I had already begun considering the process of biological evolution, even before I got to the last article in the series, Alex Reid’s “The Evolution of Writing” from The Two Virtuals. If we consider that humans have invented new technologies long before the computer, and that these technologies include the written word, as outlined by Walter Ong and Dennis Baron, then we must go back even further to the invention of the spoken word itself, the thing that eventually made our societies so complex that we needed writing to order the things we said and thought. Go back further, and you see anthropologists refer to the human revolution in the wheel and other mechanical objects; earlier, stone tool-making forward to iron and so forth. Even further, I thought, we should consider the evolution of communication itself. But why stop there? Is not every evolution, every step that brought us to now, an advance in technology that changes our abilities to get around in our environments?
Now, as I write this, I have only read the opening of Reid’s text, and I shall read it in its entirety after I have finished this post. This requires some discipline on my part, because clearly it leads where I was supposed to go, and like all literature majors, I want to know the ending. But today I want to try something different: I want to venture down this path blindfolded and see if I end up in a similar place. Maybe it’s the anthropology major in me, finally exercising its desires after having been suppressed inside an English teacher for so long.
I enjoyed the supreme irony in Plato’s dialogue of Socrates and Phaedrus which prizes the oral and denigrates the written, even as Plato sees fit to commit that argument to writing. I feel that most people still don’t see that, even now, in this moment, the “virtual world” is still very much organized around alphabetic technology: Writing. Plato wrote his argument in the form of a dialogue between two people, who weren’t actually there discussing it; in so doing, he borrowed an oral form to get the idea into print.
Science-fiction has seen the future, and it is the cyborg: A human-machine hybrid, usually evil and unconcerned with the preservation of “unplugged” humanoids. Like the Borg of Star Trek: The Next Generation, assimilation is the only evolution, “resistance is futile.” But what remains today is that our heroes resist against all odds and prevail, like the stories over the campfire millennia before us. Small bands of native resistance pop up, like that established by the singular Borg named Hugh who develops a soft spot for humans after spending time with them away from the Borg Collective, or the underground city appropriately named Zion from The Matrix films. I ask now: Who’s borrowing from what here?
It was tough for Plato to wrap his brain around what was happening to him in the moment he wrote that what is spoken is superior to print. I think Henry David Thoreau’s rejection of the telegraph, at the same time as he perfected pencil manufacture (another tool) in order to keep himself writing at Walden Pond, is a similar sort of technology-related “brain fart.” I have a tough time trying to imagine a world where my son and his progeny will be human-computer cyborgs of anything but an evil kind. This doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen, and probably (I hope) in ways that are not evil, but only different. Although I’m sure my son would love to grow up to be Darth Vader or General Grievous, cyborgs of that other science-fiction juggernaut we geeks love so well.
Evolution, even technological evolution, takes time. After I graduated from Cal in 1996 with the aforementioned degree in English and Anthropology, I tried my hand at learning to code HTML. It was not pretty, and I couldn’t do it. It it felt, for me, like my failure to master calculus as a freshman and subsequently giving up on being a vet, a doctor, or a chimpanzee researcher: I simply could not order my world that way. I just wanted to communicate, and maybe ride the Web 1.0 to early retirement. But now, fifteen years later, I can use what grew out of that desire to communicate and use the tools others built for me to use, and explore in this blog, and in my own blog, and in the blog I created for my students to use, and teach them to establish and use their own and those of their classmates. And ultimately, I get to do what I was always pretty good at in the first place: Write. But while I did have to wait, I didn’t have to wait very long, comparatively; I established my very first blog in 2001. On an evolutionary timescale, that’s too small a period to measure. But on my personal timescale, that’s the period when I went from being unable to keep plants alive to having a son of my own. I must have evolved! Or grown up.
I think, like many things in their nascent forms, there will be system crashes and temper tantrums as the bugs and kinks get worked out. There will be people railing against the digital revolution until something replaces it as the Next Big Thing. But historically, most of these things have never turned out to be as evil as The Borg. And if resistance is futile, then embracing technology and being on the forefront of its responsible use, especially in the writing classroom, becomes our next responsibility.