Saturday, March 21, 2009

Can Facebook Cause Cancer?

I knew that'd get your attention. It's about health risks from reduced face-to-face contact as we log in. Posted by my student to our on-line course discussion-- about technological substitution for a personal touch! I joined FB a month ago, my wife blogged yesterday et alia on FB banality/burnout among her F/friends, so here's my thoughts.

I'd been thinking about this domain even before she had! I'd read in the NY Times about the 35-65 demographic-- divided in two, and I trudge inexorably if unwillingly towards its cusp, alas-- adding about seven million users to FB the past January. Apparently, freed of its yearbook origins, the social network now appeals to those of us not "digital natives" but, if born pre-'80, "immigrants," media nomads settling among a realm where our children speak a language we "stumble upon" and click in-- and it's sometimes as challenging as the click-language of the !Xhosa.

"How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer," from the London Daily Mail. Allowing for that paper's reputation for the dubious headline hook, it summarizes Dr. Aric Sigman's findings:
"Increased isolation could alter the way genes work and upset immune responses, hormone levels and the function of arteries. It could also impair mental performance. This could increase the risk of problems as serious as cancer, strokes, heart disease and dementia, Dr Sigman says in Biologist, the journal of the Institute of Biology."

So collates the underpaid "Daily Mail Reporter"-- another sign of the Net's impact on the decline of conventional journalism, outsourced to interns, freelancers, and drudges. Another symptom of our reliance on electronic networks hit five out of fifteen of us in my Technology, Culture & Society course I teach, a beleaguered token Humanities outlier among the technical and business majors who comprise in total my every roster. One student's T-Mobile service was hit; her classmate explained how AT&T had taken over Singular who in turn piggybacked on T-M and somehow these mergers and "embedded legacy systems" (i.e., the crap wiring we inherit in America when we have to jerryrig new routes, while the Third World at least starts with shiny new hi-tech as they lay out shimmering Bangalore and Lagos information highways).

Classmate Two shared my own predicament. Both of us had our school e-mail systems down on St. Patrick's Day. No mail could go in or out for anyone surnamed "H" through "R." Classmate Three posted to our threaded discussion-- the mandated on-line component added to all "hybrid" courses I must teach-- and his posts vanished. I can relate. If I don't refresh the browser every few minutes, my worksite e-mails as I compose them, and my efforts in the "shell" of the online teaching module, evaporate without warning-- somehow this prevents hacking, but it also prevents working and learning. (And, no, dear wife, I cannot somehow do all my composition separately in Word and then cut-and-paste. Trust me.)

Classmate Four had no Time Warner cable or Net access. I took this as an omen as Layne switched us to what I hope she was not baited with as a supposedly more economical and more generous package of whatever "embedded legacy systems" we're paying lots of moolah for each month. The one element most people cut in a recession, we expand. Drinking from the plasma firehose.

Firehoses also spray those of us teaching where I do with a lot of blowback. What my wife termed "comically dystopian" certainly captures the George Saunders-like story I find myself a hapless character within, trapped as much as any creation by an omniscient narrator as distanced from my occupational plight as any clockmaker Deity. One reason-- despite the thrill of finding out a part-time, young English instructor enrolled in the teacher training with me is also a medievalist, a lover of Malory and the Scots, and with an M.Sc. from Edinburgh in palaeology and codicology far closer to the actual subject than I am after fourteen years' removed from my dissertation's completion-- that I do not share my name here or promote my blog to colleagues at the unnamed institution of higher learning. It calls itself a University. It also requires my increasingly dispirited submission to the Combine.

What Ken Kesey's McMurphy called the Combine, others may track back to Bentham's Panopticon. No Nurse, no electro-shock, no Indian. Its centrally-placed warden can peek through the blinds at his prisoners arrayed in cells all around him. Those immured never know when or where he spins his telescopic scrutiny. Similarly, an electronic system for the past year has required all of our courses to be taught in eight weeks, compressed and accelerating the time taken to advance in supposedly three years towards graduation and the hi-tech careers that my employer advertises as the carrot after the stick of the B.S.

Now, the surveillance facility's been remodeled. We're lined up for transfer into a "blended" model wherein all the course material has been standardized by those far above our ranks. An instructor (I hesitate to grace myself and my colleagues as "professors"-- we're told we are now "facilitators" of andragogical methods empowering the students to teach each other) who at least at present can modify the course according to his or her strengths, the student's predilections, or the subject's variety, will now be reduced to a shackled pace, the on-line discussions and a few announcements or documents we share as if by samidzat attesting to accreditors-- or visitors from Amnesty International-- the purview of "academic freedom" still allowed us.

The boss of my boss corrected me recently. Apparently I teach in what's "already a prestigious institution." I had heard before how we were but aspiring to such an august designation. I asked in the teacher-training modules I am now taking if any "prestigious" college had used the "blended" model in which we were being schooled so as to school others-- once all of our courses had been converted to this top-down, McDonaldized format. I found out that, no, while universities had used hybrid systems similar to ours, that no, none had combined this blended approach with a standardized course implementation.

Blame my dissenting nature. I play my role with spirit, but also with a sense of being cast by a director in a part that portends my own breaking on the wheel, my capitulation on this peda-technological rack. I glance at the technical faculty. They reveal in their comments that they were not hired for their English skills. One's unable to capitalize titles for master's and doctoral degrees that he earned from on-line universities; another's unable to use "doctoral" as an adjective for the on-line degree he's been granted. The techies also show no signs of rebellion.

We humanists did, backs watched by one business lecturer. Now, joined by trusties, week two of our work-service non-furlough, my spirits ebb as the routine that we will soon ourselves oversee surges. We upload humdrum homework and log-on regularly as we punch the clock and tote that bail, albeit by tapping at a mouse. Power, conveyed by electricity, by networking, by the substitution of the byte for the blab, the post for the chat: we borrow the same words, while our networking flows through remotely altered channels now that our evolution has never anticipated.

We're all where I work and teach being shown where we will do our time. We share therefore the same cells my students will, if on a different wing. If riots break out and take down this network, I am not sure how we will work, teach, eat, or survive. Those who could arguably benefit from holding the carceral system hostage themselves occupy cells down the row from ourselves. They'd have no gain in blowing up the watchtowers. Any subversives or anarchists would be fouling their own nest.

Out of some desert or Darfur outpost, one day in a century wracked by global warming, refugee revolts, and globalized backlash, who will storm the Bastille? Who may find us cowering behind dead laptops and dying BlackBerries? Meanwhile, since we digital inhabitants earnestly believe that by staying indoors and off the roads, we hole up at Starbucks or on the beach, if we believe the ads. We work and teach and telecommute and gossip. We must now progress by keystrokes. Perhaps we truly ease the burden on our planet while avoiding confrontation; maybe we find the upside of fewer face-to-face encounters? After all, my time on bus and train weekly does not inexorably enhance my love for my fellow man and woman in this smoggy megapolis.

So, I retreat to my lair, surrounded by books and plugged into music. I'm testing out for the weekend a headphone-iPod amp with a vintage tube, the remnants of a military technology of last century meant to either blow us up or stop such, harnessed by one of my techie grads for entertainment and adaptation. I wire myself willingly for some tasks, and perhaps obediently for others, just as my students do.

On Facebook I can send Little Green Patches to help save rainforests, and virtual karma that may who knows restore good deeds for past lapses among classmates once tormented and friends once lost and now found. I wonder if a Buddhist emanation into the biosphere via the blogosphere can elevate us to a less harried, more nuanced, way of understanding? Or, am I a typically cocooned, risibly oblivious, citizen of a blinkered society as trapped as an inmate in the Panopticon under a hostile or indifferent, absent or present, transcendent or heartless gaze I will never verify? An Eloi basking amidst the fin-de-siecle as the Morlocks growl below me still unseen? On my blog, I write to you, and a few of you may respond. Here, if not in person, you and I seek each other, and I hope we still can heal ourselves and learn as we connect. We don't have to always occupy our cells during our life sentence.

"A building circular... The prisoners in their cells, occupying the circumference-- The officers in the centre. By blinds and other contrivances, the Inspectors concealed... from the observation of the prisoners: hence the sentiment of a sort of omnipresence—The whole circuit reviewable with little, or... without any, change of place. One station in the inspection part affording the most perfect view of every cell." Jeremy Bentham. "Proposal for a New and Less Expensive mode of Employing and Reforming Convicts" (London, 1798). Illustration: "Design of the Panopticon."


Layne said...

I send out to you, via the funky embedded legacy system, a prayer for a gainful employment that lets you best use the gifts that the God you are tentative about gave you. Does it warm you? Do you feel it? Is it real?

Vilges Suola said...

This 'blended approach' sounds horrific. We do not, as yet, have anything similar where I work, and I hope it is so antithetical to the spirit of ELT in Britain that they will never even consider it, but you never know. Along with the Govt's proposals for ID cards and databases detailing our every move and monitoring e-mails and SMSs, they may well slip in this sort of thing. Britain is becoming very much a Panopticon, I'm afraid.

Fionnchú said...

"With you there to help me, then I probably will." To quote a lyric from your favorite classic rockers, Jethro Tull (pre-Aqualung, of course, when I found them still intermittently listenable.) xxx me

Fionnchú said...

CCTV, in Britain, is far more ubiquitious than here, and I think traffic cameras and the slow creep of hi-tech monitoring of movement. The difference in constitutional debate does perhaps slow the intrusion here, but the private sector, alas-- we surrender our rights more and more so we can work! Fight the power there, as much as you can, and we'll do the same.