On Language, Democracy, and the Cloud
In an empty mug is nostalgia. I pour in coffee to remove it. It is morning time, and I am to teach a lesson on language, democracy, and technology at 9:00. First period.
The clock is a runway operator now; it reads 7:05. Wooly thoughts brew in my head like the French-pressed coffee I just made. It is snowing. The windows feel cold even as I sit 10 feet from them.
Lessons close today. The snow reminds me of the year closing, too. They will work on their portfolios for the remaining week. 35 pages of their work, from revisions to final products. 12 days remain.
It’s now 7:40. I know the lessons I teach today will empower them. I am the last one to stand in front of them as a teacher. I will say something relevant. I will say something important. That’ll last. Perhaps impact them, significantly.
Out loud, I say to the clock, “Let’s blow some minds.”
When I enter the classroom, Billy is seated in the back. Blank is the whiteboard. I wear Jack’s sweater.
I begin, “So today is the final lesson I’ll be teaching this semester. It is also the final lesson of this course. It’s a topic that is near and dear to my heart, so I may be lecturing for a bit. But that’s only because I care tremendously about our futures. And you need to know this.”
They all know what I’m saying has weight so they sit up straight.
“Unit 4 has covered technology versus nature. And while I’m going to try to connect this lesson to the enduring understanding of this curriculum, I might go about it in a very cursory, tangential sort of way. You will learn about navigating space, like you’ve done in the mountains you see behind you.”
Some look out the window, glancing over the snow to the peaks that reach for the heavens.
“Today’s class is going to cover three basic things: **language**, **democracy**, and **the cloud**” I say, drawing representations of each word — the ABCs, a bunch of talking heads, and a cumulonimbus cloud, respectively.
“Now you may be wondering, how does all of this connect? Why is it important to understand language and democracy and the cloud?”
Smiling, I remind them, “This is English class. We sit here analyzing words and phrases, poems and essays, because the human spirit wishes to exist outside of itself. This is language.”
I write a sentence on the board: I am Eriks.
“If I was to walk away, this sentence would remain, you all would read it, and perhaps think that a person named Eriks *exists*.”
There is some general apathy and sleepiness, so I pause.
“Stand up and say your name!”
When everyone does, I know they exist.
My head rewinds back to a memory when I emailed a professor of mine, post college, in extremis. The email, dated 10/25/11, says this:
“Hey Professor Morton,
I’ve thought about my visit [to Durham, NC] for a little over a week now, and I guess I’m still trying to articulate the feeling of “being” back. (Not “back,” but “being” back.) I think you mentioned it once in your Faust classes (and, unfortunately, I can’t remember in what context): the importance of “to be.” Perhaps it was one of your philosophic tangents?
I know it definitely wasn’t Descartes.
Anyways, I’ve been questioning the importance of “to be” lately. This world is becoming more and more of a strange place as I try to find my role within it. And remembering the simple power that the phrase “to be” gave me, I’m trying to turn it into everything I do and believe (capitalism, democracy, education, creativity, love, etc). While “is” is the most passive form of granting something existence, “to be” is putting it into existence with purpose, right? “Becoming,” I have yet to full grasp, though I know I will “become” something, as long as I remain “to be.” Cause and effect.
I mention this because I fear that the “is” might be dominating the “to be.” More specifically—and the crux of my rambling—I was wondering if you noticed anything about the “deadness” of my generation? How everything just is? A colloquialism: Oh, that’s just how it is.
Maybe it is just me reacting to some of the things I see. Notably, the Occupy Duke posters that plague the bulletin boards or the Occupy Wall Street Movement at large. Or even the enigmatic definition of the “postmodern” artist. Has the “is” (or mediocrity) seeped into some of our top universities and, more importantly, our education system? Our creative selves? I don’t know how else to define the passivity that I see in this “real” world, and I’m wondering how a fellow philosopher manages a similar or different conclusion. “Quick now, here now, always—”?
Writing and reading have become a serious undertaking for understanding — a Faustian howl, you could say.
Some of my closest friends are fearing the inevitability of joblessness (It can’t yet be described as purposelessness, can it?). I want to let them know it’s not exactly what it seems, yet I don’t want to tell them how different the green looks on this side, either. Grass is relative. But they, too, in large part could be the source of this anxiety.
So I return to the importance of “being.”
I was back at Duke, relishing in the bittersweetness of memories and looking forward to creating new ones, even within a four day period. It just wasn’t the same; I’ve realized that the only thing I can always do is “be.” I’m trying to see how best to express this and transfer that energy of existence into my friends/coworkers/students/peers/family, but I’m losing the momentum myself. California, without close friends or family, is draining me, yet I’m feeling the rhythm that conspicuously occurs here. A part of it, I know, is in Silicon Valley — the place is bumping with energy, literal and figurative. But, now, I think more than anything I want real energy — just honest human expression, shared.”
A student’s question ejects the tape, causing me to smirk at my older, younger self.
“How do words let us know we exist?”
I let the question linger in the air. Its faintest echo hitting the nowhere space.
“It truly starts with evolution, for we became social creatures by gaining the ability to speak. Then we became conscious creatures for we wanted to transcribe our experiences down so that others would benefit. But I’ll say simply: Because words move us.”
I go, “Writers like Norman Maclean, Sherman Alexie, Jon Krakauer, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, William Shakespeare, Saul Williams, Tupac. They write words down. Their feelings. Their affects. Their emotions. They are nothing but still designs on a page. But they’re still moving.”
A figment of T.S. Eliot appears beside Billy in the back; he nods his head.
Their eyes squint. Maybe they can’t see?
I say, “How do you move to music? I just mentioned Tupac. What about Kendrick Lamar?”
(They are obsessed with good kid m.A.A.d city.)
“Dancing!” someone responds.
“Precisely. And language allows us this dance.”
T.S. Eliot begins to dance like the tin man from the Wizard of Oz. Billy doesn’t notice this.
Standing, still, I speak about language as a means for dancing. How if we allow everyone to speak for themselves. Announce themselves into being. Then those that hear their stories can dance, too.
Then I underline **democracy**. (Wondering if anyone has ever thought about it as dance-ocracy. Bud-um-pshh…) And give the cartoon talking heads on the board word bubbles that suggest a chorus of yawps.
“How do we connect this to what has already been said?” I ask.
“A true democracy is where everyone has a say.”
Someone else says “It’s the majority.”
Again, “So we can all dance to the same tune?”
Someone new suggests “The cloud?”
T.S. Eliot leaves and Paulo Friere walks in.
I write on the board that since the French and American Revolution, democracy has spread like wildfire. Then I stutter because I can’t remember how many democratic nations are established between 1776 and the turn of the 20th century.
“It comes out to be over half” I go.
(Which, as I look up later, is less correct than I hoped. 147 electoral democracies existed in 2007. 40 existed in 1970).
“Crazy” I say anyway, knowing my point can still works without data.
Then I draw a timeline.
I circle 1900 and ask them what they think is significant about this date.
“The assembly line”
I clap my hands, thanking them for their responses, writing them down, too. Then I go “Think about how all of these inventions, these ideas. How have changed the way we understand space?”
Mouths are open like typical starfish out of water.
I go “Not like outer space but real space.”
A girl asks me, distracted, “Is that why you have a NASA sticker on your computer?”
I laugh and say yes. “I’m obsessed with space because we occupy a lot more space than any of us ever realize. And we use language in those spaces more often than we give ourselves credit, as well.”
I type “hello” into a Google holding up my computer. “What space am I occupying currently?”
“The internet?” someone suggests.
“A server in Virginia?”
“I point this out because between 1900 and present-day our world has shrunk to the size of blueberry. It once existed as a crazy place with alien figures off in distant lands. A flat land, mind you. Some folks describe other folks as having one-eye on the middle of the forehead. Did you know this? This actually happened…” I say.
I think to myself, Go read the tales of Columbus!
I then go “Y’all live in a day and age where space almost doesn’t exist as an obstacle for movement, for dancing. You can sit in a comfy chair and experience new worlds, new cultures, new languages, and dance to tunes others before you have never had the chance to dream of.”
A student interrupts “Why does this matter, dude?”
“It matters, dude, because when you’re sitting in front of your computer, everyone is on an equal playing field. It’s open. You can search for information. Get information. Use information. Give information. You can connect and make yourself exist somewhere else. You probably already have done this, no? It’s different from standing on the ground in some country and having to live there. You can experience new virtual realities that still empower you to live.
“Who has a Facebook?” I ask.
Every being raises their hand, except Paulo in the back.
“The potential of the internet exists not on the web itself, for there is no entity driving it. It is you all that drives it. You live in a period where technology has changed the face of world so much that it’s unfathomable.”
I point back to the timeline.
“Do you know how many people connect on the internet nowadays?”
I wait for the rhetoric to seep in.
“2 fucking billion.”
Billy looks up. Paulo understands.
“2 billion people can now exist somewhere outside of their respective realities. This means that 2 billion people are somehow — if not fully registering it themselves — voicing their existences onto a new sphere. Saying what they want. Learning what they want. They are not bound by their circumstance. Living in Africa doesn’t mean you can’t learn C++. Living in the U.S. doesn’t mean you can’t understand cultures of other living people.”
My computer sits on the table. I pick him up. The NASA sticker is something outside of itself now.
“This is not a toy” I say.
I sound stupid out loud. My eyes get big like an owl.
“No, you don’t get it. The computer you all sit behind may be the single, most powerful tool a person can use. You don’t realize the connectivity that this giant blueberry now possesses. The implications of being in multiple places at once is beyond comprehension, almost. To understand this is necessary to your future. You live in the digital age. You all have access to the globe. It’s just disguised as screen.”
I continue “We’ve experienced the backcountry this semester to understand what it feels like to live self-sufficiently. With the packs on our back. We cook our own food. We build our homes each evening. We get ourselves from one place to the other on our own two feet. While this is pertinent to experiencing a balanced life. Many of you will not have the chance to do this again. You will live in a world of buttons and cars and televisions and keyboards. You must know the importance of the tool you use daily, just like the way you understand the importance of a stove before you head on a ten-day expedition.”
Then I connect the dongle to the projector and display Google’s page about recent events in Dubai.
“The International Telecommunications Union, formed by the United Nations, is meeting with nations to come to terms on regulation and censorship of the web. Asking questions like, what is appropriate connectivity.”
We read the points aloud, reaffirming the importance of an open internet as a democratic demonstration of the people on Earth. On the small blueberry.
“If we lose a public, free internet, we lose a democratic space for 2 billion people.
“That’s a fuck ton of folks.”
I think they understand for some of them laugh when I say “fuck.” And when the 90-minutes is over. They say thank you, that was awesome. I’m either crying, or brains are in my eyes. Success is dependent on neither.
I am joyful that I understand.
I teach this in three classes. It sounds different each time. The content, though, is the same.
The clock covers his crotch with one hand, the other to its side. It’s 5:30. The day is done.
Snow is still on the ground. Dancing begins.