This post is the first installment of the OOPs Course Work, Love, Learn Play: Our Lives on the Internet. An edited version of my introductory lecture, it provides a provisional answer to the question: what is this course about?
This course is about discovery.
It is about new things, some of which are no longer new and some of which we haven’t even thought of yet.
It is about how change happens, and about how we respond to change.
This course is about our best selves and our worst selves. It is about hashtag activism: #blacklivesmatter and #notyourasiansidekick.
It is about how public relations executive Justine Sacco got on an airplane in London in 2013, tweeted a phrase that she believed was an ironic joke and others viewed as racist – “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding! I’m white.” It is about howSacco got off the plane 18 hours and 5 million tweets later in Capetown to find that #HasJustineLandedYet was trending. She had already lost her job, her life was destroyed, and she wouldn’t even have a date for over two years.
This course is about how, over fifty years ago, scientists began to imagine the future we live in now.
It is about an emerging field that is sometimes called “internet studies” or “cyberculture studies.” It is neither exactly the history of technology, or the study of computerization, but a study of what has come to be known as “virtual life” – lives lived on and facilitated by the Internet. We concern ourselves with computerized devices, but more importantly, we concern ourselves with what happens when computerized devices become such basic tools of our daily lives and everything we do, that they become invisible.
This course is about the new knowledge that is generated when people and devices come together, channel their conversations onto platforms and apps, and form the social groups we call “crowds.”
It is about how that future became history, and that history became another future. And so on. And so on.
It is about the condition of being networked, and about how we cope with our networked lives.
This course is about spam. And shopping.
It is about how our humanness has evolved to incorporate, depend on and make invisible the multiple networked devices that our work, our romantic lives, our creativity, our homes and our friendships. It’s about what it means to become “post-human:” to rely on computerized devices so completely that few of us are fully mammalian in our perceptions, our actions, and even our bodies.
I am a hacker: I make new things happen. I have computer chips in my right knee.
My devices think for me, freeing me to be more creative. My device think for me, absolving me from the need to think at all. My devices think for me, thus freeing my mind to learn how to counteract the effects of my devices.
My devices help Facebook and Instagram knows what kind of clothes I wear, who I will vote for, what I eat, and where I am likely to take a vacation. My devices help the NSA know where I am – should they want to look.
I am metadata. In other words, I am the data that describes my data. Metadata is not what I am saying to you right now – that’s data. Metadata is the fact that I am saying it, the fact that you can all be accurately placed at the precise scene where I am saying it, and that some of you are texting friends. Those texts put you in networks, and you may not know who else is even in those networks. Metadata means that if more than one of you is texting the same person, and that person is contemplating a political action, we may not know what you are saying (for example, “Was your flight canceled?”), but we may have reason to believe you are part of a conspiracy, and apply for a warrant to look into you further.
This course is about Canvas; it’s about Buzz Feed; it’s about social media — the people who love it, who hate it, and who use it as an excuse to say and do every terrible thing that they should take to psychotherapy.
I am more than human, I am human no longer. I am post-human.
But I wasn’t always post-human. In 1990, my first year of teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, I had no email, no Learning Management System, no iPad – although I did have a computer that I wrote lectures on and printed out on paper – and I timed courses with a watch. I want to let you in on a secret: every course – every successful course that is – is a story. This course is the story of me; but most importantly it’s the story of you, the story of how we all got to be post-human.
Everybody’s history of the Internet is also a personal history. My roots and my education are in the offline university, in rooms like this one, listening to the sage on the stage. Once I was fully online by the late 1990s (a colleague’s wife had introduced me to lesbian WELLs, one of the early chat rooms, where she was doing research for a novel) I was on: I took every piece of advice offered by the growing number if Informational Technology (IT) specialists at my small New England university; slowly, and then, with increasing pace, technology changed how I understood my work as a professional scholar. Not infrequently, these IT specialists were doctoral candidates who had given up on the academic job market. Too often, these early digital scholars found themselves doing mundane installations and repairs, but they loved talking to other humanists who really wanted to learn. I soon learned about H-Net, and its ability to keep us all up to date with grant opportunities; and I became skilled at fixing the basic things that required maintenance and repair in MS-DOS systems. When I got tired of these fragile platforms, ones that required endless updates of virus protection software, at the suggestion of the specialist assigned to my department, I shifted to a Mac.
I was involved in Internet studies before I knew it. Technology quickly introduced me to a larger public beyond the university that was deeply invested in the humanities, first through a now nearly defunct social networking platform called Friendster; then Facebook, then blogging, and then on Twitter. These digital worlds also allowed me to understand an important fact that any media figure or public relations firm presumes: there were colleagues and audiences hungry for ideas out there in the ether, and that I could make contact with them at the stroke of a key.
The emergence of digital social networks was a critical turning point in my journey towards understanding how I could function as an intellectual, and why I would want to do that. I joined Facebook in January 2006, when academics seemed to be logging on in droves. At no point, before or since, have I issued and accepted so many requests to be a “friend,” than when we were all frantically grading and getting ready for the spring term that year. I then began to explore how digital tools could make me, and my ideas, more visible. I was one of the first faculty members to use an open access university platform where, prior to the creation of the social networking site Academia.edu in 2008, we were encouraged to upload our research and meet other humanists with similar interests. I soon learned, to my astonishment, that in a world where most journal articles are read by specialists and quickly sink into obscurity, one essay I posted was downloaded upwards of 100 times a month from this site.
The Internet has changed how we work, how we date, how we are educated, and how we spend our leisure time. It blurs categories formerly confined to separate spaces (some of you, even as I am trying to teach you right now, are buying shoes and texting the person you are crushed out on.) To paraphrase from my colleague Ken Wark’s book A Hacker Manifesto (Harvard, 2004), the Internet facilitates creation and subversion, originality and replication, and it really doesn’t care which. It only takes the rearrangement of a few letters to point out that because of digital tools, both inside and outside the university, we are all now capable of teaching better – and cheating better. It’s the people who count, and people who are still at the center of a humanities practice.
The Internet, from its earliest days, created global connection. Nowhere was this clearer than in this most southern, and indigenous, state of Mexico, where rebellion against central authority had simmered since the sixteenth century and exploded fiercely in 1994. If people were already talking about the power of what was increasingly called “new media,” it was in part because of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN, or Zapatista Movement) that had compelled world attention by strategic use of video and early Internet tools. In response to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), promoted by President George H. W. Bush and signed by Mexico, the United States and Canada during the Clinton administration, the Zapatistas had temporarily seized San Cristóbal a few years earlier. Responding to what we now call neo-liberalism, and its capacity to destroy local economies through unrestricted global trade, the Zapatistas followed up armed rebellion with cultural resistance in virtual space, connecting to the global left and other indigenous people in the Americas by posting videos, reports of massacres and eloquent manifestos on their own website.
This savvy use of connectivity marked a bold historical shift towards an Internet activism that we now take for granted in United States party politics, the creation of global resistance and philanthropic networks, and what is now known as “hashtag activism” on Twitter. The use of Internet tools by the Zapatistas also changed my capacity, as an academic humanist who had little training in Latin American Studies, to collect information on the ground, and write history as it happened. Instead of letters, in 2001, I “reported” events to colleagues in the states by email: the launch of the Zapatista march to Mexico City from the zocalo in San Cristóbal, a visit to a Christian women’s Bible study where Zapatista women led conversations about social justice, the re-consecration of the altar at Acteal where 45 congregants were massacred by paramilitaries before Christmas in 1997. These dispatches were not unlike the weblogs people were already writing, and quite similar to the blog posts I would start to share with a more undifferentiated audience in 2006 when I too became a blogger.
The capacity of the Internet to facilitate and frame violence and political conflict became even more graphic on September 11, 2001, a few months after our return from Mexico. Like millions of others around the world, we sat stunned in front of the television as human experience tilted on its axis. Paper, steel, dust, airplane wreckage, cinders and human body parts rained down on Lower Manhattan. Still on sabbatical, I went on the Internet to make contact with friends and family who I suspected were in harms way. Simultaneously, I received an email at home from the President of Wesleyan asking faculty to hold class, come to the office, and sit in public locations where students, cut off from family by the interruption of Internet connection and telephones, could feel the college community wrap itself around them. In the aftermath of these attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and during the subsequent mobilization and deployment of American troops, blogs exploded as a mode of communication because there was too much to say and no public square was big enough to contain it. At the same time, humanists were mobilizing in Manhattan to collect sounds, testimony, objects and evidence of the world before: a few years later, they began to build the 9/11 Digital Archive, a mobile display that made this collection available to everyone.
In addition to its capacity to document an event unfolding in real time, the Internet became one of many ways in which United States retaliation for this attack, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, unfolded as a different war with a distinct social history. Over the next decade, military families used social media and a new video-telephone service called Skype; while mothers, teens, jihadists and journalists began to blog, Tweet, and upload video to YouTube . These new platforms processed and created unprecedented amounts of information, blurring the boundary between military and civilian society, as well as creating an unprecedented resource, collected spontaneously by volunteer archivists and humanists, of how the nation would experience war. Wikileaks, established in Iceland by Australian Internet activist Julian Assange in 2006, would also change how these wars were reported, by releasing massive numbers of primary documents and classified videos into the public domain for journalists and citizens to evaluate.
The Internet has also shrunk the distance between this classroom and the places where you were born, raised and live now. Although people speak of an “academic blogosphere” and “academic social media” it is no longer possible to separate the part of the digital public square occupied by universities, or merchants, or the activists — and that part occupied by everyone else. For example, as I indicated above, it is well documented that replacing letters with email, social media and Skype has shifted the experience of twenty-first century war by collapsing space. But haven’t smaller distances between people – a state, a town, across campus, down the hall – been transformed too? How have shifts of space, time, tone, language and grammar altered the nature of everyone’s life and work?
The conversations, technologies, and networks we will discuss this semester have changed me and they have changed you. We can expect those changes to be continuous: this is how history works. Our task this semester is to understand them better.
Networking has changed how we talk, and who we talk to. Yet even as human connection is transformed we discuss these changes too little. Here are some odd facts about me. At this writing, I have 924 Facebook “friends,” but probably fewer than twenty actual friends. I don’t know most of my Facebook friends, although there are more than a few who I enjoy exchanging ideas with in virtual space. I rarely speak to actual friends and colleagues on the telephone now, and most of us use our mobile devices for computerized textual exchanges rather than for talking. We make appointments by email, and confirm them via text messaging; Facebook suffices for much of life’s daily sociality, albeit with a far larger group of people, many of who live hundreds or thousands of miles away and who we may never have met in real life (IRL).
These forms of sociality are neither good nor bad; they simply are. But they are spaces for human engagement and as such, like it or not, they become a crucial place for practicing, discussing and disseminating the humanities. In this classroom, we will explore the dangers of the Internet, but also its promise to deliver a truly public, democratic and empathetic, form of citizenship.
This course is about the future that is here now. It asks you to open yourself
up to the possibilities that the digital public sphere offers for social justice and democracy. Increasingly, not just humanists, but the future lawyers, journalists, politicians and other professionals who have traditionally passed through an undergraduate humanities or arts will need to be digitally literate to succeed. Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian pointed out recently that one of the most revealing aspects of Edward Snowden’s release of United States classified documents in 2013 was how little those in charge understood the ethical and political implications of the Snowden material because they did not understand the technology. “I did not myself spot that story—of how law enforcement agencies are trying to undermine private encryption capacities—that was nested in the GCHQ/NSA documents,” Rusbridger later wrote; “and even when it was explained to me by the young specialist technology reporters who did grasp its significance, I did not immediately understand it. Embarrassingly, I had to sketch a childlike drawing to confirm what I thought Jeff Larson, a Web developer and reporter at ProPublica, and James Ball, our own twenty-seven-year-old reporter and technical whiz kid, were telling me.”
Rusbridger raises an intriguing point: being at ease in a swiftly-changing digital world, just like poetry, art, history, philosophy, languages and literature, might be a critical tool for moral, as well as practical, tool for 21st century citizenship. If you think these questions are as interesting as I do, welcome to the course.
Let’s get to work.