[iDC] Are we changing?

Michael Wesch mike.wesch at gmail.com
Tue Aug 23 17:54:08 UTC 2011

Yesterday I made 5 observations related to my goal of inspiring great
1. Inspiring great questions is hard.
2. Large numbers of students tune out or just "get by".
3. They are seeking identity and recognition.
4. There is something in the air (the Web, etc.)
5. That we are in the midst of a change that started several decades
ago away from groups and hierarchies towards networks and network

Some of these observations are certain, others debatable.  Today I'm
wrestling with #5, and thinking about how #3 is really playing out.
Charles Taylor argues that the ethic of authenticity emerged in the
late 1700s - part and parcel of modern individualism.  But modern
individualism fits very nicely with groups and hierarchies.  If we are
really moving towards networks and network logic, what happens to
individualism?  And what happens to authenticity?  Thomas de Zengotita
thinks authenticity is for the Romantics - dead in the 21st Century
... and Gergen proposed that at least *some* people were abandoning
individualism for a more "relational" self - but were failing to find
the linguistic resources to describe, defend, and live with their new
selfhood.  A couple of weeks ago I started thinking about all this and
blogged the following ...

"We need a vision for who we and our students need to *be* – not just
what we should know. I’m not sure what that is, but I do know that it
would help to know who we are, and to know who we are it would help to
know who we were . . . and that’s why I’m sitting in my office reading
a bag full of books written in 1991.

Who we were: 1991

On August 6th, 1991, the Web debuted as a publicly accessible service
on the Internet. Almost 20 years later to the day, I’m sitting here
reading five books released in the year before that momentous
occasion: Charles Taylor’s “The Ethics of Authenticity, Kenneth
Gergen’s “The Saturated Self,” Harvey’s “Condition of Postmodernity,”
Anthony Giddens’ “Modernity and Self-Identity” and Jameson’s “Cultural
Logic of Late Capitalism.” Each of them presents a brilliant
perspective on who we were at that moment just before the web was born
– and all are (despite their depth and perceptiveness) charmingly and
innocently unaware of Tim’s little invention that would start to
reshape how we live, work and play.

Even a cursory read quickly dispels certain myths about the effects of
the Web. Here are three observations that immediately stand out:

1. We were already distracted.

In 1991 we worried that our kids were narcissistic, disengaged, and
not easily impressed … that their attention spans were no more than 4
minutes, the average link of an MTV music video. Our kids (and all of
us) were already distracted by what Gergen fancifully calls
“invitations to incoherence”. If Gergen were to re-write today he
would undoubtedly include in these “invitations” the persistent
e-mailing, IM’ing, status-updating, texting, tweeting, etc. that
invite us into other worlds and thereby make every moment a bit
incoherent. But in 1991 he settled for the ability to receive a call
or fax from anybody in the world and instantly be transported into
another social universe. Gergen went so far as to suggest that such
activities “engender a multiplicitous and polymorphic being who
thrives on incoherence.” In 1991 he could temper such remarks by
noting that few had taken the leap into this polymorphic state, but
followed up such caveats by noting that “there is good reason to
believe that what is taking place within these groups can be taken as
a weathervane of future cultural life in general … in the longer run …
the technologies giving rise to social saturation will be

Gergen prophetically notes that “We enter the age of techno-personal
systems,” but he was not imagining the World Wide Web. By
“technologies of saturation” he simply means roads, cities, cars,
planes, cities, phones, computers, newspapers, radio, TV that
collectively “saturate” us with information and connections that
surpass our capacity to manage effectively.

2. Our education system was already “in crisis” and out of step with the times.

Drop out rates were high. Psychological drop out rates were even
higher. As Harvey notes, the Fordist big business-big labor-big state
alliance that had brought decades of prosperity to the West had given
way to globalization and “flexible accumulation.” The US
de-industrialized and by 1991 nearly half of all Americans were
working in “information.” We were already a knowledge economy in a
globalizing world, but our schools were not keeping up – still
teaching in an industrial model.

And there was no shortage of reformers. Canons were falling.
Interdisciplinary was all the buzz. New departments – especially
Women’s Studies, African American Studies, Culture Studies – sprung up
and took aim at the traditional, stodgy, power-laden,
white-male-centered educational system. (i.e. Wikipedia did not invent
challenges to traditional models of authority.)

3. We thought our kids were self-obsessed, overly-self-important narcissists.

There were already persistent complaints about our kids being
disengaged and narcissistic. Students were feeding off of the
revolutionary energy of the reformers, reading the postmodernist
challenge to authority as an ally in elevating their own opinions to
the status of experts. Alan Bloom voiced the concerns of those who
were concerned about these developments in “The Closing of the
American Mind,” ranting about the self-obsessed “anything goes”
attitude of our youth. The book struck a chord and enjoyed a run atop
the Times Bestsellers list. (Lasch’s excellent “Culture of
Narcissism,” originally published in 1978, had also come back as a
revised edition in 1991).

Familiar Themes

Twenty years later the same complaints abound. Jean Twenge has called
our youth “Generation Me” and worries that we are facing a “Narcissism
Epidemic.” Nicholas Carr has eloquently argued that multi-tasking is
merely distracted thinking and that without adequate awareness of how
the Internet effects our brains we are destined for the “Shallows.”
And blogs, tweets, bookshelves, and conference programs abound with
complaints and proposed solutions to our current education crisis.

If the themes seem familiar, perhaps it is simply because these 1991
authors were perceptive enough to identify fundamental persistent
tensions in our culture rather than simply identifying the “trends.”
They are not hung up on these three simple observations. They are
seeking the roots, and what they dig up is as relevant today as it was
in 1991.

Taylor calls it “an act of retrieval.” Most cultural commentators miss
the mark by failing to recognize the underlying moral ideal at work
that is producing the apparent problems. What appears as distraction,
dissolution, fragmentation, and self-indulgent, self-important
narcissism is, at a deeper level, an expression of our pursuit of the
authentic self.

The ethic of authenticity was born in the late 18th century and
persists to this day. Being “authentic” requires us to “find
ourselves,” “get in touch with our inner lives,” and act from our
“core.” It springs from what Taylor calls “the massive subjective turn
of modern culture.” “Identity” is so important to us (and especially
our students) because we live in a world in which identity and
recognition are not givens. They must be achieved. It is our “core
project” as Giddens says.

But there are tensions at work within this quest for identity and
recognition. Authenticity demands an entirely original creation –
which frequently involves opposition to society. Yet at the same time
our creations cannot be meaningful without being open to the meaning
systems created and sustained by society. We never quite feel like we
have “found ourselves.” Just when we think we know who we are the
doubts start to creep in: Is this really the real me? Or have I been
duped by society? Or we find ourselves so on the margins that we feel
a loss of meaning and purpose. Most of us sway between these poles,
always struggling to find who we really are. The “technologies of
saturation” only amplify these issues by providing us with countless
options, so that each self we portray or become “cries out for an
alternative, points to a missed potential, or mocks the chosen action
for its triviality … the postmodern being is a restless nomad”

Two “slides” (as Taylor calls them) result from this process. First,
like a chinese fingercuff the quest for identity squeezes in on us
ever harder as we try to escape it. We start focusing more and more on
ourselves and our own self-fulfillment, often to the detriment of deep
and lasting relationships. (Note: this is not something the internet
created. In fact, some would argue the internet was created as a
correction to this (and it has worked and failed in dramatic fashion
depending on the person and context).) As a result, we become
increasingly disengaged from our communities and public life as we
focus more and more on ourselves. (Giddens and Harvey would want to
point out that this is amplified by the “disembedding mechanisms” of
modernity that hide the many connections and relationships that allow
us to survive.)

Secondly, there is what Taylor calls “a negation of all horizons of
significance” which is a fancy way of saying that we no longer share
the same beliefs and values across the whole society, and that there
can be little or no ground on which to stand to claim that your
beliefs and values are true while others are false. Society becomes
increasingly fragmented.

The two slides feed back into the process itself. The first slide
makes us feel more disengaged from society so we increasingly seek
meaning, recognition, and identity. The second slide creates more and
more options for us to try out on the journey, while taking away the
possibility of ever finding the “right” identity or being universally
positively recognized because there are too many diverse viewpoints
and possibilities.

As a society, we continue trending toward individualism and
superficiality even as we value connection, community, and
authenticity. We disengage from community, social action, and
politics. We amuse ourselves to death. And the most amazing
collaboration and creativity machine ever created celebrates its 20th
anniversary as a distraction device.

What to do?

Taylor is not shy about noting that what we have here is a “vicious
circle.” But he also sees the potential for creating a “virtuous
circle.” Successful common actions can breed a sense of empowerment
and connection that can spread to other domains. That’s where we come
in as teachers. We have an opportunity, not just to teach our students
“something,” but to be part of their journey and help them find
meaning and purpose in an over-saturated, fragmented, and distracting
world full of self-indulgent temptations.

I won’t spend the rest of this blog harping on about how I try to do
this, but diving into this work of 1991 has re-invigorated my passion
for project-based learning in which students engage in real and
relevant problems that excite them, work together to approach these
problems as a learning community, and harness and leverage digital
technologies while also critically reflecting on how those
technologies mediate and change their lives.

I know this has been a long post, but how we understand society, and
our capacity to imagine how society might change (or if it can change)
can have a dramatic effect on how we teach. In 1968, Warren Bennis and
Philip Slater made many of the same observations I have put forth here
in “The Temporary Society.” Imagining a radically more flexible social
world, they suggested that “we should help our students … (1) Learn
how to develop intense and deep human relationships quickly – and
learn how to “let go.” … (2) Learn how to enter groups and leave them.

While I agree with their observations, and the spirit of their
suggestions, I take a slightly different approach. If community,
social action, and empathy levels are down (as research shows them to
be), then I think it is our responsibility to help create more
socially conscious and empathic students/citizens.

I don’t want to help make students for the world.

I want to help make students who make the world over."

Michael Wesch, PhD
Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology
Coffman Chair for University Distinguished Teaching Scholars
2010 NITLE Fellow
2009 National Geographic Emerging Explorer
2008 US Professor of the Year
2007 Wired Magazine Rave Award Winner
Director of the Digital Ethnography Working Group
Kansas State University
mwesch at ksu.edu

More information about the iDC mailing list