By Tav Nyong’o for Bunker Bloggers
I don’t think much about the heady days of Web 1.0 anymore. Remember those? The breathless techno-utopianism of the 1990s seems a little ludicrous in retrospect. That bubble was punctured several times over by the rough reality of the intervening decades. But the first week of social distancing-turned-“stay at home” here in NYC has brought back some memories of that era, and, surprisingly, not all of them are bad.
In particular, I’m remembering how, back then, we expected the internet to be a space of social experimentation. How we wanted the technology to be a tool for moving power to the collective and horizontal, rather than the top-down, hierarchical, and profit-driven thing that it became. I never drank the Silicon Valley kool aid about transforming society one algorithm at a time. But I was an early and eager adopter of most new technologies as they appeared — e-mail, the web, mobile phones, social media — each time in the belief that the social outcome of the latest technical apparatus was not wholly predetermined by the capitalist system that produced and profited off it.
I know how naive the above sentence might sound. It seems almost impossible now to keep foremost in mind that the forms of technical connection that we are relying on more than ever in this moment are not simply dictated to us by state and capital. But we will need that recall in the weeks, months, and even years ahead, if we are to keep fighting the underlying and systemic crisis.
This past week many of my friends, most of whom are fellow teachers and professors, have been moved en-masse to online instruction. This has been a top-down emergency edict that contravenes everything the experts in online pedagogy advise about how to conduct distance teaching through the internet, in terms of its suddenness and lack of support and preparation on the part of either students or teachers. We are fielding distress calls about lost housing, health care, and incomes; new crisis needs from at-risk loved ones and strangers. Responding will take all the energy, creativity, and mutual aid we can muster. But we should try to be wary of what “new normal” for teaching will mean. How do we make sense of the situation in which the technology that makes it possible to keep doing our job also fundamentally changes the nature of that job?
The administrative mantra has been “instructional continuity,” an almost surreal command given the disruption everyone is experiencing, the most vulnerable students in particular. Understandably, our reactions to bureaucratic groupthink and technological determinism are being somewhat conflated in this disorienting moment. However, it is worth keeping in mind that the technologies being imposed upon us and our students as quick fixes have other possible uses, even if we have to become disobedient subjects to find them.
Many have been saying, throwing their hands up in frustration, that we all teach at Zoom University now (referring to the videoconferencing app that many institutions have adopted and now, suddenly, imposed). Zoom University is, at the moment, an ironic social leveler, in which many of the pecking orders of privilege in higher education are temporarily unmasked, and forms of instruction previously reserved for the less privileged are made suddenly universal. At the same time, it has revealed the same old digital divides in access to wi-fi, up-to-date internet devices, even reliable power. For these reasons, many of us teaching at Zoom University will not be using Zoom, or expecting all our students to be on it.
To state the obvious, here is an opportunity for left scholars to embrace our roles as independent and critical thinkers — and not simply providers of a service that must not be interrupted. Here is where all the experimentation with technologies I’ve seen and participated in over the past week or two comes in handy. We can’t afford to simply reject the technology, even though we also cannot accept its imposition on the current terms. We need to fight the real subsumption of our labor as educators under this new technocapitalism.
The winner-take-all, everyone-for-themselves society based in social precarity now threatens to collapse around us like a house of cards. It would be too easy to assume that a progressive outcome is guaranteed to follow that collapse. Fans of dystopian fiction like me know better. But a friend asks a great question: has all the dystopian literature we’ve been reading (and some of us teaching) made it easier, or harder, to respond to this moment? The saying has long been: it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. We may be now approaching a moment where it is possible, even necessary, to imagine both. This is a teachable moment. What (and how) will we teach?