Opinion //

Zooming through life

On the dystopian inescapability of the internet in a time of digital education.

Art by Ellie Stephenson

My first interaction with social media was on the precipice of adolescence. After being given a brand-new smartphone upon completion of Year 5, I would — in my room at 2am — surreptitiously immerse myself in digital worlds, which, at the time, were in their rudimentary stages of development.

For me, the digital world consisted of mystical kik chat rooms, repetitive finger-tapping video games, and Reddit. For others, the ‘digital world’ meant similar things, but it was almost universally regarded as something positive — an educational medium, a social instrument, and most importantly for some, a coping mechanism. It was a place where people bogged down by the unrelenting hostility of public life could lather themselves in anonymity and chat away endlessly.

Since my entrance into the mysterious depths of the web, it has undergone an intense period of expansion, becoming an integral component of everyday life. Now, with the web’s absolute privatisation, it constitutes a second, parallel world; the lines are blurred between the digital and the physical. It must be noted that this process of universalising the internet would have occurred on its own, but the pandemic has accelerated it beyond the wildest dreams of the most optimistic Silicon Valley sycophants.

In countries hit the hardest by the virus, socialising happens exclusively within cyberspace. News is delivered to us with clickbait notifications, and importantly for us, education is transmitted to us through Zoom webinars. Zoom meetings, barring their convenience at times, have rapidly solidified as the prime mode of educational delivery in the coming post-pandemic era.

Universities and high schools across the world have completely abandoned any preconceived notions of educational normality. They’ve shoved aside the numerous benefits that accompany physical education and erected a service that most students and professors alike would repudiate if they had a choice in the matter. I mentioned when I began writing that when the technology was new, all engagements with it were exhilarating. It was mysterious, it was spectacular, it even felt avant-garde.

That excitement, which I imagine many of us felt, has slowly evaporated. There is no longer a binary of online/offline, but rather we live in a world where partaking in the internet is a matter of necessity over choice. I don’t think I would be challenged in saying that there has been a collective immunisation to the enthusiasm that once accompanied browsing posts on Reddit, finding original content on YouTube, or talking to people in online forums. No doubt, that debilitating unenthusiasm will manifest in the digital educational sphere too. Synthesising the increasingly milquetoast, yet somehow addicting allure of cyberspace with education—a vital resource that requires a specific type of delivery and engagement—will not come without its consequences in the future.

At first, the combination of technology with the educational apparatus might have seemed the smart thing to do. But at such a widened scale, we’re starting to see the contours in a crueler light. In her book Alone Together, Sherry Turkle explores the recent adoption of social media technology by young people. “To those who have lost a sense of physical connection, connectivity suggests that you make your own page, your own place,” she writes. Utilising her knowledge as a psychoanalyst, she chastises social media, saying that it atomises emotionally vulnerable people by its very nature, confining them to overly comfortable environments.

Over time, the prevalence of these online domains has rendered them hypersensitive to the demands of the real world. Turkle, while examining the mixture of techno-consumerism and learning in its early stages, identifies that students, when confronted with things that aggressively command their attention, are much more likely to engage with the online spectacle than their own learning. She speaks of her interactions with various students, recounting certain strange things they’ve said about their relationship with technology. “He cycled easily through them,” she writes, “He told me that RL [real-life] ‘is just one more window.’ And, he added, ‘it’s not usually my best one.’” Technology, even back in 2011 when Turkle wrote, was individualising young people, rendering them incapable of social interaction in the real world. The recent shift to online learning has meant that education is simply another thing absent from the “RL” — a domain with diminishing relevance.

One might ask: “But if the goal of education is that the student obtains new information, how does Zoom inhibit this process?” They would be right to question this. Technically speaking, utilising Zoom as an educational apparatus doesn’t greatly limit one’s ability to absorb information, but rather, in the context of a university, it impedes everything else associated with the student experience. Lectures, ever since their inception, have always facilitated the cultivation of social relationships among their participants. The thirst for social interaction held by students has always supplemented the thirst for education—but now, they have become restricted to the latter and made absent the former. Zoom lectures leave out the intimate experiences that make university, university. The experience of bumping into old friends from high school, the happenchance event of sitting by someone who shares an interest with you, and even, if you’re lucky, meeting a future partner — all of these have been completely eliminated by the imposition of webinars as the new (ab)normal.

As many people have observed, there’s something noticeably demotivating about learning through the same device you use to socialise, game or watch Netflix. Where teachers would chastise people for browsing their phone during class, online classes allow anyone to flick to other tabs with impunity, immediately diverting their attention to something far more interesting, but far less rewarding. In a classroom or lecture hall, the pedagogue at the front demands the attention of the students. But if you’re glued to a mosaic of pixels and LED backlights, your favourite YouTuber or Twitch streamer, commands far more attention than the teacher. On top of that, the powers that be have accelerated these changes without regard for those that they are leaving behind. We expect professors who still carry flip phones to transition from the physical to the digital without complaint. And after over a year of hosting lectures via webinar, the university administration still incompetently handles educational technology, leaving professors — old and young alike — muddled and disoriented.

When ‘leisure time’ becomes fused with ‘study time,’ the very idea of ‘leisure’ loses its meaning. This isn’t a new phenomenon by any means, rather, it has been occurring incrementally over the past 60 years. In his book, Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, Greil Marcus writes: “What could be more productive of an atomized, hopeless fatalism, than the feeling that one is deadened precisely where one ought to be having fun?” Marcus, who was remarking on the nihilism that the youth held in the 1970s, unintentionally encapsulates the present condition. The internet and its superficial relationships, its cycles of dopamine releases, and its presence as a space that blends leisure and work, has caused young people to become increasingly bored, increasingly purposeless, and most tragically, increasingly depressed.

According to World Health Organisation statistics, 300 million people worldwide have some sort of anxiety disorder with suicide being the second leading cause of death among 15 to 29-year-olds. Technologists have conditioned young people to believe technology is some magical discovery and must be harnessed at all levels. The truth is that while technology’s positive elements stretch far, its negative ones stretch much further. Tearing down the wall of hypnotic enchantment that cyberspace has erected in front of young people is the first step when confronting the mental health epidemic.

The youth subcultures of the Sixties and Seventies revolted against the mundanity that had started to creep into their personal lives. In modern times however, young people have simply accepted the dullness of digital media with a pathetic meekness. Instead of rebelling against the oppressive atmosphere of cyberspace, it seems as if we’ve inexplicably folded to its power. Perhaps, we feel our efforts to push back against the normalisation of online learning would be futile and met with disregard. Perhaps, our fear of the virus overrides our fear of overwhelming loneliness.

Or maybe we just don’t care — after all, it’s comforting to not have to worry about one’s appearance, or personality, or demeanour, if we’re situated in front of a screen all day.

Filed under: