Tag Archives: Facebook

Dreaming of Heaven? Connection and Disconnection in Cathy Davidson’s Commencement address at UNC

Cathy Davidson and I crossed paths very briefly at Duke what now seems ages ago, she one of the second wave of important hires during Duke’s heyday in the late 80s and 90s, me a graduate student nearly finished and regretting that I didn’t have a chance to have what the graduate student scuttlebutt told me was a great professor.  I was sorry to miss the connection.  And its one of the ironies of our current information age that I am more “connected” to her now in some respects than I ever was during the single year we were in physical proximity at Duke:  following her tweets, following her blog at HASTAC, checking in on this or that review or interview as it pops up on my twitter feed or in this or that electronic medium.

I’m sure, of course, that she has no idea who I am.

In the past several years, of course, Davidson has become one of the great intellectual cheerleaders for the ways our current digital immersion is changing us as human beings, much for the better in Davidson’s understanding.  Recently Davidson gave the commencement address at the UNC school of Information and Library Science and emphasized the the ways in which our information age is changing even our understanding of post-collegiate adulthood in the ways it enables or seems to enable the possibility of permanent connection.

How do you become an adult?   My students and I spent our last class together talking about the many issues at the heart of this complex, unanswerable question, the one none of us ever stops asking.  One young woman in my class noted that, while being a student meant being constantly together—in dorms, at parties, in class—life on the other side of graduation seemed dauntingly “individual.”  Someone else piped up that at least that problem could be solved with a list serv or a Facebook page.  From the occasional email I receive from one or another of them, I know the students in that class came up with a way to still stay in touch with one another. 

 In the fourth great Information Age,  distance doesn’t have to mean loss in the same way it once did.  If Modernity—the third Industrial Age of Information—was characterized by alienation, how can we use the conditions of our connected Information Age to lessen human alienation, disruption of community, separation, loss?  I’m talking about the deep  “social life of information,” as John Seely Brown would say, not just its technological affordances.  How can we make sure that we use the communication technologies of our Age to help one another, even as our lives take us to different destinations?  How can we make sure our social networks are also our human and humane safety net?  

via Connection in the Age of Information: Commencement Address, School of Information and Library Science, UNC | HASTAC.

At the end of her address Davidson asked the graduates from UNC–ILS to stand and address one another:

And now make your colleague a promise. The words are simple, but powerful, and I know you won’t forget them:  Please say to one another, “I promise we will stay connected.” 

There’s something powerful and affecting about this, but I’ll admit that it gave me some pause, both in the fact that I think it is a promise that is fundamentally impossible to keep, even amidst the powers of our social networks, and in the fact that I’m not sure it would be an absolutely positive thing if we were able to keep it faithfully.

The dream of permanent and universal connection, of course, is a dream of heaven, an infinite and unending reconciliation whereby the living and the dead speak one to another in love without ceasing.  But there are many reasons why this remains a dream of heaven rather than fact of life, not least being our finite capacity for connection.  According to some cognitive theorists, human beings have the capacity for maintaining stable relationships with at most about 200 to 250 people, with many putting the number much lower.  I am not a cognitive scientist, so I won’t argue for the accuracy of a number, and I cant really remember at the moment whether Davidson addresses this idea in her recent work, but to me the general principle seems convincing.  While the internet might offer the allure of infinite connection, and while we might always be able to add more computing power to our servers, and while the human brain is no doubt not yet tapped out in its capacities, it remains the case that we are finite, limited, and….human.  This means that while I value the 600 friends I have on Facebook and the much smaller congregation that visits my blog and those who follow me or whom I follow on Twitter, and a number with whom I have old-fashioned and boring face to face relationships in the flesh, I am meaningfully and continuously connected to only a very few of them comparative to the number of connections I have in the abstract.  This leads to the well-known phenomenon of the joyous and thrilling reconnection with high school friends on Facebook, followed by long fallow periods punctuated only by the thumbs up “like” button for the occasional post about  new grandchildren. We are connected, but we are mostly still disconnected.

And, I would say, a good thing too.

That is, it seems to me that there can be significant values to becoming disconnected, whether intentionally or not.  For one thing, disconnection gives space for the experience of the different and unfamiliar.  One concern we’ve had in our study abroad programs is that students will sometimes stay so connected to the folks back home–i.e. their online comfort zone–that they will not fully immerse in or connect with the cultures that they are visiting.  In other words, they miss an opportunity for new growth and engagement with difference because they are unwilling to let go of the connections they already have and are working, sometimes feverishly, to maintain.

Stretched through time, we might say that something very similar occurs if it becomes imperative that we maintain connections with communities, with the relational self, of our past to the extent that we cannot engage with the relational possibilities of our present.  In order to be fully present to those connections that are actually significant to me–even those relationships that are maintained primarily online–I have to let hordes and hordes of relationships die or lie fallow, maintained only through the fiction of connection that my Facebook and Twitter Newsfeeds happen to allow.

Of course, I don’t think saying any of this is necessarily earth shattering.  I am very sure that the vast majority of my Facebook connections are not pining away about the fact that I am not working hard at maintaining strong connections with every single one of them.  Indeed, I doubt the vast majority of them will even know I wrote this blog since they will miss it on their Newsfeed.  Indeed a good many of them are probably secretly annoyed that I write a daily blog that appears on their newsfeed, but for the sake of our connection they graciously overlook the annoyance.

On the other hand, I do think there is a broad principle about what it means to be human that’s at stake.  Connection isn’t the only value.  Losing connection, separation, dying to some things and people and selves so some new selves can live.  These are values that our age doesn’t talk much about, caught up as we are in our dreams of a heaven of infinite connection. They are, however, facts and even values that make any kind of living at all possible.

More observations on getting started with Digital Humanities

On the train home after a good day in Philly. The afternoon sessions focused a good deal on project management. David and I both agreed that in some respects it was a session that could have been presented at any kind of meeting whatsoever and didn’t seem particularly geared toward digital humanities issues. However, I do think that it is germane to humanists simply because it goes back to the whole issue of working collaboratively. I think we are more or less trained to work alone with a very few exceptions in our humanities disciplines; indeed, we glorify, support, and materially reward working alone as I suggested in my last post on THATCamp Philly. So I think it is helpful for humanists to think through very basic things like what it takes to plan a project, what it takes to run a meeting, what it takes to break a project down in to workable parts, what it takes to keep people running on schedule, what it takes to make people actually collaborate instead of setting off on their own (and instead of just providing them with information or telling them what to do–i.e. holding non-collaborative meetings). These are all issues that do not come naturally to humanists, and in many respects I think I am only figuring them out now after 7 years as a department chair and three years as a dean. These skills are essential if digital humanities requires collaborative work in order to function at any kind of high level.

Among the very simple gains from the day was an introduction to the possibilities of Google Docs. This comes as no surprise to the rest of the world, I’m sure, but I really have not moved out of the structured environs of a office software suite and/or a learning management system. IN my very brief exposure, google docs made these methods of doing work seems really quite clunky and inconvenient, though I haven’t actually tried to work with Google docs at this point. I really want to figure out a way of conducting some of my basic work in this environment, with shared documents in the cloud. We need to be having upside down meetings in some respect–where a lot of stuff gets done in virtual or distanced environments so that face to face meetings can be used for other kinds of high level issues. I’m not sure where to begin, but I want to experiment a little more personally and then see if there’s any way of incorporating it in to some of the meetings I’m responsible for as a dean.

David and I both agreed that we were terribly out of our league when it came to understanding some of the basic language and references to what was going on. We are both disappointed that we won’t be able to come back tomorrow since we both intuited in some sense that it would be better to gain this knowledge by actually plunging in and trying to make sense of what people are doing on actual projects, rather than trying to fill in all the background before we ever get started. If I’m right that this is a great deal about gaining facility in a language, I think both David and I arrived at the conclusion that it would be better to somehow learn by immersion rather than believing that we should learn all the grammatical rules. In that sense, maybe there is no right place to start, and we just have to have a practical goal. Where would we like to get in the landscape and start walking there. We’ll figure out what we need as we go along.

A couple of final notes:

I am getting too old to get up at 4:00 after going to bed at 11:30.

Trying to keep up with Facebook while also listening to a lecture does not work, no matter what my students say.