An emeritus professor of literature explores the implications of our relationship with technology
Helene Moglen has noticed a considerable shift among her students in recent years. The UC Santa Cruz emeritus dean of humanities and professor of literature came to the school in 1978, retired in 2008, and continued to teach one class—The Gothic Imagination in Fiction and Film—until this year. Although she had taught this particular course to thousands of pupils over the years, the last few batches seemed different.
“I started to notice that there were some differences in what the students read, what they resisted, how much they read, the ways in which they engaged with text, the kinds of questions they asked, and the kinds of questions they weren’t asking,” Moglen says. “I began to be very curious.”
These changes arrived with the first crops of students considered to be technology “natives”—in Moglen’s words, “people who have had computers centrally in their lives from the time they were very little.”
She surveyed colleagues and learned that faculty across the humanities were teaching fewer texts in their classes and having lower expectations for what students would get from the texts they still taught. In The Gothic Imagination, Moglen found that students could no longer handle Joseph Conrad’s “The Heart of Darkness,” which her classes had read for decades. “Students don’t want to read it anymore—it’s too hard,” she says. “Because it’s so much about style, and if you’re spending your time tweeting, style isn’t going to be your thing.”
Facebook became an important topic of discussion in The Gothic Imagination in its last years, contemplated alongside the class’ central text, “Frankenstein,” by Mary Shelley. Just in time for Halloween, Moglen will give a Tuesday, Oct. 29 talk on the subject, raising the question of whether there is a Frankenstein’s monster in our midst (or, rather, at our fingertips). The event, “From Frankenstein to Facebook: Reflections on the Dissolution of the Humanities,” takes place at 7 p.m. at the UCSC Music Recital Hall.
In an illuminating recent conversation with GT, Moglen stressed that she is neither arguing that it is good nor bad that our lives have become so intertwined with technology. The aim of her undertaking of this topic, rather, is to simply raise people’s consciousness about their relationship to technology.
GT: Do you believe that the changes you observed among students correlate with the rise in use of technology?
Moglen: I do. But I don’t want to say that I understand what these changes are. There’s always a kind of ‘the sky is falling’ attitude that we all have in every era, but my feeling is not so much that the sky is falling, but that something very momentous has happened—that with this new technology there has been a dramatic shift in consciousness and that it seems to be shifting in ways that we want to better understand. I don’t have a fantasy thatcomputers will go away. And I don’t think I’m a technophobe. I’m very interested in having my own consciousness raised and to raise consciousness about what it means to live so closely to technology, and even to be, to some extent, obsessed with it and addicted to it, which I think many people are. … I don’t want to just tell a story of loss and lack; there are also enormously interesting gains and differences.
What’s an example of one of those differences?
Young people have had enormous access to information. They know how to use certain information machines and can do that very efficiently. But information isn’t knowledge. It can be quite jarring reading student work in that there is quite sophisticated reference but not as sophisticated of a way of putting an argument together or knowing where an argument is going.
In The Gothic Imagination, you had students do a writing assignment about Facebook in which it is compared to Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. Describe the assignment for us.
I want [students] to develop a certain kind of consciousness about their relation to technology, and Facebook is so much part of their lives. So I’ve asked them to write papers on Facebook as a kind of Frankenstein’s monster: something that we have created out of ourselves and by which we are then victimized. Which then begins to destroy us. And when I first put it out, usually there’s a kind of shock. “What!?” It’s a very fresh idea to them, and there’s a little irritation—the feeling that “this old lady is just out of touch.” But then things begin to come out about how competitive and how anxious they are when they post, and how their profiles are certain kinds of monsters—they create these profiles, and they aren’t quite them, so then what’s their relation to their profile? And how will they be perceived in the world?
Were you surprised by the responses you got from your students?
Not surprised, but interested. I’m fascinated as a scholar, and a little bit from a distance. I don’t have a Facebook account, to some extent I guess because I am getting older and what I do with my time is incredibly important to me. And one of the things that is important to me is doing nothing productively with my time. It’s sitting on West Cliff and looking at the ocean. It’s sitting in my window seat and looking out. It’s just being. I don’t want 70 people friending me. I don’t want to know where you had dinner yesterday.
On the note of just “being,” I think a lot of millennials, who are using these outlets to constantly document or share about their lives, would say they are also living in the now. In reality, are they taking themselves out of the moment to update everyone else on what they are doing moment-to-moment?
When you talk about narrative or gothic fiction, you’re really talking about the [idea that] if you think about yourself reflecting on yourself, or if you think about yourself looking in the mirror, you can feel how you’re divided. You can’t think about yourself and be yourself. You can’t look in the mirror and be the person you’re looking at. The whole history of fantastic fiction, starting in the late 18th century and continuing through Dexter and Mad Men, is about that self-fragmentation and division. So for me, being in the moment is about being in that place between me, Helene thinking, and me, Helene being thought about. That’s self-reflection. Now, when I ask my students about their reflections on themselves, most don’t know what I’m talking about. They ask, ‘When do you do that?’ ‘How do you do that?’ Because tweeting and posting, that’s not reflecting on yourself. That’s projecting these images of yourself out there, but not thinking about what it means to be doing so. As I’ve come to believe, there is a lot of anxiety and desire that’s under there.
It’s the difference between information and knowledge again: you can disseminate as much information as you want about yourself, but it doesn’t mean you’re understanding your self.
That’s exactly right. One of the reasons I enjoy teaching this class [is because] … we look at the way in which the world becomes fantastic. The way this world itself takes on this nightmarish quality. The students become very interested, and some of them have never talked to anybody about the kinds of questions that these fictions and films raise—the questions of what does happen when you begin to reflect on yourself.
What could improve in our relationship with technology if we have higher consciousness about that relationship?
[There’s a problem] as long as we think about our relations to technology as being only about ourselves … Technology is also about the social. It’s about advertising. It’s about all of us being reduced to data. All of us being sold, by Google, by Facebook, etc. And there’s the reality of the government [spying]—especially since the information that Edward Snowden has released. We all should realize that these information technologies, these social networks, are all about privacy, or lack thereof. What does privacy mean not just on a personal level, but a social level, a political level? Raising consciousness is raising consciousness on all of these levels, it’s getting out of that mindset that this is just about me and the people I have friended.
I don’t know the answer to this question, but it feels like a very urgent one: for people who cannot put enough information about themselves out there, what does it mean to ask them how they feel about privacy? What does privacy mean? And if privacy means nothing to someone personally, what are the implications of those meanings of privacy?
It makes you wonder where the boundaries are.
For many people, I don’t think they’ve figured out where their boundary is. ‘When do I want to stop sharing? And when I decide to stop sharing, can I?’ One of the things students in my class last year discovered was that the stuff you put on Facebook never disappears. You might leave Facebook, but your profile lasts.
Is there a comparison to Frankenstein there?
That’s interesting. Here’s the difference: when Frankenstein dies, then his monster dies. But with Facebook, it never dies. You die, but that information is still out there.
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