Alienated, Alone And Angry: What The Digital Revolution Really Did To Us

I am utterly depressed. A week ago, I was listening to a talk by an incredible, committed student with a PhD. He had done his PhD and is now a professor at a large university in the United States, but like the great majority of students at that university, he finds himself at a deficit. This, coupled with uncertainty over his professional future, his family’s financial stability, and the emotional toll that his loneliness is taking on him, left me feeling bereft. Like him, I too am tired of interacting with faceless algorithms that answer “yes” or “no” by calculating probabilities for me. The question that really haunted me was, “Where is my humanity?”

This was probably the most disturbing moment in any presentation I have ever seen. In a textbook, a graduate student (chosen by his/her instructor) gets a shot at talking about her/his research, interspersed with diagrams and examples. Then the professor interrupts them. The supervisor then says, “Every single time I read your paper, there is a good chance it will say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. It will not say, ‘I went out, I drank a lot, I hallucinated for four days, I had sex with a family member’.”

It is too much to have a supervisor who frames your work with the assumption that everyone else’s research is basically what is on this page. Of course the supervisor is entitled to this (and the graduate student is free to state otherwise), but the message is clear. When you write about the work of others, they are going to take your word for it. It is a destructive and destructive message. And, more importantly, it does something completely different. It not only precludes the possibility of another argument, but it sends a message to the graduate student that his/her work isn’t good enough. In other words, it says that my work is not as good as your work, so it must be wrong.

One of the things that makes the supervisor’s system so insidious is the implied assumption that people get the information they need from machines. The cliché is that you might as well have an encyclopedia set in front of you instead of a manual. But the thing is that our whole world is computerized now. I live in an era of constant connectedness, where everyone is privy to our every misstep. We are never, ever alone. And that is antithetical to creativity.

The idea that it is necessary to present multiple versions of one’s work might seem like a successful compromise, an attempt to differentiate between different theoretical models and provide a different portrayal of the work. But at a deep level, that way of thinking implies that having a research assistant help you formulate your work somehow compromised its integrity. For me, I am sick of people thinking that the same book could be written in different ways. I have taught graduate students before that this is ridiculous and that it is impossible to produce different books from different people. I had to admit that I was wrong about that. I simply assumed that having a script available would provide a fair and secure environment for anyone to present a variety of ideas and perspectives. But really, I didn’t understand the implications of offering different versions of the same work. This is where the supervisor came in. They did not only assess the validity of the ideas I presented, but offered a critique that set the parameters for the quality of the work: the idea of brevity was used as an example. There were also suggestions about various resolutions or expansion options. There is nothing inherently evil in this but it is another process that increases a person’s vulnerability to those of us who want the material to be as well-rounded as possible.

In a much better age, the first cycle of graduate work would include workshops at grad school designed to cultivate a sense of responsibility. These would be intentional exercises in collaboration. This would start by giving students time to think about how they wish to be perceived by the postdocs, first-year grad students, and university administration. These would include discussions about the ways that their work might reflect on the power relations and the hyper-conditional environment of academia. Of course there would also be practices which challenged the categorizations that the supervisor offered.