Understanding our electronic age

As our world goes about changing itself at a phenomenal pace into a different kind of place, a school like GW faces all kinds of problems as it strives for self-definition. Should it resist the pull of the internet by making its campus ever more attractive, ever more laden with interest and entertainment? Or would we be better off dedicating a big chunk of our resources to a pioneering program aimed at fully understanding our newly electronic universe, in which whole states of mind – widely shared illusions or delusions – go whistling by at record speed?

As universities so often like to point out, they invented the very notion of an information-based world in which the questions we ask determine the answers we receive. They should therefore be regarded by their respective societies as leaders of the pack when it comes to understanding the nature of our fast-moving Information Age. But the notion persists among our fellow citizens that they can learn more about the future from twenty-something information gurus than from the institutions responsible for higher education, which seem locked into their long-term bureaucratic complacencies.

That is a prejudice of course, but it is one to which we should pay careful attention. Even our most ardent defenders would agree that whatever else we do, we do not move swiftly. Whereas the pacing in our more-and-more electronic world is breathless, breathlessness – in the academic context – is closely associated with mindlessness. Real thinking, universities have always believed, takes time, and what does not take time therefore qualifies as journalism rather than serious academic study.

But now – today – a school like GW must learn how to deal with a planet on which more and more people lead journalistic lives. They spend the day seated in front of keyboards on which – to earn a living, to find a sexual or romantic partner, to figure out whether they should really trust their doctors – they carelessly grind out and ceaselessly decode words, sentences and paragraphs.

A whole world in a nonstop process of interpersonal communication – had they made that notion into a Star Trek episode, it would no doubt have been regarded as the weakest of the bunch. Do you mean to tell me, William Shatner would have declaimed to Leonard Nemoy, that all of these millions of people have been drawn into this style of life because they find looking at screens and punching keyboards hypnotic? To which Mr. Spock would no doubt have replied: Strange as it may seem, Captain Kirk, they almost never stop to even consider the possibility that they are in a state of mass or common hypnosis.

Most of us would agree that the words, images and music that may be flooding into our minds are having some kind of an effect on our thinking. Among other things, that fact helps to explain the many codes that govern what we can actually experience either on television or at the multiplex or in our daily newspapers. Some words, brandished on posters during the 1960s, are now routinely represented by dots again. Songs preaching the commission of massacre or rape get ceaseless attention from our politicians as they emphasize the need for more and better control. Porn films, a popular rage of the 1970s, are once again those kinds of movies, made to order for contemplation by degenerates in the neighborhoods sensible people avoid. All of that is because we agree that input of any kind ultimately affects our output.

Universities, it seems to me – and most of all, a university like GW – ought to be thinking about the opportunities offered to them by the internet even as they cast a cold eye on an internet-smitten planet, whose inhabitants increasingly mean by reality that which appears on a screen.

A planet like that – as Captain Kirk would have agreed – is a scary place. All of the 19th and 20th century images of hypnotism are relevant when we try to explain that our innermost fantasies are somehow being galvanized by electronic experience. But only think back to how movies used to affect you when you were 10 or 11 years of age – how many hours it took before you were finally, psychologically out of it – and you will probably agree that this is a subject worthy of attention from schools of higher education.

Indeed, one of the great advantages that the internet may ultimately offer to colleges and universities is its capacity to recreate all around us the feeling of living in an altogether different society or culture. Using only the technology already available, we can put ourselves back into ancient Athens or Babylon, Nazi Germany or Renaissance Italy, the Paris of Napoleon the general and the Paris of Napoleon the emperor.

If we make use of the internet for academic purposes like that, we could be said to be self-hypnotizing advertently. Within a short time, we will be reading hieroglyphics like some old Egyptian priest in charge of keeping up the monuments. Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets will pose no more of a challenge than this week’s Time or Newsweek. And will the professor in Humanities 102 ever look nervous when we walk into his classroom?

And if those ideas cannot be ruled out as impossible fantasies, then what exactly must we learn to rule in?

-The writer is president and professor of public administration.

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