Technological Enthusiasm, Historical Apathy

It’s not quite time for summer beach reading yet, but it is time for end-of-the-spring term reading. For me this consists of catching up on all the New Yorker magazines that have been accumulating during the winter. I feel guilty about letting them accumulate, but this turns out to be an advantage. Now that I have finally got to them, I can focus on a few big themes and let the rest go. This spring the big themes are technology and history—not as two separate topics, but as the same thing under different names (very loosely comparable to the way energy and mass turn out to be equivalent, if you throw in the speed of light squared to balance the equation).

The first article in my catch-up reading was “Laptop U,” Nathan Heller’s recent New Yorker story about MOOCs [Massive Open Online Course). It headed the list upon the recommendation of an MIT colleague who is following MIT’s involvement in MOOCs through a collaborative enterprise called edX. I can see why she recommended it, because Heller’s article is informative rather than opinionated. (Somehow, in the Information Age, information can be hard to come by, while opinions smother us.) Heller conveys what he thinks about MOOCs, but for most of the piece he shows what other people are doing and thinking with and about them.

Most of them love MOOCs. The humanist scholar sees a marvelous means of mounting a sort of multimedia Wagnerian great opera to convey the glories of classical Greece to 21st century teenagers. The economically minded administrator welcomes a new means of production that can finally crash through the longstanding productivity barrier of higher ed, democratizing higher education or at least providing another income stream to support prevailing modes. Teachers of basic intro courses in math, science, and engineering—the real inventors of MOOCs—see them as a nifty way of vastly expanding their audience, which could deliver knowledge to the masses and maybe a fortune to themselves. The educational psychologist foresees a fount of research data. There are some skeptics (such as 60 percent of the faculty of Amherst College who voted to turn down an invitation to join edX), but they are aware that their opposition is small compared to the drive to MOOCs. In the words of one Amherst College faculty member quoted by Heller, “It seemed to come down the road as something that was going to happen.”

The “it” refers, as usual, to “the technology,” in what is a classic statement of technological determinism: there is a technology out there coming down the road, and it is going to happen whether you like it or not. Humans here, technology there, as if the human-built world is as separated from human will as the rising of the sun. In my trade as an historian of technology, I have learned from my academic cradle that technological determinism is an incorrect and dangerous belief. It makes us think that we have no control over what we create, a belief that sets up a negative feedback loop in allowing a few people to manipulate those inventions for self-interested and even nefarious purposes. While belief in technological determinism may be a huge error in the eyes of historians of technology, we have obviously done a bad job of getting out the word. Almost all the people Heller interviews accept the belief that MOOCs are inevitable, including academic leaders of Stanford, Harvard, and MIT.

Historians of technology are much more forgiving of what in the trade we call “technological enthusiasm.” Oddly enough, the sense of inevitability that MOOCs convey to most of the world goes with a tone of technological enthusiasm—excited and happy anticipation about what this humanbuilt system can do to make the world a better place. Heller’s report resounds with the sound of enthusiasm. Everyone says that the new technology raises questions and problems, but the overall tone is not that of doom but of something closer to technological utopianism.

This was not the tone of the second article I read in my stack of New Yorkers, George Packer’s essay on “Depression literature, old and new”. In heading for this article I was going for the author rather than the specific topic. Packer has a new book out (The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America) of which I have now read three reviews, all of which make it sound quite interesting. I figured that reading Packer’s recent article might help me figure out if I wanted to buy the book, even if it hardly sounds like reading appropriate for the beach.

Packer’s essay on Depression writing begins by noting that in the 1930s Edmund Wilson and John Dos Passos, among many others, were impelled by the economic and political crisis “to turn literature into a form of activism” (70). Packer points out that today’s economic and political crisis has also created literature, but one that focuses on individuals and elites rather than the ordinary people. What is missing in today’s accounts (and by implication what Packer writes about in The Unwinding) is the story of ordinary people being crushed by current events. Wherever history is headed, it is not in a direction that gives the common person a sense of recognition in the present, much less hope for the future.

Packer makes a convincing argument that the biggest difference between the history of the 1930s and that of the early 21st century is historical consciousness. In our times, technological change has replaced history as the “change agent” in human affairs. This is more extreme than the belief that history is determined by technology. It means that human enthusiasm, energy, and optimism have been invested in technology to the extent that the very concept of history is fading away.

History has become a site of depression in more than economic terms. The cover of the issue carrying Packer’s story about Depression literature (see the link above) is titled “Shadows Over Boston.” It shows disembodied legs running in the bright sunlight that cast ominous shadows of those legs in the foreground. The image alludes to the bombings that concluded this year’s running of the Boston Marathon, but it also represents more generally how we think of history these days. Run as hard and fast we might, it ends in catastrophe.

The paradox is that the more we humans strive to control our world through “technology,” the less we feel in control of the historical world….and yet we keep returning to technology to get us out of the loop. Maybe taking a MOOC will lead to inventing an app that will make a difference…… This is the mindset that seems to animate the most recent graduate of MIT as much as Anant Agarwal, who leads edX for MIT. Salvation is a start-up. That is where hope is to be found. There seems something equivalent to the speed of light squared at work in transmuting the mass of history into the explosive energy of technology.

To restore historical consciousness, the last thing we need is “ a foundational theory of history” (David Brooks’ advice to Packer in his review of The Unwinding in today’s New York Times Book Review). Considering the trajectory of the last big foundational theory, that of Marxism, this does not seem a good path. Human beings need salient examples, often told in stories, more than theories to regenerate conviction that history can be a source of human power. A good story to start is the civil rights movement that became a national movement fifty years ago this spring. There was no foundational theory behind it. There was a conviction that history has an arc, that the arc bends towards justice, and that what individuals and groups did could help make it bend. There is no better way to greet the summer than to take a little time off to read and think about how to make history work this way again.

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