For several years, I have asked students in my classes to keep personal logs of internet use or assigned them to do surveys of other people’s internet activities. The results often surprise them. They discover that they or others spend as much as 60% of their waking hours consuming digital “content” of no practical value. They are surprised to find that they or others lose hundreds of minutes daily to what we used to call “interruptions” – for example, pulling out your phone to make a call but instead spending ten minutes responding to the text messages that have accumulated in your absence from hyperspace. In his essay, Strate suggests social interaction in our ever-accessible, instantaneous, and ubiquitous digital culture has created a profane time, a uniform 24/7/365 continuum without end (terminus or telos). Likening our loss of time to the entropic “heat death” of the universe, Strate believes that our inability to reflect on and to appreciate our present moments as a revitalization of the past portends “the time death of humanity.”
Are we then doomed to lose both past and future in a vast, cold universe populated with irretrievably isolated humanoid galaxies, themselves mere coincidences of millions of undifferentiated nows? Strate does not think so, or at least he masks his pessimism well when later in his essay he challenges us to teach historically, contextualizing present data as the “progress and the backtracking, the discoveries and the errors.” At first glance, Strate seems to be calling for what many of us already do: teach from the perspective of the history of ideas. I am not convinced that is enough: it does not slow the train, it simply shows that the terrain outside the window is itself moving. Furthermore, it overlooks the fact that we educators are, whether we like it or not, also along for the ride.
In all the empirical studies showing that there are physiological, cognitive, and behavioral changes that come with web use, I have never heard anyone claim that teachers had special immunity. Indeed, research shows that both professionals and academics, when faced with internet re-search, no longer are quite as disciplined and fastidious as they once were. The academic ideal of the comprehensive and compelling “contribution” may well be slipping away from our grasp as quickly as the journal article and conference paper announcements arrive in our RSS feeds. Consider as well that some job seekers now record on their resumes the number of Facebook or Linked In contacts they have, and number-of-times-cited is used to measure a tenure-seeking professor’s work. These are symptomatic of a shift in value, from the intrinsic to the topographical, from the thing itself to the number and dispersion of times it has been clicked in some network.
I doubt click counts and topography will become the gold standard of the virtual tribal village, and replacing Truth with Transactions certainly will not sit well with many in the academy. How all this plays out is anyone’s guess. We are, frustrating as it may be, in medias res. What is clear is that we will have to spend more time sitting in the seat across the aisle from our students, watching ourselves watch the vistas pass by, before we know how best to instill in our students an appreciation for the effort that is understanding. We may have to stop teaching things and instead teach evolution, dynamics rather than dates, the topography of what was Liked and by whom and for what reason.
There is something to be said for valuing dynamics and dispersion. Knowledge becomes knowing, acquiring knowledge becomes a deliberate act of making connections; passive consumption is replaced by inquisitiveness. That may be the way to mend the broken promise, requite the stifled anticipation, and from a mere topography of clicks create communion.