The end of class

I’ve taken to writing little end-of-class reflections, which I read to my students on the last day. Here’s my reflection on my last day teaching at Whittier College. (The class was about digital cultures; you can find some of the course materials online at GitHub.)

Coda: Anthropology of Digital Cultures

Let’s start out with a definitional question. Does this expression, “digital culture,” actually mean anything? In one sense, a digital culture is really just a culture. All cultures have technology. All cultures have media. All cultures therefore also have ideologies about their media, which enable people to actually communicate (or have communications breakdowns). So “digital culture” just becomes a synonym for “the world you live in.” That we live in.

The class has thus been partly an exploration of the social world writ large. That’s why we’ve talked about what it means even to have an identity. (Is your identity your difference from everyone else? is it your uniqueness? or is it also your commonalities with others? your belonging to something shared?) We’ve talked about how people show their status (with their follower counts), try to mask their status (like with their credit scores), then try to show them again. We talked about what memes are — ironically, the Internet Memes that everyone thinks of as “memes” are themselves a meme, in the general sense of a little reproducible unit of culture. We talked about the funny histories of user interfaces – the obsolete tech, the magnifying glass or old-school telephone handset that’s been turned into a computer icon that we all recognize, even though we practically never encounter the original thing.

Part of the agenda has been about demystifying. That’s why I’ve tried to teach you a very little bit about how the technology actually works. We noted early on that the internet is not the web — the internet being something like a series of “pipes” that move data back and forth, “the web” being a specific type of data (and a form of culture and interaction) that moves across these pipes. We saw what happens when you actually load a web page in your computer. (You guys all remember what a DNS lookup is, right?) More recently we saw some of the nuts and bolts of how an internet connection can actually reach an out-of-the-way place, like a distant reservation in the mountainous deserts of San Diego County. We saw what it would look like to try to “hack” something: it looks boring, unlike the movies, like a bunch of text scrolling across a computer screen. You don’t need to know much of anything to be a hacker, you just download something and press go. We saw the campus server equipment: it just looks like a bunch of machinery with flashing lights. You don’t learn much from looking at the flashing lights; you learn more from looking at the people interacting with them, like the full-time staff whose job is to get anxious if the server indicators aren’t all green. I emphasize that my purpose in talking to you about how things work is not to make you tech experts. It’s just to insist to you that this stuff is not very mysterious. If you want to understand what’s happening around you, you can. It’s built by humans; it’s mostly still understandable by humans.

But our agenda is also about showing how things get mystified. This for me is why The Matrix was worth watching in our class, even though it’s getting old: because it dramatizes a digital world where blatantly dehumanizing things are going on. If you’re an online personality, or even an everyday user of social media, you can find yourself branding yourself, “selling” yourself, crafting an image that you get stuck with… Even when that’s lucrative, it seems to push people into sad forms of self-concealment, stuck with a personal brand based on “sharing everything online,” even though it’s always impossible to actually share everything. Authenticity is often an act — and perhaps web technology tends to make that easier, not harder. We talked about how things start to seem natural — through repetitive motion, through habit — even though they aren’t. I guarantee you that in a previous world, that gesture that Katie so excellently observed, where people kind of sneak their phones down into their pockets or try to hide them (say from the teacher), did not exist. We also talked about PostSecret, a site where people disclose things to an anonymous internet public at times, perhaps, to avoid actually having to apologize to people close to them whom they harmed. Digital worlds are full of forms of concealment.

As a point of comparative method, I’ve tried to strike some kind of balance between letting you explore your personal experience and showing you things you wouldn’t otherwise encounter. Many of you wouldn’t otherwise encounter The Matrix or the weird Conscience of a Hacker. I was also more interested to see that you largely are quite far removed from professional tech culture, of the affluent San Francisco/Silicon Valley type. Even though that’s right here in California, it’s really still a different world. And that’s an interesting thing about digital cultures: they keep us separate from people who are practically right next to us. How many of you use Snapchat to communicate with the residents of those homes just across the street from campus on Philadelphia? (Only one in twenty-five, I observe.)

It’s hard to get outside your comfort zone, and that’s just as true in the digital world as in the physical landscape. Exploring isn’t something that just happens. The world is too overwhelming and too vast. We don’t know where to start. That’s why one major part of the class has been to talk about how to do research: it helps you focus your attention, helps take you someplace new. That’s why I’ve had you make scrapbooks and why we talked a lot about what makes a good question. How are things gendered? How are things racialized? How are things classed? What gets left unsaid? Who’s really in charge? Who profits and who labors? What kinds of rationalizations are getting fed to you?

This gets to the last part of the class, which has been to break down a bit of the mythology around education and teaching. You all know that if I could invent a utopian classroom, it wouldn’t be organized quite like this one. It would have less bossiness, less authoritarian structure, less of a divide between teacher and student. But we’re in a college where classes are taught a certain way, which is hard for us to stray from, and I’m certainly not criticizing anyone for their style of inhabiting actually-existing educational institutions. I’m just suggesting that you should make a point of not naturalizing educational scripts that are fed to you. That raises further questions: What is education really for? Does it really make any sense? Do you really need to respect the teacher’s authority? When is that a good idea and when is that arbitrary? Again, I’m not here to tell you the answers to these questions. Just to encourage you to ask them.

Thanks for coming, everybody.