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Technophobia in Academia

Email and the Professor

By Mikita Brottman

(May 02, Washington, Sri Lanka Guardian) Once upon a time, academic departments functioned quite smoothly without the use of e-mail. Indeed, only ten years ago, when I first began to use e-mail regularly (and I was in some respects a latecomer), most of my colleagues did not (or would not) use it. Now that most of us in academia—myself included—would be utterly lost without our wireless laptops, it is easy to forget that until quite recently, it was common to find faculty—particularly in the humanities—who did not even own a word processor, let alone a laptop. Departmental memos were photocopied and distributed to faculty mailboxes; exam questions were delivered in longhand to the department secretary, to be typed out and mimeographed. It seems like centuries ago.

I first received an office computer with a modem in 1995, but I used it very sporadically, and continued to do most of my work on a portable word processor that I carried home after work—and even that was considered pretty hi-tech. In my department, few of the secretaries and even fewer of the faculty were computer literate, and consequently, nothing of any importance was ever circulated by e-mail. Fifteen years later, and it’s hard to imagine a life without it. We may complain about the daily barrage, but very few of us can ignore e-mail completely. Instead, we have developed different kinds of strategies by which to incorporate it into our busy lives. Psychologist Michael Sipiora, a faculty member in the Clinical Psychology Program at Pacifica Graduate Institute, used to teach a course on the psychology of stress that addressed, among other issues, the stress associated with electronic communications. “I used a book written by two business consultants -- Dot Calm : The Search for Sanity in a Wired World by Debra A. Dinnocenzo and Richard B. Swegan—that suggests making active choices about how to use such technologies based on one's values and commitments,” Sipiora e-mailed me. “Then, the task is to communicate these choices to others so that they know what to expect from you (and vice versa). The trick is to make proactive choices based on one's own priorities rather than respond to insidious demands that issue from outside sources (when possible)”.

Interestingly, despite the fact that e-mail has become virtually ubiquitous in the academic workplace, every department I have worked in has contained at least one faculty member who does not or will not use it. The most common of these types is the Senior Scholar. Before I go any further, let me stress that faculty in their sixth or seventh decade are often surprisingly eager to embrace new technology, and can be remarkably adept at using it (especially when arthritis makes handwriting much more difficult than using a keyboard). However, many Senior Scholars have reached retirement age after experiencing a rich and diverse academic career without the benefit of a computer, e-mail or cell phone. It should hardly be surprising, then, if they have little interest in learning new tricks. Moreover, if they are popular or prestigious enough, Senior Scholars may rely on the goodwill of the department secretary (or even a loyal graduate student) to print out their e-mail and leave the hard copies on their desks for them to jot down replies. Donald E. Knuth, Professor Emeritus of the Art of Computer Programming at Stanford University is such a scholar. Clearly techno-savvy, Knuth nonetheless does not use e-mail. A message on his website tells us why. “I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I'd used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime. Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration.”

A second type of faculty member who eschews modern technology is the neo-Luddite. This kind of professor is stalwart in his or her insistence in meeting students in the flesh, gives old-fashioned lectures with no bells or whistles, and does not allow laptops in class. The neo-Luddite may be perfectly competent with technology; their resistance to it is purely ideological. They may resent the overwhelming flood of demands made by e-mail on their hours of study and concentration; they may also have concerns about the tendency of electronic communication to reduce attention span, cause eyestrain, and infiltrate our private lives. Langdon Winner, Thomas Phelan Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences at Rensselaer, is such a scholar. In an Op Ed published in Newsday way back in 1997, Winner proclaimed that “technomania has become the dominant fin-de-siècle myth,” and that technology may become our destiny “by weakening public imagination and our desire to make choices at all.” Like Knuth, Winner is technically adept; indeed, he takes advantage of technology to rail against its dark side in his weblog Technopolis, which “offers occasional reflections on historical, philosophical, and contemporary questions that involve the perplexing intersection of human ends and means”.

Most interesting of all are those faculty who are genuine technophobes, with a real aversion towards machines, whether they be telephones, computers, televisions, or even, in extreme cases, automobiles. While dyed-in-the-wool technophobes may be relatively commonplace in small communities outside the academic world, it is quite rare to find them in a job that demands so much flexibility and interaction. Psychologist (and technophile) Craig Brod believes “those who are ambivalent, reluctant, or fearful of computers” are suffering from “technostress.” In his 1984 book Technostress: The Human Cost of the Computer Revolution, Brod defines this problem as “a modern disease of adaptation caused by an inability to cope with the new computer technologies in a healthy manner. It manifests itself in two distinct but related ways: in the struggle to accept computer technology, and in the more specialized form of overidentification with computer technology.” A slightly different explanation of the condition is provided by a 1991 article entitled “The Influencing Machine and the Mad Scientist” published in the International Review of Psycho-Analysis. Here, psychoanalyst Stuart S. Asch describes “those otherwise intelligent people unable to understand any gadgets and who prefer to avoid them all…”. “If one questions such ‘unmechanically minded’ people,” Asch observes, “one can often sense the anxiety beginning to creep into their manner and voice, often ending with a refusal to discuss it further. Occasionally there is a final admission of a ‘certain uncanny feeling’ about the machines, as if the machines are invested with some kind of animism.”

This, I think, is the key. When it comes to technology, there is a very thin line between rational prudence and primitive superstition. In this sense, perhaps the most advanced are not those who enslave themselves to the disembodied voices pestering them all day through the computer screen, but those who simply refuse to hear them at all.

Mikita Brottman is a psychoanalyst and chair of the program in humanities & depth psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute. She can be reached at mbrottman@pacifica.edu

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