Amherst Magazine

The Virtues and Divisiveness of the Virtual

When we get too distracted by our machines, we lose our social foundation.

2010 Convocation Address

By President Anthony W. Marx

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Watch the address on video and browse photos from Convocation.

Welcome, Class of 2014. As we say in the college’s catalog, you are here because you have “demonstrated qualities of mind and character” and have shown the “talent, mental discipline and imagination” needed “to benefit from the curriculum and to contribute to the life of the college and of society.”

Amherst and the world continue to see a quantum shift in the nimbleness of what it takes to so contribute to life here and in the world. Increasingly, those strengths must be navigated through a welter of electronic information. We proudly boast of the more than a million volumes in the college’s libraries. For the first time in our history—within your generation—the significance of that impressive number is being upended. In addition to that primary resource, students and faculty are extending their research broadly onto the Web.

Yet we still proudly assert that the library remains “the focal point of academic life on campus,” the central gathering location and seedbed for our intellectual enrichment and exchange of ideas. This remains so.

That focus dates back to the first, great library, at Alexandria, founded in the 3rd century B.C.E., which brought forth scholars and a nascent university. Then as now, the academy originated in the physical depths of a library, where, in contrast to the rest of civic space, scholars often work in silence. For it is “in quiet places,” as Adlai Stevenson said, that “reason abounds.”

But the way in which we engage in our quiet work has been utterly transformed. Since we created human language, we have seen few moments in which we have so dramatically expanded how we learn and think. Centuries after Alexandria, universities began to spread ideas from the clergy outward. As one historian notes, Renaissance Europeans’ discovery of classical texts led “to the redefinition of knowledge itself.” That redefinition rode on the back of Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type, quickly lighting the darkest corners of Europe with a power vaster than any army.

In our era, the computer has changed how we share ideas. Human thought is catapulted wirelessly, into the clouds. We walk through streams of knowledge many times larger than the entirety of Alexandria’s collection, just in the air we breathe. Experts debate in real time across the globe. Through such marvels as Wikipedia, knowledge is shared and refined collaboratively.

As we commune across the screen’s bright light, some argue we have virtually replaced that arena of spontaneous human exchange which Jane Jacobs, 50 years ago, saw as the “ballet” of street life in America, where we balanced “safety” and “freedom ... [in] a complex order ... .”

Seen in this way, the Web, built initially from universities over phone lines, has become the new public commons.
Like the commons of the early modern European village, where sheep grazed in collective pasture, the Web is potentially open to all, despite the efforts of some regimes to hinder or limit its use.

That is a threat distinguishing ours from the European town pastures of old, where as over-grazing displaced people, in the words of Barrington Moore, “sheep ate men.” By contrast, the more we use today’s virtual commons, the more it sprouts new shoots, feeding new participants. And, like the breath of conversation, the free-flowing quality of our electronic interactions now so pervades our lives we hardly notice it any more than we do the air.

Let me be clear: the Internet itself won’t produce a Herman Melville or a Toni Morrison. But it does produce an enormous impact. Time-sensitive writing may never again need to be printed or bound—providing unprecedented access. But we also know the potential of any new information technology to propagate evil. Poet Miroslav Holub observes that “the spread of manuals on witch-hunting benefitted from the printing press, that product of reason.”
Let us go back then to Socrates, who warned against overreliance upon an information platform relatively new for his time: writing itself.

On a country stroll away from the town commons, Socrates cautioned pupils not to let the enchantment of writing down thoughts distract from the perpetual need to refine them in oneself, by committing words to heart and to discussion. When, through such practice, we see how ideas are no more static than people are, Socrates urged, “even the best of writings are but a reminiscence of what we know.”

OK, so Socrates sounds like a Luddite raging against the new technology of writing. His point remains that ideas can come fully to life only through conversation in person. For as our new technology supports the dissemination of ideas, it also poses risks. Loss of privacy is one. But a threat, in my view, also comes from too much privacy, of a sort.
Cass Sunstein describes a natural tendency for all of us to fall into “group polarization,” with such bias-affirming isolation abetted by technology. For instance, researchers have tested the assumption that if people of similar but not identical views deliberate on an issue, common sense would temper the more extreme views. Instead, as Sunstein put it, “deliberation fails.” Participants in the experiment reinforced for each other those views on which they agreed and avoided issues on which there was any disagreement. The extremists’ passion wins over the group.

“When like-minded people cluster together,” Sunstein concludes, “they often aggravate their biases, spreading falsehoods.”

Why might such a dynamic of tilt toward group ignorance matter? It matters because through the Internet many more people now can text each other into compartmentalized ignorance. It sets a trend for people to filter through the stream of information for talk and talkers who make us feel right.

But just as the library made browsing possible, the purpose of a liberal arts college is to encourage us to deliberately push beyond our levels of comfort, to broaden our levels of academic pursuit, going after information we didn’t know about or ideas we find difficult. For that is how you grow and change the world.

For people who have not gained that habit, what can seem natural instead is to settle for the news one is comfortable with, which limits our access to information, people and ideas that change us. Instead of learning through a conversation with a neighbor even if we disagree with her, we filter and delete bits of humor and news alike as we type into our online tribe.

Petty of me to so characterize how this efficient technology of learning instead fuels more distortion. But many Americans today believe as fact what is not. An explanation for such mass error lies in a larger trend Bill Bishop identifies: “our groupthink emerges not just from a narrowing of focus on the Web, but also where we choose to live.”

We seek to live in our comfort zones. Over the past 10 years, as many as 100 million Americans have moved to places where we can live and work just among “people like us”—who agree on politics, religion, education, consumption, the “lifestyle” these define.

“Sorting” or segregating ourselves into such “clusters” of the like-minded, in our real or self-selected online neighborhoods, we lull ourselves into a complacency and confine our diet of knowledge within these limitations, wrapped in “information cocoons.” Soon, as in the words of our own poet James Merrill, “we grow nonchalant” and “pleased to be stirred by the drone of our own voices.” We slip, without a conscious realization, from mere respite among friends to the lassitude of unexamined belief, of error made easy, of conformity.

Hence the obvious harm. Once you decide it is fine to dismiss or click past all who differ from you, you can’t govern the society you share with them. Bishop documents how clustering has led to a more polarized culture and partisan politics: “The middle has dropped out altogether ... beginning ... 30 years ago, finding ... comfort in ‘people like us,’ we have migrated into ever-narrower communities ... and institutions distinguished by their isolation and single-mindedness. ... It was a social revolution ... both profound and, because it consisted of people simply going about their lives, entirely unnoticed.”

The effect is centrifugal. Dispersed, some by choice, others not, people stop simulating the feelings of people different from themselves. Empathy, the substance of social fabric, thins and frays.

So, to some degree now, people get befuddled, hearkening to echoes and the appearance of life on the screen instead of to the unruly, physical commons. In real life, and in life on this campus, you have to work through your differences. Online, you can just ignore anyone you don’t want to deal with. “[C]ocooned with our fellows,” Bishop concludes, “we approach public life with the sensibility of customers who are always right. But democracy doesn’t seem to work that way.”

I agree. It doesn’t. The ultimate result is a failed state.

I fear we risk devolving, as one writer put it, into “a country that expects a government we don’t trust to provide growing benefits from taxes we don’t want to pay.” But there is a counter to this. Great liberal arts colleges like Amherst are where to learn the art of the commons, where we learn to give to each what each needs—financially, socially and academically, so that we can pull together. We do this in odd ways. Most of your classes here involve very few students per class. Some taught by teachers working in tandem. Plus, hundreds of individual tutorials, individually
designed. Through the Center for Community Engagement, we pay you to go volunteer for social enterprises. None of this is efficient. On a balance sheet none of it makes sense. Yet, all is essential.

On a walk out over the green, Socrates urged his students to balance their use of the efficient new technology of writing alongside the cultivation of their hearts and minds through dialogue.

Again, this is not an efficient enterprise. Efficiency, after all, like Barrington Moore’s overgrazing sheep, eats humanity. We lose our social foundation when we get so distracted by our machines and the echo chamber of our ideas, that we put efficiency first.

Clustering, and its resulting politics, may argue for efficiency, but that is machine logic. Beware. Keep efficiency in its place—not ahead of or behind social capital. Know when to type and when to head out—to seek out your professor, to be physically present in our commons here: the dorms and classrooms, the playing fields, the studio, the lab, the stage, the library. To be Socrates, to walk in the woods and then come back to the library and classroom, begin now to practice being a liberal arts graduate: to shed what’s easy or familiar and to purposefully move toward people and ideas you don’t quite get, that stretch you; toward whatever opens your heart as well as your mind.

In so doing, you will teach others. Not just here, my friends; for the rest of your life.

Welcome to Amherst College.

Image ©2010 Brad Yeo c/o thespot.com