1991: Who we were and Who we need to be

a post in honor of the 20th Anniversary of the public launch of the World Wide Web

Every year at this time I do a little soul-searching. I ponder the semester to come – the 400+ young minds I will encounter – and wonder, “What do they really need to learn?” I try to look beyond the textbooks and standard curriculum (i.e. “what I am supposed to teach”) and think deeply about what students really need to be significant, intelligent participants in today’s world. It does not take any miraculous feat of reflexive speculation to find that the question pertains to me as much as it does to them. And so I’m really sitting here wondering, what do *I* need to learn, and indeed, what do *any of us* need to learn in order to lead happier, healthier, richer, more ethical, and more meaningful lives.

The question is all the more pertinent today because our communication tools have dramatically altered how we learn, how we connect with one another, and even how we think. In the past 2 weeks the release of new research on the Internet’s effect on memory has re-invigorated the question asked by Carr, “Is Google making us stupid?” as well as Kevin Kelly’s clever response, “Will we let Google make us smarter?”

But such debates have only hinted at the core issues I tend to think deeply about as I prepare for the semester. The question of “what we really need to learn” has become almost all-consuming for me in the past 10 years since I started teaching, and virtually every research endeavor I have embarked upon during those years has had this question at its core.

In answering this question, I am not interested in what “information” or “skill sets” we need to learn (though that is, unfortunately, how most of us professors feel compelled to proceed due to various social, physical, and mental structures). Skills and information fade into obsolescence . They are the metaphorical fish handed to you by the guy who should have taught you how to fish. More importantly, skills and information alone do not help us lead happier, healthier, richer, more ethical and more meaningful lives.

We need a vision for who we and our students need to *be* – not just what we should know. I’m not sure what that is, but I do know that it would help to know who we are, and to know who we are it would help to know who we were . . . and that’s why I’m sitting in my office reading a bag full of books written in 1991.

Who we were: 1991

On August 6th, 1991, the Web debuted as a publicly accessible service on the Internet. Almost 20 years later to the day, I’m sitting here reading five books released in the year before that momentous occasion: Charles Taylor’s “The Ethics of Authenticity, Kenneth Gergen’s “The Saturated Self,” Harvey’s “Condition of Postmodernity,” Anthony Giddens’ “Modernity and Self-Identity” and Jameson’s “Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” Each of them presents a brilliant perspective on who we were at that moment just before the web was born – and all are (despite their depth and perceptiveness) charmingly and innocently unaware of Tim’s little invention that would start to reshape how we live, work and play.

Even a cursory read quickly dispels certain myths about the effects of the Web. Here are three observations that immediately stand out:

1. We were already distracted.

In 1991 we worried that our kids were narcissistic, disengaged, and not easily impressed … that their attention spans were no more than 4 minutes, the average link of an MTV music video. Our kids (and all of us) were already distracted by what Gergen fancifully calls “invitations to incoherence”. If Gergen were to re-write today he would undoubtedly include in these “invitations” the persistent e-mailing, IM’ing, status-updating, texting, tweeting, etc. that invite us into other worlds and thereby make every moment a bit incoherent. But in 1991 he settled for the ability to receive a call or fax from anybody in the world and instantly be transported into another social universe. Gergen went so far as to suggest that such activities “engender a multiplicitous and polymorphic being who thrives on incoherence.” In 1991 he could temper such remarks by noting that few had taken the leap into this polymorphic state, but followed up such caveats by noting that “there is good reason to believe that what is taking place within these groups can be taken as a weathervane of future cultural life in general … in the longer run … the technologies giving rise to social saturation will be inescapable.”

Gergen prophetically notes that “We enter the age of techno-personal systems,” but he was not imagining the World Wide Web. By “technologies of saturation” he simply means roads, cities, cars, planes, cities, phones, computers, newspapers, radio, TV that collectively “saturate” us with information and connections that surpass our capacity to manage effectively.

2. Our education system was already “in crisis” and out of step with the times.

Drop out rates were high. Psychological drop out rates were even higher. As Harvey notes, the Fordist big business-big labor-big state alliance that had brought decades of prosperity to the West had given way to globalization and “flexible accumulation.” The US de-industrialized and by 1991 nearly half of all Americans were working in “information.” We were already a knowledge economy in a globalizing world, but our schools were not keeping up – still teaching in an industrial model.

And there was no shortage of reformers. Canons were falling. Interdisciplinary was all the buzz. New departments – especially Women’s Studies, African American Studies, Culture Studies – sprung up and took aim at the traditional, stodgy, power-laden, white-male-centered educational system. (i.e. Wikipedia did not invent challenges to traditional models of authority.)

3. We thought our kids were self-obsessed, overly-self-important narcissists.

There were already persistent complaints about our kids being disengaged and narcissistic. Students were feeding off of the revolutionary energy of the reformers, reading the postmodernist challenge to authority as an ally in elevating their own opinions to the status of experts. Alan Bloom voiced the concerns of those who were concerned about these developments in “The Closing of the American Mind,” ranting about the self-obsessed “anything goes” attitude of our youth. The book struck a chord and enjoyed a run atop the Times Bestsellers list. (Lasch’s excellent “Culture of Narcissism,” originally published in 1978, had also come back as a revised edition in 1991).

Familiar Themes

Twenty years later the same complaints abound. Jean Twenge has called our youth “Generation Me” and worries that we are facing a “Narcissism Epidemic.” Nicholas Carr has eloquently argued that multi-tasking is merely distracted thinking and that without adequate awareness of how the Internet effects our brains we are destined for the “Shallows.” And blogs, tweets, bookshelves, and conference programs abound with complaints and proposed solutions to our current education crisis.

If the themes seem familiar, perhaps it is simply because these 1991 authors were perceptive enough to identify fundamental persistent tensions in our culture rather than simply identifying the “trends.” They are not hung up on these three simple observations. They are seeking the roots, and what they dig up is as relevant today as it was in 1991.

Taylor calls it “an act of retrieval.” Most cultural commentators miss the mark by failing to recognize the underlying moral ideal at work that is producing the apparent problems. What appears as distraction, dissolution, fragmentation, and self-indulgent, self-important narcissism is, at a deeper level, an expression of our pursuit of the authentic self.

The ethic of authenticity was born in the late 18th century and persists to this day. Being “authentic” requires us to “find ourselves,” “get in touch with our inner lives,” and act from our “core.” It springs from what Taylor calls “the massive subjective turn of modern culture.” “Identity” is so important to us (and especially our students) because we live in a world in which identity and recognition are not givens. They must be achieved. It is our “core project” as Giddens says.

But there are tensions at work within this quest for identity and recognition. Authenticity demands an entirely original creation – which frequently involves opposition to society. Yet at the same time our creations cannot be meaningful without being open to the meaning systems created and sustained by society. We never quite feel like we have “found ourselves.” Just when we think we know who we are the doubts start to creep in: Is this really the real me? Or have I been duped by society? Or we find ourselves so on the margins that we feel a loss of meaning and purpose. Most of us sway between these poles, always struggling to find who we really are. The “technologies of saturation” only amplify these issues by providing us with countless options, so that each self we portray or become “cries out for an alternative, points to a missed potential, or mocks the chosen action for its triviality … the postmodern being is a restless nomad” (Gergen).

Two “slides” (as Taylor calls them) result from this process. First, like a chinese fingercuff the quest for identity squeezes in on us ever harder as we try to escape it. We start focusing more and more on ourselves and our own self-fulfillment, often to the detriment of deep and lasting relationships. (Note: this is not something the internet created. In fact, some would argue the internet was created as a correction to this (and it has worked and failed in dramatic fashion depending on the person and context).) As a result, we become increasingly disengaged from our communities and public life as we focus more and more on ourselves. (Giddens and Harvey would want to point out that this is amplified by the “disembedding mechanisms” of modernity that hide the many connections and relationships that allow us to survive.)

Secondly, there is what Taylor calls “a negation of all horizons of significance” which is a fancy way of saying that we no longer share the same beliefs and values across the whole society, and that there can be little or no ground on which to stand to claim that your beliefs and values are true while others are false. Society becomes increasingly fragmented.

The two slides feed back into the process itself. The first slide makes us feel more disengaged from society so we increasingly seek meaning, recognition, and identity. The second slide creates more and more options for us to try out on the journey, while taking away the possibility of ever finding the “right” identity or being universally positively recognized because there are too many diverse viewpoints and possibilities.

As a society, we continue trending toward individualism and superficiality even as we value connection, community, and authenticity. We disengage from community, social action, and politics. We amuse ourselves to death. And the most amazing collaboration and creativity machine ever created celebrates its 20th anniversary as a distraction device.

What to do?

Taylor is not shy about noting that what we have here is a “vicious circle.” But he also sees the potential for creating a “virtuous circle.” Successful common actions can breed a sense of empowerment and connection that can spread to other domains. That’s where we come in as teachers. We have an opportunity, not just to teach our students “something,” but to be part of their journey and help them find meaning and purpose in an over-saturated, fragmented, and distracting world full of self-indulgent temptations.

I won’t spend the rest of this blog harping on about how I try to do this, but diving into this work of 1991 has re-invigorated my passion for project-based learning in which students engage in real and relevant problems that excite them, work together to approach these problems as a learning community, and harness and leverage digital technologies while also critically reflecting on how those technologies mediate and change their lives.

I know this has been a long post, but how we understand society, and our capacity to imagine how society might change (or if it can change) can have a dramatic effect on how we teach. In 1968, Warren Bennis and Philip Slater made many of the same observations I have put forth here in “The Temporary Society.” Imagining a radically more flexible social world, they suggested that “we should help our students … (1) Learn how to develop intense and deep human relationships quickly – and learn how to “let go.” … (2) Learn how to enter groups and leave them. ”

While I agree with their observations, and the spirit of their suggestions, I take a slightly different approach. If community, social action, and empathy levels are down (as research shows them to be), then I think it is our responsibility to help create more socially conscious and empathic students/citizens.

I don’t want to help make students for the world.

I want to help make students who make the world over.


Associate professor of cultural anthropology. Ed Traceur. Hacker. Car-free.

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16 Responses

  1. Kat says:

    Nice post, and inspiring. Thank you.

  2. Judy says:

    Thoughtful words here as I too prepare for fall classes.

  3. Jordan says:

    A wonderful post, and a great piece of intellectual history, if I may say.

  4. I love when you look beyond the question and that’s the reason I keep coming back to you blogposts and youtube videos.

  5. Ellen Field says:

    This post has arrived at a very salient moment for me. I appreciate your philosophy of education and am thankful for the insight of looking to 1991 texts.

  6. Just love this. Especially : we need “work together to approach these problems as a learning community, and harness and leverage digital technologies while also critically reflecting on how those technologies mediate and change their lives.”

    Thanks Mike.

  7. Delia Bradshaw says:

    Thank you for returning to the WHY which, in turn, calls us to name our socio-cultural, political and educational visions. Being both an intellectual nomad yet striving to be a ‘good’ (compassionate, courageous, creative, generous) global citizen is, for me, something of a dance, requiring grace and harmony.

  8. Nick Timmons says:

    Great post, Dr. Wesch. If we’ve lost touch with our sense of empathy, social action, and community, perhaps it is only because we haven’t yet figured out how to participate in a global society. As you’ve noted, every day we are confronted by hundreds of tragedies experienced by people we haven’t met and systems of values that may or may not reflect our own view of the world.

    How do we make a genuine connection with people who hold a different perspective?

    How do we make a contribution of value that doesn’t just make problem worse or confuse the issue?

    How do we create an identity that is consistent with our own values?

    Your class does an excellent job of addressing these questions and guiding students to seek their empathetic nature.

  9. Heather says:

    I really enjoyed reading this. It is thoughtful and open. I bet you are a wonderful teacher. I love the evidence presented that the world made new by the internet isn’t so new. It’s also great piece on the choices we will make about how to live. It seems to get lost sometimes that how we live with technology is a choice, not a fate. Best of luck.

  10. Carolyn Jonsson says:

    Thank you for your insightful and inspiring thoughts about the challenges and benefits of 21st century learning and citizenship. I loved your final points.

    ” I don’t want to help make students for the world.

    I want to help make students who make the world over.”

  11. Mihai says:

    Thanks, Michael. This is helping me prepare for becoming a teacher.

  12. Shalini Bahl says:

    How refreshing to hear this from an academic! Whether I am working with clients of students I like to meditate on what is most important and relevant for them to know and experience to live their highest potential.

    Do you have any suggestions to make online curriculum engaging for MBAs such that it fits into their busy lives but giving them opportunities to collaboratively learn…

    Thank you…

  13. ian august says:

    cool post. a few thoughts come to mind.
    Is google making us stupid? I think it depends how we use google and these other tools. Many use facebook to connect with friends and chat. Is this bad? I might connect with friends on facebook that I would not have called, thus creating a relationship out of none. I also use facebook to keep up with those in industries i like and want to stay up to date in.

    Many use ipods to tune out the world around them at all times. I use my ipod to download very informative podcasts, like alternative health or news shows, like gary null and democracy now, and i listen to these shows in my car.

    Many use you tube to waste time and watch stupid videos, like a talking orange. I use youtube just like my last two examples, to learn, learn about news stories that the american corporate news outfits will not report on, to learn how to cook, to learn how to exercise better.

    My other thought has to do with you comparing 1991 to now and seeing how many of the same issues were around during both times. I would argue that the same issues were always around. I am sure, and i think i have read that when people first began writing down things in books, there was a fear our memory would suffer. I am sure it did. I read socrates had a mystery school back in the day and no writing was allowed. But today we can now have vast libraries of knowledge.

    I am sure when radio and tv came about the same issues were worried about.

  14. Rob says:

    Thanks for taking the time and sharing your thoughts. There are always two sides to every coin, especially when it comes to the seemingly changing cultural values of the internet and its users. I especially loved the way you ended your post.

    We have a choice: change the tools or change the people who use the tools. You can’t really put Pandora back in the box per say, but you can help students navigate, learn, and react to her!

    Thanks for you research and insights!

  15. Bruno Costa says:

    Prof Wesch.

    I’ve been studying anthropology in Portugal for the last 5 years.

    Still this is just like an hobbie because I’ve a full-time job that does not give me much time to spare and do more studying.

    Either way in the last semester we’ve seen your lecture about youtube and I become curious. Today I’m trying to find a topic or issue to make my masters tesis… So I was surfing through the web and recall your lecture and searched for more info about your work.

    I’ve seen your post and got stuck in the metaphorical fish… the fish that professors should taught us to catch.

    But that’s the catch; Our world as become smaller due to globalization and communications and transportation developments and at the same time it got bigger due to the information overflow… all those issues promotes a feeling of emptyness that can only be surpassed if we recognize it and assume that the metaphorical fish is reality! Can we create a movement that can promote the consciousness for this issue? Can we make Serge Latouches words the peoples voice? Anthropology made me realize that when studying others we gain self consciousness that help us to understand our habits and feellings and depressions.

    All we think is that the web it’s great and that we can get comfort in words and symbols that we understand, but all this promotes the separation from our friends arms… of what really matters… Do we want to discuss the video of some guy that made a great dive when riding a skate board and was part of the news in TV because it had a huge number of views? Is this what makes the world spin? A fall of a guy?

    Can we see this as the second fall of man?

    Well, the world is very complex and it’s becoming very hard to find some order in this incoherent world.


  16. Elizabeth Spreng says:

    Like Michael, I find myself concerned about these very same things. Yet, I find myself wondering about another question as well that concerns the types of students now entering university culture. Are they post-modern or modern. When I give a crash course in these two outlooks on the world, I ask my students at the end do they adhere to post-modernism, the red-headed stepchild of modernism, or do they feel like misguided or confused modernists. Surprisingly, many of them admit, although many had considered, what type of person they were from that perspective, that they are modernists. To echo Bruno LaTour, “we have never been modern,” and, perhaps this explains some of the dilemmas that we now face.

    On a related topic, last night my husband and I watched the movie “Freakonomics” in separate states, but at the same time. I think the topics discussed raise some difficult questions that relate to the nature of education in a globalized world and how individuals are navigating their own desires, wanting to believe “A STORY,” and being people hearing an imperfect meta-narrative.

    Although I have rambled some, which I apologize for, I will stop myself now. Michael, your thoughts are provoking and it is enjoyable being a new part of “your” digital community.