Who is it all for?

[Marius Gulbranson Nordby] Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The last few weeks have given me a crash course in many things digital, particularly the different platforms for video conversations. For example, I hosted a digital book launch on Zoom. It was for a book about environmental ethics seen through the lens of Jurassic Park. It is quite wonderful.

The book asks the question of why we should care about nature and challenges the hegemony of anthropocentrism – the view that humans are the most important entity in the world, and a way of seeing the world where everything is measured in relation to humans and the benefits it produces for humans.

Only, in the last few weeks since the beginning of the corona crisis, I’ve come to wonder whether this creature in the centre of all things, the one we are building our world for, is perhaps not a human at all. Perhaps he (he is sadly still mostly a “he”) is something colder.

One day I was teaching environmental law at the University of Oslo, I could tell that my students were restless. During break one student asked me if there would indeed be any class the next day. It was the twelfth of March, and the severity of the corona virus was accepted in Norway that very afternoon. After weeks of everyone laughing off virus, the tact changed and in the following days the state enacted the strictest rules it had, since the second world war. Every business where one touches the customers – such as hairdressers – were shut down, movement has been restricted – people can no longer go to their holiday home for fear of overburdening the local hospitals. Quarantines and home offices became the new norm here as well. Norwegians have also followed the governments recommendations and many rules are observed without being written down, therefore we can still visit groceries without restrictions and some tendencies to hoard goods died down after just one day.

Like so many, I cancelled my class and moved to cyberspace for the remaining sessions.

I had used Zoom before, working with lawyers from the Nordic countries on a book about animal law, but this was my first-time using it to teach. It went rather well I thought. The students sent some questions my way during class, so we got some interaction. I also got through everything I wanted, ending, as I always do, with a quick overview of the non-anthropocentric ethical theories. And then I logged off and the whole thing was over, no chit-chat, no nothing. It felt strangely empty and I was already hoping that the autumns course would be held back in the physical world.

Others have been quite celebratory when it comes to digital teaching. On the twenty-ninth of March, the University of Oslo published a report outlining the experiences so far. The report was based on the answers from 175 law students in Oslo, tempted with the chance to win free Netflix for six months. The results were a mixed bag, almost 50 percent said their study situation was worse now than before, mostly due to faulty equipment, distracting family members or bad internet connections. However, almost 60 percent said their benefit from the teaching was the same or even better than before. The report ended with several pieces of advice for people who wants to succeed with their digital teaching in the future.

And it seems that many do want that. Quite a few of my authors have said that they will want to continue with some forms of digital teaching even after the dust settles, and the corona crises has abated.

There was however one figure that was not in the report, but a part of the underlying statistics – 42,9 percent of the participants reported that they experienced loneliness.

I do not imply that this figure was left out of the report due to some ill will or in an attempt to make digital learning look good. Nor do I mean to belittle or discredit those who have worked so hard to make it possible for universities all over the world to remain open and education continue. I believe the number was left out because the report was strictly about the experiences with digital learning, not the overall happiness of students.

Still, the fact that loneliness was not perceived as a part of the direct experiences with digital learning makes me think. Not about our current situation, the importance of social distancing is clear and digital tools make it possible. No, I think about when this is over, and we arrive at a new normal.

Digital teaching is clearly cheap, effective in many ways and you can choose your own hilarious backdrop on Zoom making it look that you are in the middle of some daring adventure. But it does have this one massive flaw that cannot be overlooked – it is a bland and poor substitute for real, social interaction.

This is not to say that digital learning is not great for short classes, learning specific skills, or – just like today – to talk to each other when it is impossible to meet in person. But when it comes to longer or deeper interactions, the real-life conversations are comprised of so many levels of communications – such as speech, tone, body language, a shared surrounding – that it cannot be replicated. When I normally teach the end of class has a ritual to it, it is like watching a nature documentary and you can almost hear Sir David narrating. The students approach me – carefully and with – what I can only assume – they take to be disarming smiles. They have some questions they did not dare to ask in front of the others, or they want to tell me about some case they heard of and wonder if I heard of too. Some wants to discuss for a bit, and so often they just want to share in the resignation I have exposed over the topic of Norwegian environmental law and its plethora of flaws. While they talk, some of the shy students – who were about to leave the room – turn and come back, they stand at the edge of the group, but suddenly they say something and it is quite often very clever. It is the most wonderfully human part of the class, and no equivalent exists in cyberspace. 

I remember playing the computer game The Sims when I was younger. It is a simulation of real life where the most fun part is being successful, earning money and being able to build a nice house and buy nice things. It is one of the most popular computer games ever made. There was however, one part of the game that no one liked that much, in addition to keeping your Sim fed, rested and entertained, you had to keep it socialised. It was a hassle and took up a lot of time where you had to meet other Sims, talk, make friends and then maintaining those friendships or else the dreaded Gloria Steinem (or, whatever you had called the other sims) is no longer a friend– message appeared on screen.

In newer editions of the game, you could offset some of this social need by having your Sim being social while at work.

But even in this free market utopia where a new sofa was available at the touch of a button, the human need to be social remained a big factor and success could not be achieved without paying attention to it. Not only that, but there were a strict hierarchy; a phone call might take the sting of the worst social craving, but if you wanted the indicator to go all the way to a happy green – a real life conversation was needed.

Today I can read article after article regarding how the corona virus has helped us become more digital, and how we have arrived at some state of modernity well before it was expected; as if history was always meant to take us to this place. And there is no doubt that we have learned a lot, and everyone can rightly be proud of mastering the many new tools we have been introduced to during this crisis. The students are also reporting that they are indeed quite happy with the product being delivered by the Universities in the form of digital learning. Several professors and teachers are planning to continue to use Zoom and other solutions in the future.

However, the students also say that they are lonely, and I wonder why are we ready to ignore this aspect of the overall image when we measure the success of our new tools?

Which brings me back to my original question regarding who we are building the world for? Why are not systems that fails to fill the social needs of students instantly disqualifying that system for overall use outside this crisis?

People need people. Not even the Sims could last long without social interaction, or their little digital bodies broke down into a long line of severely depressed binary code. Any place where the human animal is meant to spend long time, should surely have the responsibility to create an environment where it can thrive.

In Jurassic Park billionaire John Hammond builds a theme park on an island where people can come and see living clones of dinosaurs. The chaotician Ian Malcolm warns him immediately; attempting to control such a large ecosystem is folly, there are too many variables. He is proven right when the combination of a greedy IT-guy and a tropical storm hits the island and knocks out the power. The dinosaurs escape and a six-ton tyrannosaurus starts her reign by snacking on the lawyer.

The world we are building is for ourselves, and it is one of humanities great flaws how we ignore the rest of the complex ecosystem and act anthropocentric. However, what if we are not doing that right either? What creature would thrive in the world we are currently building? It does not seem to need friends or contact; it seems more preoccupied with being very efficient at work. He is an anaemic, loner and a workaholic, and I am not at all sure we should accommodate him.

Meeting people in cyberspace is a wonderful tool for getting us through this crisis, but when it is over, we should ask ourselves what to keep and what to throw away, not while focusing on what is modern or seems like the way of the future, but what a plain, old, actual human needs.

Marius Gulbranson Nordby | Oslo | April 8, 2020

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