Wednesday, 30 November 2016

On Reading, Being Alone, and Social Media

I had an interesting conversation with one of the doctors who I'm working on a project with as I showed her some Agent-based models of blood flow which I'd created. We got on to talking about the reflexivity and curiosity of students. She loved the models saying she thought it might spark their curiosity. She then said something along the lines of: "When I was a student, we read books. Today's students don't do this - the medics go on the web, but they seem strangely uncurious about the things they study, and whilst they know all the terminology - which they've committed to memory - they seem to understand less about underlying mechanisms." I've experienced something similar amongst students in the past - my automatic response is to say that the education system has knocked the curiosity out of them (and these are the kids who did everything they were told and got three As). Maybe it isn't so simple. Then I thought about "reading" and remembered a comment by C.S. Lewis:
"We read to know we are not alone"
My own experience of reading - rarely fiction, but lots of philosophy, science, etc - was precisely this. I was weird, I had weird thoughts (I thought) - I wanted to find other people who were as weird as me. Wittgenstein and Douglas Hoffstadter were as weird as me, I found. The driver for intellectual engagement was a fear of being alone.

This sense of loneliness has been changed by social media.  There is a sense in which Sherry Turkle's "Alone Togetherness" of technology has a dimension which interferes with the fundamental drive for pursuing knowledge and understanding.

If my drive for reading books was to find others who were as weird as me, then that task is so much easier on social media. There are a multiplicity of groups shouting "I am as weird as you!". In joining one of these groups, one can feel 'together', no longer alone. Does the impetus for reading and pursuing deeper knowledge suffer as a result? It's not inconceivable.

I introduced my 16 year old daughter to Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's outrageous "Derek and Clive" the other week. ("Worst job I ever had? Picking lobsters from...") She's become quite politically active in the feminist society at her college, and I was interested to know what she would think of Derek and Clive's shocking un-PC-ness. She thought it was hilarious of course. But then I asked her "could you play this to any other members of your society?" - Her instant reaction was "Oh God No! They'd go ballistic!". She might be wrong - but it is a challenge for her to find out. Like many of us, my daughter's on a journey, and reconciling what she finds very funny with ethical struggles and the political principles of groups will no doubt keep her thinking and reading more.

Social media gives us a lot of nonsense to read which continually feeds us the message that we are ok and we are not alone. It takes something from outside to create the strength to challenge the ok-ness of "being ok". And often, people appear ok when they are really not: there are too many happy, smiley facebook posts from people who kill themselves days or hours later. Maybe we need a corrective which reminds each of us that we are not as "not alone" as we thought we were. It's not to be anti-social media - but it's to become more aware of how it changes us.