not the student – and not learning at all – rather it’s where the student might end up, socio-economically, years down the road; part of this pressure comes from the realization that, as systems go, ours is fighting for a dwindling piece of the resource pie. Not healthy.

Where we now also see this unhealthy pursuit of unhappiness is in the current light being shed on sexual assault on college campuses. Naturally – and reasonably – these discussions are focused on the safety of victims while also urging others, who remain silent, to come forth; the purpose being to get accurate data about how pervasive this condition is. We want to help victims, educate, and change the climate of violence and fear. But it’s not surprising, given our aggressive self-interest, that these violent, tragic occurrences happen when drugs and alcohol are in the mix. It’s not surprising that this violence happens in a culture where violence is privileged at every step – in the media, in politics, in economics, you name it.

So, at a time in one’s life when self-discovery should be one’s focus, self-interest and the need to ride the conveyor belt towards increasingly better social mobility take precedence; psychostimulants and alcohol, sometimes taken together, become ways of getting through the system and coping mechanisms. Aristotle on happiness doesn’t seem to cut it; Shakespeare, for get about it. The text is gone; pharmaceuticals are in. It’s not about knowing and learning; it’s about doing and moving on, always transitioning upward to an elusive reward.

Amidst all this is a very large and critical dialog occurring on campuses across the US about, specifically, the cost of higher education and, in the case of many elite colleges and universities, the viability of a liberal arts education (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/19/arts/humanities-committee-sounds-an-alarm.html;https://chronicle.com/article/The-Humanities-Declining-Not/140093/; http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/30/the-real-humanities-crisis/;http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/12/the-real-reason-the-humanities-are-in-crisis/282441/).

Everything from an over emphasis on science education to the humanities moving away from a search for the self and into race, class, gender and semiotics, cartoons and television, plastic surgery, to the humanities being just boring and with little relevance have been used to blame the apparent decline – and if not decline, then lack of interest.

How ironic, no? Do we really know what’s going on? If you read any of the above articles linked for you, there is a theme: we don’t know what’s going on; we have less of an idea about who our students are; and we may even know less, with our PhD’s, about the world we live in and that’s constructing our students, our lives. We educators have a hand in this.

Dante is not cutting it. Socrates is not cutting it. Academic language, with its uptight vernacular of disdain, is cutting it even less. Pharmaceuticals and violence, sports, the palatial grandeur of an institution’s geography, food, and who knows who is seemingly more important. Today, I’m less a professor and more a concierge helping students navigate the nebulous halls of an academy that, like the world we live in, appears lost in confusion.

Management is more important than learning about one’s self; systems of efficiency clearly dominate; technology, connectivity – always on – and surface communication and production de riguer. Humanity, talked about all the time, is less important. Matters of the heart? What’s that? I’m always asked.

“You know the usual story about the world,” writes Solnit, “the one about ongoing encroachment that continues to escalate and thereby continue to wipe out our species.”

Yes.

We humanists, in our zeal to make even the most obvious complex, may be a large reason why students, who already come from a system that overvalues performance and results over knowledge of the self and others, find themselves, at some point, wondering what has become of them. It may be why I continue to receive emails from alumni wondering about the critical questions in life: why, how, who, what for? These weren’t even mildly approached during their very expensive undergraduate lives.

I’ll leave you with this – sage words from E.O.Wilson, found in his The Social Conquest of the Earth:

Humanity today is like a waking dreamer, caught between the fantasies of sleep and the chaos of the real world. The mind seeks but cannot find the precise place and hour. We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.

Our students thrash about because we do; students are terribly confused because we are; we are all a danger to ourselves. And, as far as I am concerned – in one humble opinion – we dutifully adhere to the most medieval institution, the University, without realizing that, before our eyes, it has metamorphosed into an exotic multinational business like any other – and students are our last concern.

We are in a dreamlike state. These are the saddest times.

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College Affordability and the Order of the Day

The other day, speaking at Binghampton University, in New York, President Obama said the following:

“But…let’s assume that we eliminated all discrimination magically with a wand, and everybody had goodness in their heart, you’d still have a situation in which there are a lot of folks who are poor, and whose families have become dysfunctional, because of a long legacy of poverty, and live in neighborhoods that are run-down and schools that are underfunded and don’t have a strong property tax base.”

Concomitantly, as it so happens, Noam Chomsky, speaking in Bonn, Germany, at the DW Global Media Forum about how the United States is not behaving anything like a democracy, said the following:

“Well, another important feature of RECD [really existing capitalist democracy; it has several daunting characteristics described in Chomsky’s talk] is that the public must be kept in the dark about what is happening to them. The “herd” must remain “bewildered”. The reasons were explained lucidly by the professor of the science of government at Harvard – that’s the official name – another respected liberal figure, Samuel Huntington. As he pointed out, “power remains strong when it remains in the dark. Exposed to sunlight, it begins to evaporate”.” [inclusion of brackets mine]

We can’t have it both ways. Which is it? Are we indeed moving towards a classless society where social justice, compassion and empathy – and opportunity for all – are at the heart or are we moving towards a society where more and more, each day, we are “herded” further into “bewilderment” and unknowing, which is very quickly followed by apathy, the sense of giving up, because nothing will change so we have to go along with the plan that we don’t see?

We can find an answer to these questions in President Obama’s most recent bus tour to promote his education policies – college affordability – meant to extend the opportunities for those that graduate from college. These policies, interestingly, run parallel to the Administration’s Race to the Top, the K-12 program (more on this below).

A way to end poverty, says President Obama, is to ensure that all citizens that want access to affordable higher education should have it.  Makes sense. Good idea. Obama’s plan is to grade institutions of higher education by matching outcomes to costs. Presumably, then, somehow the cost of higher education will be measured by where graduates land jobs, what they achieve and how these achievements can then point to a profitable, worthwhile future for students and the country. Okay, very dreamy.

But what this proposed plan will undoubtedly create is the following:

  • A stronger demarcation between the haves and the have nots, a more stringent hierarchy.
  • A greater concentration of power among the few, but particularly among those that will follow the path of banking (see Chomsky, above), which is where wealth is being made today.
  • A greater concentration of power is always followed by tighter surveillance, tighter policing and a further reduction in civil liberties; it’s also followed by a more nationalistic approach to foreign policy (isn’t it ironic – even uncanny – that a rise in racial profiling, an increase in drone terrorism and greater power given to Wall Street all happened while the first African American president presides over the nation? never mind the diminution in civil liberties …)

Why do I say these things? Because while the Obama Administration is looking to use outcomes as a means to curtail education costs, a reason for the high cost of higher education is not outcomes, but rather, inputs.

Here’s what I mean: the best colleges and universities – Harvard, Princeton, Yale, so on – make sure to attract the best – and best known (read: best published) – professors; this entails paying well and having personalized budgets for the professors’ respective research projects. In turn, these luminaries attract money from all sectors of our society – military, technology, science and medicine, and business. Money begets money.

Students in the best colleges and universities work closely with some of the best minds in the country; students are connected to future work through research, internships, and simple face-to-face meetings at conferences, and so on. In other words, the best students are carefully groomed to be on the cutting edge stage.  Also, these great schools have tremendously powerful and well connected alumni groups that take on as their responsibility the promotion of young, up and coming undergraduates and graduate students. It’s a conveyor belt to wealth and power. The reward is of course a wonderful life, material security, and great fun without needing to worry about the rest, those left behind.  This is not going away; it’s only going to get stronger.  And no one in this world is going to give this up – that’s for certain.

This conveyor belt wants participants to enter into different nodes in the current production system. This system does not want game changers, people that will come up with changes to level the playing field – President Obama is a prime example. In fact, this system works because it relies on the very notion that education is hierarchical and the different nodes in the system are synonymous with the inputs elite colleges and universities have put into place with donor funding.

The outcomes Obama wants to measure are easily done by these elite schools – in fact, they’re already doing it: go to the leading industries in this country – the military, government and Wall Street, technology – and you can see who is sitting where, wielding power and making policy: they all come from top schools – say the top 20 -50 schools. Take a quick look when college seniors look for work in powerful enterprises and you’ll find that the most profitable industries already have in place a method for hiring – and it starts with the Ivies. The back rooms on Wall Street are filled with students that have attended second and third tier schools (Of course there are exceptions, but generally speaking, this is par for the course.)

If we then add Obama’s K-12 plan, Race to the Top, we can note some parallels. Take New York City, for instance. Those students and families that have enough understanding of the system, are moving to charter schools and elite public schools such as Bronx Science and Stuyvesant. What’s happening in NYC is that those kids that don’t have family support, that don’t have the proper preparation to take entrance tests, and so on, are left behind in some of the more challenged, large, urban public schools. It’s difficult to get ahead. In turn, the best colleges and universities, whether working through special programs in the inner city or looking at individual students, first go to the best schools because, naturally, they want students to succeed; their success turns up on the bottom line.

So where are we?

We are where Chomsky says we are: a nation where power is easily kept hidden from the majority; where the majority are too easily sold programs and ideas by people that have other notions in mind – namely to maintain the status quo. Power, kept this way, is deeply rooted; it’s ancient and therefore hard to move – if at all. This is not pessimism, rather the way things are. We live in a spectacle society because it’s essential; it is a means by which powerful entities claim to have answers, color these answers – college affordability – in dreamy language, when in fact what’s happening is a deeper, more powerful entrenchment of the (historical) ways power is kept. Education is – and will be – a very powerful way to ensure our means of existence stay just as they’ve always been. Education is another arm of power.

Life in the PRISM: We Asked for It — or the Illusion that Technology is Neutral

The most disconcerting aspect of the NSA’s PRISM program, whereby the U.S. intelligence community can gain access to the servers of nine Internet companies for a wide range of digital data, is not that this was granted by federal judges working under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and congress went along; it’s not even that Big Brother has been here — and now it’s here to stay.

The most disconcerting aspect of the NSA’s surveillance program is what it says about us, the citizens of the U.S. that are wired, interconnected, splashing ourselves across social media, using all kinds of devices and moving ever so quickly — and quietly and blindly and accepting — into a more nuanced programmed world, a reality, as suggested by Bill Wasik in his Wired article, Welcome to the Programmable World, where “houses, cars, and factories, [are] surrounded by tiny, intelligent devices that capture data about how we live and what we do” — and they’re starting to talk to one another, and us.

The NSA has an infinite number of entry points into our private lives.

And the most disconcerting aspect to all this is that we’ve gotten here without much fanfare, not much noise. It arrived — along with the surveillance.

We live in 3 worlds:

  • The 1st World is highly visible and physical. It’s life and death, birthdays, weddings and funerals. We experience it getting food out of a refrigerator, opening doors, smiling at people, getting on planes, and so on. In this magical world, we’re assisted by the 2nd World.
  • The 2nd World is the device world: automated doors, automated tellers and accounts of all sorts at our finger tips, cell phones and bluetooth devices, computers, and computer chips, the magic of the Internet we don’t see but have grown to expect, even anticipate to such a degree that if at anytime it should go down, it would be accompanied by massive withdrawal and anxiety. Here we’ve grown to depend on our social networks – Facebook, Twitter, Tumbler, WordPress, and so on. All of it, the identities we try to extend online. This leads us to the 3rd World, the most dangerous of all.
  • The 3rd World is inhabited by the programmer — engineers socializing us through their dreamy programming that comes to us via cool hardware. Cool has seduced us into a blind acceptance of programming. It is this world that ties everything together; it is this world that pre-figures our actions, even our motivations, and synthesizes all this with the needs, will and plans of some of the most powerful forces, nation-states and multinational corporations. We’re pawns here.

We’re under a spell, mediated into believing we have voice and a modicum of control.

Program: a plan or schedule of activities, procedures, etc., to be followed.

An insidious but vital part of the programmer’s responsibility is — and has been — to make everything we experience easy, fluid, dynamic; this is what keeps us from wondering where we’re going — and why. And this is the most disconcerting aspect of where we find ourselves today with this Big Brother-like surveillance program.

Most of us that enjoy technology, and many who pontificate about the wonders of technology, have zero knowledge of how and why our states of being changed so drastically — though there have been warnings. We could argue that this has been a problem about educating ourselves. But how can we educate ourselves when we’re so complascent with the way things are, going along as if nothing is happening, quite able and eager to surrender control? This is what technology is — a surrender to the programmer’s imagination.

This is not technophobia. I use technology. I teach with it. I find great pleasure in working with technology — but not at the expense of not knowing.

The first warning came from Martin Heidegger, in The Question Concerning Technology. This essay is contained in two of Heidegger’s works, Die Technik und die Kehre (1962) and Vortröge und Aufsätze (1954). I mention this because the dates matter — a lot. The atomic bombings of the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaky, conducted by the U.S., occured in the late stages of World War II, in 1945. Heidegger speaks on the heels of this monumental human event that changed our relationship to technology forever. By 1962, the air was filled with a sense of revolution, change, a desire to unmask authority world-wide. In-between these global events, Hiedegger warns us about technology. From this vantage point it’s easy to see the arc to our current day:

Thus we shall never experience our relationship to the essence of technology so long as we merely conceive and push forward the technological, put up with it, or evade it. Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to the technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we particularly like to do homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology.

In the traditional sense, Heidegger regards essence — the German noun Wesen — as not simply meaning what something is, but that it means the way in which something pursues its course, the way in which it remains through time as what it is. Thus, he means here a “coming to presence.”

As technology has come to presence — to be present in our lives — Heidegger suggests that we’ve merely create what is technical — data, programs, hardware, etc. — and push on without much thinking. We “put up with” technology’s requirements — iPhone 1 – 5, hardware and software that can’t be updated because it’s obsolete, the new mantra for everything we must have, the glitches.

We also put up with what we don’t see, such as the NSA’s surveillance program. Drones for attack, drones for surveillance. This is why Heidegger suggests we remain “unfree and chained to technology”; it’s the point of no return. We’ve gone over the edge. Never have we been so reliant on technology – and never have we been so vulnerable. Even the Ludites are vulnerable.

We’ve gotten to this point because we regard technology as something that exists outside of our lives; that it’s not us. But a closer look demonstrates that the technological world we have is the technological society we’ve fostered, from cell phones to drones.

Another author that is seldom studied and discussed along these lines is Jacques Ellul who, in The Technological Society, prophetically first published in 1954, then again in the U.S. in 1964, also warns us:

Whenever we see the word technology or technique, we automatically think of machines. Indeed, we commonly think of our wrold as a world of machines…It arises from the fact that the machine is the most obvious, massive, and impressive example of technique, and historically the first. What is called the history of technique usually accounts to no more than a history of the machine; this very formulation is an example of the habit of intellectuals of regarding forms of the present as identical with those of the past.

Subsequently, “…technique is nothing more than means and the ensemble of means. This, of course, does not lessen the importance of the problem. Our civilization is first and foremost a civilization of means; in the reality of modern life, the means, it would seem, are more important then the ends. Any other assessment of the situation is mere idealism.”

There we have it. If we conflate Heidegger — technology is neutral — and Ellul — technology is a means, and this is more important then ends — we have our world.

What is our world?

As overt examples of authoritarian regimes crumble and fight to stay alive, the power of the microchip has risen. Simultaneously, as governments and corporations experience our crowd sourcing and learn, a different form of totalitarianism is rising under the auspices of capitalism, the threat of terrorism, and a government eager to demonstrate its benevolence by arguing for our protection. The invertion of power is now complete, the corporation — Google, Verizon, Apple, AT&T, etc — legitimize massive control by becoming open partners with their foil, government, and thus power is effectively removed from the hands of citizens and sits only in the hands of the few.

The Location of Technology, a Theory of the Present

 
*****Given the recent excitement about the Heartbleed bug, I’m reblogging this post since many of the questions I pose, about the University’s and our culture’s orientation with technology, are raised in User’s Stark Reminder, New York Times, April 10, 2014.
 
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Our existence today is marked by a tenebrous sense of survival, living on the borderlines of the ‘present’, for which there seems to be no proper name other than the current and controversial shiftiness of the prefix ‘post’: postmodernism, postcolonialism, postfeminism…

Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture

The battle for the survival of man as a responsible being in the Communications Era is not to be won where the communication originates, but where it arrives.

Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality

1. The Question of New Media

Since Martin Heidegger’s lecture, The Question Concerning Technology, 1954, we have struggled to understand our relationship to what Heidegger calls the essence of technology, what the “thing” is. Meanwhile technology has become ubiquitous. Digital media and the tools to create have far outpaced our understanding of our relationship to what Heidegger calls “human activity,” technology itself.

If we follow Vernor Vinge’s thesis in The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post Human Era (1993)—“Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.”—the humanities must engage the most profound feature of contemporary culture: the acceleration of technological progress that, because of its very nature, is redefining who we are and how we understand our material world and ourselves.

We have crossed a threshold into an age requiring new methods of collaboration—cooperation, collective action and complex interactions. This new narrative beginning to emerge is placing stress on the traditional university because it is a transdisciplinary approach to getting things done, to learning, to knowledge production.

What then is the role of the professor in this age? What is the role of writing?

We exist in a world dependent upon “the flexibility and vitality of our networks of knowledge production, transaction, and exchange,” Pierre Lévy tells us in Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace (1997). We have entered “a new stage of hominization,” says Lévy, requiring that we create “some human attribute that is as essential as language but operates at a much higher level.” If we don’t, we will continue to “communicate through the media and think within the context of separate institutions, which contribute to the suffocation and division of intelligence.” The technical and communications sphere has changed, making it increasingly impossible to control our environment or to use customary means of decision-making in the face of the flood of information from which various pathologies associated with this new situation have emerged.

The digital computer is a new medium. But if we insist on privileging academia’s silo approach to knowledge production, we therefore contribute to the suffocation and division of intelligence that produces an illusory view of the world. The humanities study culture through languages and literatures; the language of new media must therefore be simultaneously a vital tool for inquiry and the subject of inquiry—the technique that facilitates reading, writing and learning and the object of our study as well, particularly its deviations. The digital computer is the cultural carrier­—the avatar—requiring new methodologies for understanding states of being. Not doing so means we approach knowledge without fully realizing the means by which we come to define material reality. We are therefore only describing surface structures that, in turn, become our understanding of the truth—a “tenebrous sense of survival,” as Bhabha contends.

Today we are witnessing the emergence of a new medium—the meta-medium of the digital computer. In contrast to a hundred years ago, when cinema was coming into being, we are fully aware of the significance of this new media revolution. Yet … future theorists and historians of computer media will be left with not much more than the equivalents of the newspaper reports and film programs from cinema’s first decades. They will find that analytical texts from our era recognize the significance of the computer’s takeover of culture, yet, by and large, contain speculations about the future rather than a record and theory of the present. Future researchers will wonder why the theoreticians, who had plenty of experience analyzing older cultural forms, did not try to describe the computer media’s semiotic codes, modes of address, and audience reception patterns.

The varied forms of digital media attract and detract simultaneously, defying attempts to understand their codes, modes of address and reception; these always point to alternatives, to the beyond, to changes lurking in the not so distant future. Our experience with digital media is decentering. The allure is that we exist, in our media forms, at the center of the knowledge universe—all nodes, the many, lead to the one, me; we are our own gods; and the immediacy of the experience is extremely gratifying. But it’s a rather lonely experience, too, because it is based on falsehoods—that I am singularly important, beyond others. The digital I am is the Other I am looking for at all times. While digital computers give us a sense—if not a glimpse—of the future, the underlying truth is that there may not be one; the Other is something elusive, something that may never come though we live with the anticipation that it will present itself at some other point in time, tomorrow perhaps. Technology brings this anxiety-ridden duality to the forefront. Our cultural forms are always on edge and on the edges, focus blurred yet also seemingly clear at what may be the core, an axis pointing towards an interior though it may be some distance away. The heart and the circumference simultaneously attainable.

The cooperation, collective action, and the complex interactions of our new narrative are not necessarily motivated by altruism; rather, self-interest compels us—individuals, multinational corporations and governments—to interact in more open, collaborative fashions because we are learning that these forms lead to greater wealth and security. Open environments that enable others to learn from us while we, too, learn from others lead to a bolstering of the fundamental infrastructure of civilization—education and healthcare, business and politics. As one benefits, so do many. These new complexities are placing stress on higher education since we are being asked to reconsider how knowledge is distributed—and used—in open networks that at some level are out of our control and growing independently.

“Our civilization is first and foremost a civilization of means,” says Jacques Ellul; “in the reality of modern life,” he continues, “the means, it would seem, are more important than the ends. Any other assessment of the situation is mere idealism.” In a world working through a paradigm shift as we are, and where decentering is a prime characteristic because of the multiplicity and the complexity of means—technological, socio-economic, spiritual—idealism is privileged and its byproduct, reason, the sole method of navigation.

2. New Media and the University

Challenging academia—the humanities writ large—is idealism since it’s the responsibility of the academician to theorize and critique the falsehoods and ironies inherent in any pursuit of ideologies. The academic describes the cynicism of our age. She works against the center—and is ironically viewed as the representative of such. This is easier when engaging classical cultures; it’s much more difficult to create a narrative of a culture moving and changing at breakneck speed that renders any analysis null and void before it begins. This is the nature of technologies that are deconstructive, suggesting formidable stability yet experience tells us that they are always shifting, always in flux—not stable at all. A sense of urgency follows. Technology invites a comprehensive description of the totality—form and function—while also trying to account for genetic demands that are an ongoing search for origins and the foundation of any given structure. In response to Heidegger, this is human activity because it can never quite realize the plenitude of the present though it assumes that it can; the essence of technology suggests that there is nothing outside itself. It is all consuming; it invites us to consume. In our consumption, we experience our world cynically because we act against better knowledge.

“The twofold intervention of reason and consciousness in the technical world, which produces the technical phenomenon, can be described as the quest of the one best means in every field,” Ellul tells us. “And this ‘one best means,’ is, in fact, the technical means. It is the aggregate of these means that produces technical civilization.”

Technology is our new text questioning ideologies. Academia’s role is to enter this rather ironic construction that openly rejects any and all preconceived notions about its place in our culture and reconstruct itself within it knowing that this process should be ongoing, open ended, always incomplete. The single most important characteristic of our age and our work is that technology privileges our imperfect state: we are forever unfinished, deficient in some way, though we strive for completion with great longing and assume it is possible just beyond, there. Traditional academia has been responsible for our belief in completion because it emphasizes—teaches—closure, the illusionary act of coming to conclusions, something that doesn’t even happen in the sciences. The only conclusion we can reach now is that there isn’t one. We can however say that the rate of change—the multiplication of computing power—is evolving to the point where machines are now able to learn from each other and grow without our influence and beyond our scope. The new reality.

The responsibility of the professor in the age of digital media and its pathologies of cyberOtherness is to slow things down, to engage carefully and methodically in what happens in-between the nodes and the codes, defining instances where semiotic possibilities provide challenges and confusing demarcations from our neatly perceived moral order, fragile as it is.

Thus…pedagogy is pure process. The teacher does not transmit facts (which can be better learnt from books, the reading of which leaves more room for autonomous reflection) but rather does two things. First, the teacher narrativizes the search for knowledge, tells the story of the process of knowledge acquisition. Second, the teacher enacts the process, sets knowledge to work. What is thus taught is not facts but critique—the formal art of the use of mental powers, the process of judgment.

The professor’s role is to provide safe environments for trial and error, experimentation that, by design, is intimate. In other words, the professor and the classroom, whether brick and mortar, a cyberclassroom or both, engage students in critical investigations of process. The vastness of our technological phenomenon begs for this intimacy.

3. New Media, the University and Writing

Writing is the means for introspection and inquiry; it is still the tool for meaningful dialog with the self and others, and the inherent instability of language. Writing is intimacy. Nothing is more important than intimacy in an age addicted to more—more acquisitions, more decay and pollution and global warming, more violence, more complex systems needing negotiating, more speed. In all the more, there is less though—less community, less understanding, less tolerance and less safe places for ideas. These are the common ideas of today. But are these ideas necessarily true because we assume so, because our media tells us?

Writing we experience our Being; we see the Other we long for, that state of (in)complete fulfillment, promised by technology, but attainable only by an Emersonian retreat into the self, away from the noise, away from the pixilated interpretation of ourselves in a plastic world of x’s and o’s. Writing is a method to move away from the fictions that color our lives—the destabilizing array of programs and images whose hallmark is distraction.

Writing, in its varied forms, is the tool for negotiating the complex interactions spread across a number of disciplines; it is the way to create the narrative of this age. And as we begin, we see that we have more methods by which to exchange ideas and programs, more ways to create and learn—yet we know less about ourselves in this nexus. This is the heart of the matter. This is where academia must enter—the center or focus where writing, learning and the complex interactions of transdisciplinary systems come together and produce a hybrid being interfacing with multitudes—cultures and machines—in comprehensive ways.

We may be a culture suffering from the illusions brought forth by the gods of more but we are also in a moment in time where we have more meaningful ways of addressing our confusion, the challenges that face us—the environment, socio-economic disparities that challenge education, healthcare and poverty, and ideological differences. The nexus of writing, knowledge production and learning, and technology is where we live today—and what we are challenged to describe.

In its digital forms, a culture is involved in its own deconstruction—deconstruction is always already ongoing. The future is already undergoing deconstruction. The being that is, in the digital sense, is a promise that is and that will not be; a future that in the instance it is imagined—its being—is unavailable because as we approach it, it becomes yet something else, an unknown that is perhaps both inhabitable and foreboding. To be is to perceive and what is perceived, by definition, is incomplete, an unknown and even the approximation of a composite that upon closer inspection begins to decompose as the pixels magnify. Being is therefore marked by the constant reminder of un-Being; that is to say, we are unable to recognize the immediate, the relentless making and unmaking of the world we inhabit and that inhabits us, the private and the public existing as one at all times. The classical duality of our state of being has been erased. This is the technological phenomenon.

Our experience with digital media is defined by the synthesis of being, time and the promises of digitization. We can say that a challenge to academia—and the humanities in general accustomed to deconstructing static cultures of old—is that the semiotic codes of new media are always in flux. Instability and unrest are constant in the present—doubled in the future. Only by slowing this process down—even in the moment of “the classroom”—can we begin to understand, describe and define our own states of deconstruction. Where is our time to contemplate? Without meaningful contemplation there is no sense of the Other, there is no future. The sole responsibility of the professor is to provide meaningful places for contemplation and writing to take place—and this too can be done with technology. Too often we rush to the promises of technology without really wondering why, seduced by the speed and accuracy of digitization, its forgiving nature when we create. We are unable to realize the promises of technology when we are distracted by the surface structures of speed and accuracy—the bells and whistles of what we can do.

But what is the meaning of what we do? Every thought, every action, even every click of the mouse has a consequence. How do we live with this realization? Can we move from departmentalization and face a world that requires we collaborate across disciplines since singularly we cannot solve the problems we face?

We gravitate towards the perceived effect of technology rather than realizing, through trial, error and criticism, how our affect is influenced, shaped, even distressed as a result of altering a specific sphere of interactivity—a result of the technological phenomenon. Our age is mired in the erratic but powerful glimmer of technology, falsely entertaining; in turn, this state endangers our need to conceive of alternatives that lay ahead. “Freedom,” says Heidegger, “is the realm of the destining that at any given time starts revealing upon its way.” This is the promise of technology—this and only this.

The essence of modern technology lies in Enframing…But when we consider theessence of technology, then we experience Enframing as a destining of revealing…Since destining at any given time starts man on a way of revealing, man, thus under way, is continually approaching the brink of the possibility of pursuing and pushing forward nothing but what is revealed in ordering, and of deriving all his standards on this basis. Through this the other possibility is blocked, that man might be admitted more and sooner and ever more primarily to the essence of that which is unconcealed and to its unconcealment, in order that he might experience as his essence his needed belonging to revealing.

The purpose of writing—the reasons to write—has never been more critical. Writing is how we experience ourselves “belonging to revealing”; in the act of writing, we conceal and unconceal, moving closer to the essence of this duality. This is our primal need. Thus we need more writers, not less—more voices. Here less does not occupy any meaningful terrain, other than to signify that there are forces today that would enjoy the privileges afforded them by silencing others—a silent citizenry. We need writers that can explore the panoply digital computers offer, the impressive and meaningful display of learning that occurs in disparate places. This manner of thinking is only in its infancy. As writers and teachers, we are only in the early stages of the digital age. We are beginning to recognize that our sole task is to reveal ourselves, to begin our approach to “the brink of the possibility.”

The tragic irony is that the major challenge to this journey is that the promises of technology remain unrealized because they are in direct competition with the economics of education: the university as another corporation compelled to guarantee the future control of the transnational exchange of capital by the elite that demands the departmentalization of knowledge and learning. In other words, higher education is reluctant to address the open universe; any consideration of alternatives places into question the vitality of the current classical models of knowledge exchange, particularly as these have shifted from the promotion of the nation state to the adherence—and support—of “the process of economic globalization” where the degree granted is not a sign of knowledge gained but rather a ticket for the exchange of capital. We go to school for value, rather than to gain a deeper, richer understanding of others and ourselves.

4. Belonging to Revealing

 

Technology is pushing in many directions simultaneously but the academy’s postmodern allegiances are to the corporatization of the academic experience guided by a privileging of accounting principles rather than a meaningful inquiry about the intimate relationships existing between learning and being requiring that we examine process. The pursuit of “excellence,” as Readings develops the argument in The University in Ruins. Consequently an internal legitimation struggle is going on concerning the nature of knowledge production—and technology remains a misunderstood human activity too often marginalized in education. “It is no longer clear what the place of the University is within society,” Readings reminds us, “nor what the exact nature of that society is, and the changing institutional form of the University is something that intellectuals cannot afford to ignore.”

If we marginalize technology—if we don’t inquire as to its location in our culture—we marginalize human experience. Traditional learning—memorization, response papers to readings, writings asking student writers to mimic the teacher, standardized testing—pushes the intimacy of learning towards the boundaries rendering it irrelevant since most students today are involved in other forms of learning: trial and error; experience and collaboration; knowledge exchanges that are also social delivered through Facebook, MySpace, txting, and YouTube. We learn through assimilation, gathering in groups, face-to-face or online, and exchange and compare and build knowledge intimately. Technology begs for collaboration; this is clear—and essential. Technical tools are appendages. Students are cyborgs in every sense of the word. Technology and science are their experience. Multi-tasking is as common as apple pie—there is no other way, not yet.

Technology’s singular threat to the university involves more than how knowledge is produced in new and interesting ways; it threatens how culture is perceived, once the stronghold of education. The digitization of culture marginalizes the traditional modes of disciplined cultural production. It does so through disruptions and distractions that are manifestly tied to surface structures apprehended as deep, meaningful inquiry. “The multiplier of possibilities,” as Mark Edmundson describes it in “Dwelling in Possibilities,” that promotes “the stimulation of desire,” trumps a long sustained study of complex interactions. Academia has yet to figure out how to reconstruct itself amidst these disruptions and distractions, particularly when the aim of the student today is less self-knowledge and more consistent with socio-economic advancement coupled to the cultural constraint, the manifest importance of being cool.

Essentially technology is redefining the social and the political. Textuality, too, is undergoing a reconstruction; verbal and ideological expressions of the political begin deconstructing—deconstruction is always already part of their construction, always occurring—at the moment of delivery. The political subject is therefore a moving target; it defies classic models of inquiry that quantify formative influences. Rather, technology, promising a better world in the beyond, immediately places into question the present, thereby alienating one from discursive exchanges that, upon their utterance, are rendered almost impractical, unsustainable. Thus a reality that is always in-between becomes the only constant. This in effect threatens the traditional university; it threatens the brick and mortar—and elite—colleges and universities that promote the sage sitting on a tree trunk espousing knowledge to the young sitting at his feet. Life is not experienced like this—not now, perhaps it never was.

We have yet to understand how technology can fit our power-knowledge equation; how indeed it is changing—constructing and deconstructing—these equations. We are hooked in, touting the wonders of multi-tasking. But our understanding of technology’s influence on our knowledge production—our lives—remains on the boundaries. Convinced that more and faster and smaller technology is synonymous with success and power, our existence is forever on the verge of becoming, living, as Bhabha suggests, on the borderlines of the present.

But perhaps our quest for power has always required that we exist in a perpetual state of becoming on the borderlines of the present.

The Lyceum was a space for physical exercise and philosophical discussion, reflection, and study. From the sixth-century BC the Lyceum was a place where the polemarch (head of the army) had his offices; it was also used for military exercise; a place for meetings; a place of philosophical discussion and debate well before Aristotle founded his school there in 335 BC. The Lyceum also contained the cults of Hermes, the Muses, and Apollo, to whom the area was dedicated and belonged. Thus the Lyceum was a large area, including open spaces, buildings, and cult sites. And from the time of Aristotle until 86 BC there was a continuous succession of philosophers in charge of the school; it was a part of the military-educational complex for the city’s elite, the ephebia.

The many manifestations of the Lyceum could be the Internet—with a very distinct difference: as host to many—philosophers and pornographers, educators, salesmen and criminals—the Internet is the most democratic institution we have. It is a place for play and escape, and a place for serious reflection and exchange; a place for news and information, and a place for inquiry, creation, and emergence. It is a place for the perverse too. It is also a place of divisiveness and dispossession where “the contemporary compulsion to move beyond; to turn the present into the ‘post’; or…to touch the future on its hither side” gives us a sense of disembodiment. We encounter the plenitude of the world, but also its great silences. We are therefore in a constant state of spiritual and psychological migration—home is nowhere and everywhere at once. The physicality of the Lyceum is gone, displaced by the unhomeliness of the click, the metaphor for displacement that conceals the psychic displacement of history and memory.

Hooked in we find ourselves in a hyper state eager to transcend our material reality. The promises of an imagined Other are impossible to refuse. We are always looking forward and beyond. This can be a foreboding, lonely place.

For these reasons—its potential; its uses and abuses; its power over users—the technological divide exists along lines defined by those who are using technologies in creative, engaging ways and those that are not and are reliant on others to mandate personal technology. The latter are effectively left behind.

In the final paragraph of Writing at the End of the World, Richard E. Miller says that, “The practice of the humanities … is not about admiration or greatness or appreciation or depth of knowledge or scholarly achievement; it’s about the movement between worlds, arms out, balancing; it’s about making connections that count.” Our traditional forms of knowledge production will not work in the future. We have too many problems. From a totally different perspective, Jeffrey D. Sachs, in Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, comes to similar conclusions about the relationship between our problems, orthodox and myopic ways of doing things, and the openness and collaboration needed to meet our challenges:

To solve the remaining dire problems of environmental degradation,

population growth, and extreme poverty, we will need to create a new model

of twenty-first-century cooperation, one that builds on past successes and

overcomes today’s widespread pessimism and lack of leadership…Such

multipolar cooperation is time-consuming and often contentious. Solutions

will be complicated; the problems of sustainable development inevitably cut

across several areas of professional expertise, making it hard for any

single ministry—or academic department, for that matter—to address the

issues adequately.

It is therefore incumbent on institutions of learning to engage in the myriad ways technologies are enabling a closer look at how we educate and learn, how we become. This requires a focus on the process of learning as defined by a critical pedagogy that questions and articulates the relationships that exist between knowledge production, the teacher and the student, and technology and the ever shifting terrain of language. This also involves understanding the relationships between knowledge production, educational institutions and power.

Our age calls forth for more meaningful interactions, intimate in nature.


1. Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (1977) Trans. By William Lovitt. Harper Torch Books, New York, NY; p. 4.

2. Vinge, Vernor. The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post Human Era (1993)

3. Lévy, Pierre. Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace (1997) Perseus Book, Cambridge, Massachusetts; p.1-2.

4. Ibid. p. xxvi-xxvii.

5. Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media (2002) MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts; (6).

6. BitTorrent technology is a prime example: A popular file sharing service developed by Bram Cohen that prevents people from downloading constantly unless they are willing to share in the overall transmission load on the network. Instead of downloading an entire file, BitTorrent breaks a file into chunks and distributes them among several participating users. When you download a “torrent,” you are also uploading it to another user. BitTorrent balances the load because broadband download and upload speeds are not the same. Users download files faster than they can upload them, which makes them less interested in sharing bandwidth to upload to someone else. BitTorrent ensures every user participates in uploading.

(See: http://dictionary.zdnet.com/definition/BitTorrent.html)

7.Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society (1964). Vintage Books, New York; p. 19.

8. The most thorough philosophical investigation on cynicism and our age is Peter Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason, translated by Michael Eldred (University of Minnesota Press, 1987). “…Cynicism is enlightened false consciousness. It is that modernized, unhappy consciousness, on which enlightenment has labored both successfully and in vain. It has learned its lesson in enlightenment, but it has not, and probably was not able to, put them into practice. Well-off and miserable at the same time, this consciousness no longer feels affected by any critique of ideology; its falseness is already reflexively buffered” (emphasis in original; p. 5). We can see how easily enlightened false consciousness feeds the paradoxical nature of the digital being—in search for happiness, and unhappy, too; the pursuit of consciousness, only to remain in a cyberconsciousness. “To act against better knowledge is today the global situation in the superstructure,” says Sloterdijk; “it knows itself to be without illusions and yet to have been dragged down by the ‘power of things’”(p. 6). This is the major challenge affecting higher education’s illusions about its place in society, already threatened by computing power and its promise of more and better.

9. Ellul, p. 21.

10. Readings, Bill. The University in Ruins (1996). Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts; p. 67.

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11. Heidegger, p. 25.

12. Ibid, p. 25-26.

13. Readings, p. 3.

14. In most Universities, technology is relegated to the sidelines by existing as “ad-on” programs run by IT services—workshops on iMovie and Final Cut, Photoshop, Excel and PowerPoint, etc—and elite computer science programs that behave as any other department, showing no relationship between the computer as a genre, the academy’s pursuit of truth and meaningful, critical pedagogy. This is why there is an apparent split between how students use technology—and how they think about it—and how faculty use technology (overwhelming students with PowerPoint, spreadsheets, exhaustive email practices). There currently exists no synthesis, no critical examination of points of intersection between language and learning, technology and being.

15. Ibid, p. 2.

16. Edmundson, Mark. Dwelling in Possibilities (2008). Chronicle of Higher Education.

17. Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture (1994). Routledge, New York, NY; p. 26.

18. Miller, Richard E. Writing at the End of the World (2005). University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; p. 198.

19. Sachs, Jeffrey D. Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet (2008). The Penguin Press, New York, NY; p. 51.

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