I was joking with my friend Amy the other night about how much we each must have liked homework when we were in school, because we chose a profession that guaranteed we’d never be without it! We were talking on the phone instead of meeting for dinner because we both had a stack of papers to grade—not to mention monographs to read if we finished the grading. Did we know when we started on this path that we would always & forever be doing homework? It seems that the more tools we add to our arsenal, the more work we do! I’m thinking that something needs to be re-evaluated!
I’m in this New Media seminar facilitated by Gardner Campbell, and I don’t think he actually told us [up front] how much homework he would be assigning. . . Hmmmmm. The “homework” he assigns is not onerous; nevertheless it takes up time. It makes me think about the tasks I assign my students and about what is necessary vs. what is pleasurable and the value of either or both. I’m stewing over this question, searching for meaning beyond the surface, perhaps because this has an application to what we are reading in the New Media seminar. Do new gadgets and tools make the burden lighter or perhaps even change the focus or even the the nature of our work? There could be a danger in that. I don’t want to start on a discussion of I-am-what-I-do. . . but this sort of begs the question, doesn’t it? I’m headed into deep waters here, and so I want to back up to gadgets and tools: they hold such an appeal because they add value to our work and play. They both simplify AND complicate our lives.
Do you remember the earliest e-mail programs? As I read “Personal Dynamic Media,” and thought about the seeming prescience of Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg in 1977 regarding electronic tools of the Imagined Future, envisioning the “small talk” and “dynabook” that would someday be the laptop, I recalled those early word processing programs we all used, and then my first experiences with e-mail when the owner of a brand new home town internet company drove to my house in his little beatup car to give me a floppy disk so I could install Eudora on my A drive. If only we could have envisioned THEN where all that would lead, huh?
“I think this will work,” he said. “If it doesn’t, let me know, and we’ll figure something out.” I wondered if that meant I was his first actual customer. (Now his company is a multi-million dollar entity covering half a state and beyond!) Nevermind. I couldn’t wait to get started! I asked if you remembered, and wow—I sometimes remind myself about those days of continuous waiting between commands, constant computer crashing due to who-knows-what, and no questions asked….we all just booted up again and told whoever might be on the ‘other end’ “sorry, computer crashed,” and continued on. No worries. ASCII and ms-dos were a way of life. Now, when I call my nationally-based ISP it’s not so hometown-ey, and I try to laugh about all this when the well-meaning computer tech on the ‘other end’ insists on spelling ping and ipconfig one letter at a time with identifying alpha-mnemonics. They are “teaching” me in ways I don’t even need; helping me traverse a different kind of language barrier. What is that about? I no longer accept computer crashing, and I want to know why the internet is slow or absent. There are certain tools I NEED and then…. I think about why I need it. Is my sense of urgency so I can grade papers online till all hours? That seems like perhaps the internet is controlling MY life, rather than existing as a tool to make life somehow better. What happened to efficiency and pleasure being the reason I wanted these tools? Do the tools I have helped create and shape own me?
Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game might be my favorite book series of all time. (It’s always at least in my top 5.) Far and away, my favorite character is Jane. I like to say that I identify with Jane, although my daughter says, “No Mom, you’re not Jane; you’re the Hive Queen.” That, I suppose is a different story for another day…. Anyway, Jane is an anomaly, much like the internet, who exists existentially as she is accessed by those who utilize her. She is as powerful as they want her to be, and her sense of her “self” (if we can call it that) is relative to their use. Interestingly, Card wrote the story and developed the character before the internet was “born,” so in some ways his envisioning of the character “Jane” is similar to what we have encountered in the dynamics posed by J.C.R. Licklider in his article “Man-Computer Simbiosis” and Doug Engelbart in “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.” Much of the drama in Card’s universe surrounds the idea of the bond between Ender, the main character, and Jane. As with the question posed by Licklider and Engelbert: whether or not a tool is an extension of our self or whether a tool replicates human action and perhaps becomes something else. This is, of course, often the “stuff” of science fiction, but it’s an important question. How important our tools become in the way we Imagine our individual worlds and the Universe shapes the way we live our lives and direct the course of the future. If we cannot function in any meaningful way without the present configuration of our tools, then I wonder what that means about our self qua self? When Ender turns Jane “off” he irrevocably alters his life—and Jane’s, but she does not die. Jane has by that time become so pervasive throughout the entire world and exists in so many places/in so many ways that she exists elsewhere and elsehow. In a combination of ultimate grief and rage at the rejection from Ender, Jane actually goes on to control the entire Universe, like a goddess with ultimate power.
Just as ancient Greeks had to learn the lessons Demeter taught in order to assuage the goddess’ rage so they could enjoy the fruits of the land, the people in Card’s world have to follow the rules Jane establishes in order to access the power she holds (which they need/want).
In our New Media Seminar, we talk about this same process. Many participants have talked about the so-called rules & protocols that exist for the privilege of talking and dealing with machines. Tools, by their nature exist in a world of rules. It doesn’t seem to matter if they are created in our image, or if they exist as extensions or as replications. We as human beings have to follow certain protocols in order to utilize their power. And we want to.
There are lots of tricky new media gadgets, toys, & tools to play with, and many of them make our classrooms better learning environments, but I wonder how many of them serve as extensions of who we really are and which of them turn us into the tool itself. I don’t really want to BE Jane. I would like to be partnered with “her” in some way that makes my classroom richer. I can benefit from Jane’s access to the Universe beyond my reach. She can probably help me traverse the places where the language barrier still exists. The key is probably to find the on/off button, and to determine which tools fit the individual circumstances and identifying markers that would truly enrich life and add depth and meaning to my students’ experiences. Is that why I keep assigning myself homework?