eLive: Reeling from the Internet Revolution

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I just had an uncanny experience: I swear I just felt the Internet Revolution coming on. It wasn’t a startling quake like when I was a kid in Seattle, or the maddening consciousness raising that rocked the 1980s, and it wasn’t the deafening roar of the Arab Spring on screens large and small that made us so hopeful, yes, almost five years ago already. It was inaudible but for the silky whir of a tiny fan.

Having finally acknowledging this, I must now accept it. That is not easy to do. Our writing and teaching lives have changed, we just didn’t realize it. It snuck up on us the way an ideology could, since everything else seems the same, except there’s this sense of a separate form of communication that is going on around us and building steam and energy among its users. The young people are doing things differently. Their screens define them. They talk about mediality. New forms of authority, audiences, and markets are operating on-line and they are operating very well, thank you. This is a fact which many otherwise competent adults are still contemplating with shock.

The author that set off the electrification of my mind tonight is Robert E. Cummings, in Lazy Virtues: Teaching Writing in the Age of Wikipedia (2009). I can’t wait to try some of his ideas with my students next semester.

An excerpt:

The traditional role of academics is to prepare students for contemporary society through a broad liberal arts curriculum. We teach pure mathematics, comparison-and-contrast essay writing, Latin grammar, and sculpture not because our graduates will be asked to write integrals that allow the comparison, in Latin, of the relative merits of two sculptures, and not only because these activities do indeed have some residual cultural capital, but because they teach our students how to think. If the advent of Wikipedia marks a change in the future world in which our students will work, a liberal arts curriculum provides the best strategy for preparing them for it. Unlike a technical preparation, which relies on the specifics of contemporary tools, a liberal arts preparation does not base its curriculum on the particulars of current technology, but provides the training to evaluate any particular instance of technology by understanding how it affects knowledge creation itself. (2).

As an expert on things revolutionary, I find Cummings’s prose surprisingly calm. Even though the changes he describes point to a powerful trauma heading straight for the world of education, he does not sound worried or melancholy. Describing the work of economist Adam Smith (1723-90) who wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) when modern capitalism was just getting under way, Cummings reminds us that what interested Smith most was “the human effect, the fact that economic forces were vastly changing the way a person thought and behaved in a given situation.”

After this point, Cummings could have mentioned the revolutions which ensued in 1790, year of Smith’s death, and the mayhem, bloodshed, and confusion which marked the next few decades, not to mention the money that was lost and professions which went extinct. But no. Instead, Lazy Virtues opines, “It is worth considering that we live in a similar time of behavioral revolution, where electronic networked writing is changing the way writers think and act” (29).

That nonchalance comes out in the title too, Lazy Virtues. In some ways, he is describing phenomena portrayed by Dave Eggers’s The Circle. Both men chronicle the ever more thickly networked fellowship of electronic inhabitants, the flat hierarchy, and the algorithm-based value systems which drive our eLives. But where Eggers stirs up paranoia (not in itself a bad thing), Cummings leads the way with pleasure. He makes you anxious but in a good way, as if our blue-tinted sitting were an exciting thing to behold and a fun thing to do.

No fear. Rather, a sense of marvel and hope about the infinite wonders that lie ahead for Internet-based creativity and collaboration.

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