Blog Post

We Run Computers Well, But Can We Run Ourselves?

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I 

While I was riding on a bus across the campus of Stanford University one afternoon, I noticed that almost everybody I saw was staring into his or her iPhone or talking on it. Long a familiar sight, this struck me not only as the spirit of Silicon Valley but also as the Zeitgeist of the contemporary world. Driven by the widening gyre of digital connectivity, everybody seems frantically engaged in some nonstop networking with friends and pals. The very air we breathe is overcast with a wire/wired cloud linking one individual to another. This engrossing obsession with staying connected is very odd in a university setting. A university means some universal learning agenda to forge a public of citizens and a forum of shared values and knowledge. It is supposed to foster a collective, civil interchange of ideas and discoveries. Stanford’s garden-like campus provides numerous corners and nooks for group gathering, convenient for sustained play and unfolding of ideas and knowledge. Bathed in the California sunshine, some discussions take place in these academic enclaves. Unfortunately, while this kind of seminary gathering with face-to-face engagement does happen, it is the scene of wired iPhone connectivity among a gathering of students, “alone together,” that dominates the campus.

Even in the classroom, when students are supposed to listen to lectures or articulate their thoughts in discussion, many are looking at their computer screens and surfing the net. Once in a film class I screened a very educational and entertaining Chinese film. When I moved to the back of the classroom, however, I found quite a few students who had 2 or 3 windows open on their computer screens, simultaneously watching 2 or 3 films. No wonder students had hard time following the storyline and the message of the film for the course. Multi-tasking invades the classroom and has scattered students’ attention and defused their brains in an infinite sprawl of bites and images. Like swimmers tossed around by waves in a tumultuous ocean, they desperately yet excitedly clutch at something to keep afloat.

The fun part aside, desperately clutching at something may reveal a fear of being left alone in this world and left behind in ever-renewable novelties. Biologists tell us that humans are hardwired in their genes to hang on to their partners. Yet it is precisely this so-called innate trait that defeats culture and higher education. It is not the genes but rather culture that shapes a human being. Culture is an overcoming of nature, a shaping of instincts in transit to society, or we would be eating each other in the jungles.

Yet culture is glaringly absent in digital connectivity. In clutching at multiple digital floats on a confusing sea of bites and images, one may not have to confront the empty core of one’s personality, moral integrity, or engage in a moment of reflection on life’s meaning. When one feels empty and drowning for lack of an anchor to one’s life, it may help a bit to drink mind-numbing liquor and listen to thunderous music. Engaging in connectivity for its own sake seems like taking drugs or alcohol: it is more addictive than therapeutic. It works as momentary relief or evasion. But when you wake up in the morning, the yawning abyss of value and culture—what is the point of it all—is staring at you.

Does ubiquitous connectivity really bond people into a vibrant, sociable community? In my view, digital connectivity seems hell bent on breaking society into pieces, affirming what German philosopher Kant called “asocial sociability.” This is a travesty of society, with ceaseless clashes of myriads of private interests and bigotry huddling in a false public sphere, condemning society to my backyard, my face, my space, my video. This is more damning in a setting of higher education. Genuine connectivity would mean getting deeply connected with traditions and innovations in science and liberal arts. It involves getting deeply immersed in enduring themes, slow-cooked thoughts and rooted sentiments. Past thinkers and scientists have attempted answers to life’s urgent questions, only by standing on their shoulders can students really make themselves better members of a community. A student needs to be connected with foundational narratives, histories, and ideas that constitute his or her own identity and culture. This connection does not mean one should learn culture, as one grasp the skills to run a computer. Genuine connectivity means one achieves an appreciation of one’s values and meaning, which leads to a self-understanding of one’s place in the community and society. Far from being a social skill, the mannerism of a “people person,” connectivity is an understanding of essential human relations and mutual trust. Cultivating human beings who are capable of maintaining a meaningful, public life is the ultimate goal of university education.

Indiscriminate wired connectivity is a dubious idea. It not only disconnects students from their community and human values but also leads to a polarization and fragmentation of society. As things now stand, more and more people know how to run a computer or device, but the writings on the wall indicate that humanity is becoming less and less able to run itself as a whole.

Wang Ban is the William Haas Professor in Chinese Studies at Stanford University. He received his Ph.D. in comparative literature at UCLA. In addition to his research on Chinese and comparative literature, he has written on English and French literatures, psychoanalysis, international politics, and cinema. He has been a recipient of research fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton. He taught at Beijing Foreign Studies University, SUNY-Stony Brook, Harvard University, and Rutgers University before he came to Stanford. His current project is tentatively entitled China and the World: Geopolitics, Aesthetics, and Cosmopolitanism. His interests include modern Chinese literature and film, comparative literature (East and West), aesthetics, intellectual history, psychoanalysis, transnational politics and culture.