You Know Who You Are

Alexander Graham Bell speaking into a prototyp...
Image via Wikipedia

Commencement Address

Delivered May 8, 2009

West Shore Community College

Scottville, Michigan

Thank you, President Dillon.  And greetings graduates, parents, families, friends, faculty, staff, and members of the Board of Trustees.

It is an honor to speak to you tonight and share a few thoughts that I hope will stimulate your thinking, not only about your individual futures and occupations, but about the future of life-long learning for all of us. It is something we need to consider because, as educated men and women, we have a responsibility to sustain the tradition of inquiry that all of us have inherited.  Life-long learning today is not just something we do for the sake of our own development, but—we might be bold enough to say—is an aspect of the way we will connect in the future with everyone else on the planet.

Indeed, I think no one can doubt that we are entering an age of profound global interconnectedness.  It may have begun with Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone in 1876—this was, in my view, the single most influential moment in the modern history of human interaction.  And today, few people in the world live without phones, and no one lives in ignorance of their existence. The ubiquity of cell phones in many places in the world has changed our daily behavior is significant ways.  Think about it: How many of us here have stopped a face-to-face conversation to take a cell phone call?  You know who you are.  How many of us talk on the cell phone while driving?  You know who you are.  Did you know that studies show that talking on the cell phone impairs your ability to drive to the same degree as would be the case if you were drunk?  And how has the popularity of text messaging changed our behavior and altered how we think about communication? How many students here tonight have sent or received a text message during a class lecture?  I know you know who you are. How many of you are texting right now?  What effect does this new behavior have on our relationships and manners?  What effect does it have on our ability to concentrate single-mindedly on a given problem or task?  I think it is appropriate, on the eve of your commencement, to take a little time to ensure that we do not go willy-nilly into our shared technologically-oriented future.  We need to stop, even if only for five minutes, to seriously reflect on the power of instantaneous mobile communications in—or should I say over—our lives?

Some of my students, from whom I learn a great deal, claim to be sending 1,000 text messages per month; some even send 3,000; and a few even send 5,000 text messages per month.

Texting on a keyboard phone
Image via Wikipedia

You know who you are!  What’s worse is that your parents know who you are.  Anyway, if you do the math, you’ll discover that 5,000 texts a month is, on average, 167 text messages per day.  When I asked my students what prompted them to text so much, several responded that they get into heated arguments in which having the last word is so easy, so instantaneous, and so conveniently cloaked in digital facelessness that it is truly irresistible.  And what are they arguing about?  Often it is the result of misunderstandings borne of—you guessed it—text messages.  Who knew that the little, unassuming acronym LOL could, in certain contexts, be so thoroughly misunderstood?  Did she mean “laughing out loud”?  Or did she mean “Lots of luck”?

What is most interesting to me about all this is that while my students readily recognize the superficiality of most text message conversations, they nevertheless remain emotionally and economically invested in a state of near continuous communication.  If they are not on their cell phones, they are on MySpace and Facebook, web-based tools that emphasize networks of “friends.”  It is a vastly different world from that of email communication, the mode preferred by most people in my age bracket.  On social network sites, one can share music, pictures, and videos; and a message to one friend can be observed by other friends, thus keeping everyone in the loop.  And if cell phones and social networks are not enough, there is Twitter.  Now people my age are often afraid to ask what Twitter is.  For one thing, asking about it signifies one’s total “outdatedness.”  Plus, questions like Do you Twitter? sound suspiciously inappropriate, a kind of blue slang we can only imagine the meaning of.  And it’s hard to talk about twittering and take one’s self seriously at the same time.  For those of you who feel like technological backwaters left languishing on the outskirts of the digital jungle—you know who you are—I’ll  just tell you: Twitter is micro-blogging.  On Twitter, you have a 140 characters in which to say something.  Some people “tweet” all day long in 140-character bursts, and have hundreds of followers listening to their twitterings.

If we have decided that communication not only can be, but ought to be, done with such dramatic brevity, then we must admit that the “now” is becoming smaller at an ever-increasing pace.  As educated people this has to arouse our curiosity, if not our concern.  And not only is the “now” of communication being foreshortened, but so is technological dependability.  It used to be that a personal computer became obsolete in about four years.  Today computers become obsolete in, at the outside, two years.  And what is true for communication and technology is true for information at large.  It is presently estimated that what students learn in the first year of college is outdated by the time they are juniors.  It is has also been suggested that, paradoxically, we educators are today preparing you for jobs that do not yet exist.  It used to be that the daily newspaper had captured the “now” better than anything else.  Radio and television did some serious damage to that, but they are nothing compared to online news sources that are updated not just every day, not even every hour, but every minute, and, yes, even every second—and they are crushing the life out of the traditional paper news source.  To speak of the “now” is becoming meaningless.  The “now” is shrinking to the vanishing point.  Nova Spivac, the brains and energy behind the cutting edge web technology known as Twine, said yesterday—in a Twitter post, by the way—that  we need to stop referring to the “now” and start referring to the “stream.”

Though we may have concerns about how these technologies might “dumb down” our powers of communication, we have a responsibility as educated people to consider all sides of an issue.  In this case, we need to think about the possible advantages to the “stream”  My guess—and it is only a guess—is that the trend toward continuous communication is the result of two inexorable social pressures: information overload resulting from the “stream” of continuous obsolescence; and a resulting pandemic of knowledge indeterminacy.  Whether we realize it or not, we are evolving out of a reality in which information was once manageable and characterized by fairly enduring sets of values and attitudes into a world in which relativism, indeterminacy, and educational uncertainty threaten our animal craving for that which is stable and known.

Because we can no longer manage information, we are having to merge with it.

We . . . are . . . information.  If you doubt this, check your thinking with your friendly neighborhood identity thief.  He knows who you are.

When you start to wonder about knowledge as something that you are rather than something that you acquire, something important has happened.  You are beginning to change the definitions of teaching and learning.  You are beginning to suggest that the long-standing dualism of identities known as “student” and “teacher” might melt away.  It means that we are moving from the post-Industrial Information age to the age of the Learning Intensive Society.  It is a planetary society premised on the semantic web or  “Web 3.0.”  If you haven’t heard of the semantic web, it is a global initiative that seeks to change the world of knowledge acquisition forever, one that employs machine intelligences to instantly discover and retrieve information—and even then to modify it.  The web’s trillions of pages of information become, not just a global resource, not just a trillion haystacks in which we seek the proverbial needle, but an ever-evolving galaxy of awareness that actually is who we are at any given moment in time.

I want to emphasize, graduates, that such technology is not merely at the pipe-dream stage of development.  These things are becoming a reality today.  In fact, I used one semantic web application to help me with this speech.  While I wrote, a machine intelligence understood what I was writing, and without any help from me, began to assemble images, web sources, and tags that were directly relevant to my work.

I am telling you all this because I really believe that we are on the brink of another technology-based paradigm shift that will affect everyone, from poets to accountants, from nurses to historians, from welders to philosophers.  To be sure, I am speaking of a disruptive technology, one in which our values will be challenged.  Yet learned bodies are already suggesting that we bring an end to compulsory schooling as we know it and embrace the self-discovering identity of the future.

A cover of Journal of Web Semantics
Image via Wikipedia

Graduates, your faculty is proud of you.  We know that if you have succeeded so far in learning, that you will continue to do so, even through the torrents of technological change.  Great power and promise reside there for the perpetuation of our shared value of a good education.  Having an education will mean that you can adapt to whatever comes.  You will be able to consider new-found behaviors and attitudes with a critically balanced eye.  You will be able to do this because, as educated people, you are in possession, not just of skills for application in the work place, but of thinking skills.  You are in possession of core abilities that will allow you to adapt to any new environment.  Foster critical thinking.  Examine everything.  Withhold judgment as long as is reasonable.  Know who you are.

Graduates, I congratulate you all on a job well done!

Thank you very much for listening.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.