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My Favorite Worst Place of All: The Internet

February 24, 2014

We all have a list of crystalline moments that capture not only “where were you” literarily but also “where were you” in all the other ways it is possible to be. My list includes the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, the Challenger disaster, the unknown protestor of Tiananmen Square, the attack of 9/11, as well as others. Those moments that define you to some extent because the moment is frozen in your memories.

Another one of my moments took place in July of 1994. My husband was working in the IT department of Pacific University where I was a graduate student, happily awash in the educational issues of Jonathon Kozol’s Savage Inequalities and Brooks and Brooks’ Constructivist Classroom. After class, I headed into the bowels of Marsh Hall to meet him. It was late and he was alone in the cave of an office he shared with a bunch of other technologically minded folks. Imagine a windowless place, buzzing and humming, and you would have a good idea of what the IT office under the stairs was like back then.

I came in and enjoyed the arctic air conditioning compared to the heat outside. And then he said three words that changed everything.

“Check this out.”

To my eye, the screen on his computer didn’t look very interesting. Then he asked me to type something. Anything. I don’t remember what I typed but I remember the blinking cursor. “You just talked to some professor in Minnesota,” Mister Soandso told me.

That was my introduction to what would eventually become the internet. I was “emailing” a professor or grad student at the University of Minnesota using Gopher and Pine.

I turned to Mister Soandso, and without a bit of hesitancy told him, “this is going to change everything in education. It’s going to change everything.” I knew without a doubt back then that the people who could access this kind of information would have the one thing that the “haves” have always had: access. Access to information equals knowledge which equals power.

My experience behind the door under the stairs was Potter-like in many ways – one event that truly did change everything, the least of which was my future master’s thesis. I knew it would change things, I just couldn’t fathom how much.

I love the way technology and our access of that technology has changed things. But one thing it did that I never thought would happen is the opening of my own little “pandoraesque” box of obsessive tendencies. In a word, the internet is my biggest time-suck. I  might call it “research” but it is something I can find myself spending far too much time doing. With a few clicks or presses with my thumb, I can know things. There’s no scribbling notes to myself and heading to the library. Between my computer and my smartphone, if my interest is piqued, all I have to do is run a few searches and the answer is right there. I don’t even have to put on pants to learn stuff anymore!

But the negative to all this available knowledge, for a person like me, is the tendency to get cyber-lost – to spend way too much time reading every article on a subject, search for just one more thing, do just one more thing. And then I start the next morning overly tired, once again.

I may be a bit tongue-in-cheek with that paragraph above but it isn’t all roses with the advent of technology. Because technology did change everything. And now that net neutrality is not what it used to be, it really will be the game changer for people – separating the haves and the have-nots in a way unheard of back in the mid 20th century.

And even if the issue of which student uses the most recent textbook online versus uses the old copy available at the school doesn’t matter to you, think of this. Once, we only knew what the news outlets told us. Now, every person with a phone is able to transmit the images of peace and violence to all parts of the world. When that conduit is shut-down, no one knows what is happening.

So the next time you google something, whether it’s the best price of grapes or new cars, think about how much your life has changed since the professors were talking to people in other universities via the equivalent of a party-line. Sure, you were able to figure out what all the tweaking nonsense was about, and that was good. But what else can you learn about that will make both yourself and the world better?

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  1. February 24, 2014 at 2:06 pm

    Brilliant! You’re right; ‘access’ is King now. But there’s a risk to all this access. As everyone now gets connected and enjoys ‘access’, the general public is struggling to find and listen to the voice who have actual authority. Take news as an example. Twitter ‘news’ is often nothing more than rumor. Yesterday, the Fox twitter account incorrectly tweeted the winner of the Daytona 500 when someone watching a rebroadcast of the 2013 race saw Jimmie Johnson take the checkered flag. Keep in mind the rebroadcast was aired on the Fox network. That announcment made it all over the world in a matter of minutes and it was completely false. This FORCES us to be smarter, to take the time to verify and confirm and do a little research before we blindly assume everything we see online is a fact.

  2. February 24, 2014 at 3:04 pm

    Since childhood, I have read a lot of science fiction. One of the tropes of science fiction is the evolution of humanity into a “hive mind,” kind of a group intelligence but with intelligent individuals instead of the little robots we call ants, bees, and mole rats. Is the Internet the first baby steps of such creatures?

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