More Epochal Fallacies FTW: The End of Solitude

by zunguzungu

I heard William Deresiewicz on NPR’s Forum on Friday, talking about “The End of Solitude.” It was about, as they put it, “the repercussions of hyper-connectivity and a generation that, he argues, seems unable to tolerate solitude and quiet reflection.” Ah the youth! It’s a variant of the “google is making us stupid” argument, but much more specifically oriented towards things like Twitter, IM, and social networking sites, and very specifically situating this in a generational divide which he observes/invents. Anyway, I was struck by two things. One, when he was asked how he was sure that what is happening now is different from past technological changes — an obvious question, since generational complaints about the waywardness of youth are pretty constant in modern history — he would shift the burden of proof onto the questioner. Just because the question/complaint has been made before, he would say, doesn’t mean it isn’t true. He’s right, of course, but that only begs the important question, an assertion without argument that technologies like facebook really do change things. It’s a plausible question we should think carefully about, but the point is that he didn’t; instead of showing how constant use of text messages, for example, actually trains us in bad conversation patterns or something (a standard he never really defined), he just assumes that it does because kids text message a lot.

One of his worse historical analogies, I thought, was worth picking on in this regard: he mentioned that you can, in some empirical sense, track how people have lost the ability to use long sentences by looking at how our broadcast media — TV, radio, etc — has come to use shorter and less complicated formulations. Maybe. But not only isn’t correlation the same as causation (how do we know that broadcast usage isn’t a function of changing social standards?) he totally blames the medium without considering what it’s a medium for. After all, suppose broadcast media did nothing but air masterpiece theater and interviews with former Yale professors? If people are so easily controlled by what they hear, then this could as easily be a process of improvement as otherwise.

I’m dubious about the whole thing, actually. For me, the key question is agency, and control. And this is the second thing I noticed about his talk, the fact his examples of people being misused by technology seemed to return again and again to several well-worn clichés: the student IM-ing during class and the child text messaging at the dinner table. In both cases, the problem is less of mis-education than a loss of power (with an underlying assumption that the two are the same): the teacher demands sole control over the student’s attention (instead of earning it by making the student want to listen) while the sacred space of the dinner table has been profaned by the child daring to be bored by his or her parents. Oh, save us from these barbarians! Yet because Deresiewicz positions himself as the teacher whose rights have been infringed upon — how dare his students be uninterested in his lectures! — he ignores what, I think, is really going on here: these new technologies are not transforming the youth of America into savages, they’re giving those youth the tools to escape the spaces that their elders have created to enclose and to shape them, are finding ways to create their own social infrastructures outside the purview of their supervisors. And if there is another constant in modern history, it’s the fact that people who refuse to listen to their “betters” get called savages, and get told that it’s for their best interest.

Anthropologist Dana Boyd, for example, recently posted her dissertation online, arguing, among other things, that the medium of face book isn’t the cause, but a symptom of something altogether different. As she puts it:

One of the most notable shifts I observed in the structural conditions of today’s teens, compared to those of earlier decades, involves their limited opportunities for unregulated, unstructured social interaction.
When asked, teens consistently reported that they would prefer to socialize in physical spaces without constant parental oversight. Given that this is not an option for many of them and that many have more access to networked publics than to unmediated public spaces, social network sites are often an accepted alternative.
Their desire to connect with others is too frequently ignored or disregarded, creating a context in which many must become creative in making space for maintaining connections outside the control of adults.

(…) Through the use of technology, teens are able to socialize with others from inside the boundaries of their homes. This presents new freedoms for teens, but it also provokes new fears among adults.

It’s not surprising that teachers and parents are distressed at the prospect of losing their (probably mythical) monopoly over the attention of minors. And I’m not sure they’re totally wrong to be; not only will I occasionally stand up and defend the virtues of mindless bureaucracy, let’s also not underestimate the utility of governmentality and panoptical surveillance: education is an engine of social normalization that can be very oppressive, but it is also something we all rely upon to form a society. I’ve been in a classroom position of trying to decide whether to use a stick to command my pupils’ attention, a horrifying dilemma for someone from my background, but a real problem deserving serious thoughtwhen teaching kids in Tanzania who are used to it. But that’s just an extreme version of a more general problem: you’re reading my words right now because a tyrannical teacher socialized you; as Frank Zappa put it, everyone in this room is wearing a uniform, and don’t fool yourself. Which is to say, there needs to be a balance, a very complicated once, between the power of the social over the individual and the individual from the social, and the question should not be “which one?” but how to have as much as possible of both. But that’s not the question Deresiewicz is asking, nor is he that interested in actually addressing what is changing; the fact that things are changing is simply regarded as evidence that they are changing for the worse, and that children are to blame. It’s sloppy, frankly, and I blame the antiquated technology of his generation: people who are used to the one-way communication model of the broadcast medium simply lack the mental tools for conversing in the age of the blogger, when technology has given readers and listeners both the ability to speak back, and the accompanying practice in thinking for oneself. It’s sad, but don’t worry; we have social welfare programs like NPR to take care of people and give them something to do with themselves. 😉 lol!!!one!