Saturday, September 4, 2010

Civilizing Us Digitally

Do our technological tools lead us toward or away from being civilized?

Daniel's recent post discussed simulations, through which parts of the world are modeled by computers in order to ask important questions about physical phenomena like weather or oil spills. In a way, this is how you can think about history or about literature. Stories (both the true and fictional sorts) are simulations. When we read Thomas More's Utopia, it models social phenomena, which might be as vital as those physically-oriented simulations Daniel mentioned.  Kevin Watson rightly pointed out that Utopia was not a place without problems (Andrew DeWitt noted that slavery was troublingly part of More's ideal place). Fine. The problems within a fictional utopia yield useful information for the real world. We can appreciate history and literature as a set of experiments from the past to color the present.

Our digital world is a richly experimental world, combining the data-driven world of science with various social sandboxes. Video games are often condemned as the end of civilization (or at least the end of reading). What about Sid Meier's famous computer game, Civilization? You start in 4000 B.C. and attempt to engineer a society to stand the test of time.

Video games are called antisocial, but if you are learning the various dynamic factors that influence the rise of nations across centuries, isn't that a kind of valuable knowledge? Maybe this sort of gaming could be the sort of "civic media" described in Dalton Haslam's recent blog post:
the use of media and information to help society function in the the way that it should. It helps foster democratic ideals and leads to greater awareness as citizens
Media advancing democratic ideals, greasing the wheels of society. Sounds like technology and media are definitely tools for advancing civilization. It's true that advances in communications technology have generally meant greater participation from more people within their societies. This is where social idealism and technological utopianism combine: if we can only get a laptop for every child in the world, we'll soon have global democracy (and the end of poverty, etc.).

Studying a bit of Thomas More's Utopia is a good place to begin our thinking through digital civilization. As Mike Lemon points out in his recent post, the narrator of Utopia speaks admiringly of Utopians learning from the Greeks, yet the constant ironic tone puts this admiration in question. As Mike says, "Is he truly admiring the idea of information dissemination, or is he poking fun at the current trend of rediscovery"? Maybe Thomas More was playing with readers the way we might play with Sid Meier's game, Civilization.

Part of Renaissance thinking was devoted to idealizing (especially over ancient civilizations), and part of it was devoted to skepticism. That's why you get something like More's Utopia -- literally meaning a place that is "not" (u-topia) and a place that is good (eu-topia).  That's probably a healthy place to be during this Digital Renaissance of today.

Civilization itself is an ideal, going back to Plato's Republic or to St. Augustine's City of God. But in contrast to what? The root word of civilization is the Latin civis, or "city." Are cities inherently ideal -- as opposed to rural places? That's very problematic. As writers like Thoreau and Wordsworth (or environmentalists like John Muir, Rachel Carson, or Edward Abbey) have illustrated so well, our connection with earthy, sky, and land may be more profoundly meaningful than the artifice and pollutions of city life. Are we aspiring to a dystopia by privileging "civilization"?

Nepalese women using One Laptop computers on the way to Mt. Everest base camp
And worse, by focusing on DIGITAL civilization, are we only distancing ourselves further from the authenticity of our physical environments and from friends and family? We've all known the scenario of technology sucking hours away, isolating us as we hover over screens, ignoring the flesh-and-blood people that are nearby. Is technology civilizing us or isolating us?

I've been interested by Kristen Cardon's musings about technology and education in her blog. She's studying Tibetans and technology, and she is asking some tough questions:
Why do we, along with Tibetans see a holy grail in classroom technology? Given that some technologies actually improve the classroom, which ones detract?
I honestly don't know how to answer those hard questions. Even as we construct this class, Dr. Zappala and I anguish over whether we are focusing too much on means (digital tools) and not enough on ends (course content).

Let's up the ante even more. Maybe we're just gearing up for oppression through our technology in the classroom (either being oppressed or being oppressors). One of my recent students, Allison Frost, used her research blog to study the ways that China is truly ramping up in the digital age into Big Brother -- the overlords of George Orwell's 1984. At first I thought this was a simplistic analogy, but her research was very convincing. In the hands of those who wish to monitor and micromanage, technology is a powerful agency.

And if you look at how gambling, pornography, terrorism -- or even just spam, uncivil discourse, bullying, and widespread idiocy -- have spread rampantly through technology, it's easy to see see digital civilization as an oxymoron. We've invented the means to amplify our own worse tendencies to the point of moral and physical self-destruction.

Photos: 1) flickr - graye; 2) flickr - One Laptop Per Child