It’s hard to be wrong on the internet


Yesterday, I finally started editing a big video project for work. It’s an educational series that’ll end up being about 10-12 hours long for which I filmed some scholars talking to a camera as if they were teaching straight to the viewer. The content itself is fabulous, but the the choice to film straight to the camera was made somewhat on a whim. It’s early going still, but it’s presenting some challenges. I’m trying to work out how I’m going to make it a dynamic viewing experience.

In search of inspiration I went to YouTube to find “lecturey” type videos in order to learn what production decisions others made, and stumbled on a series I’d watched a few years ago featuring Harvard professor Michael Sandel leading students through moral philosophy. It’s great. It’s filmed in a big lecture hall, but Sandel is engaging. It’s spectacular.

About 17 minutes in, Sandel issues a “warning” to his students:

To read these books, in this way, is an exercise in self-knowledge. To read them in this way carries certain risks. Risks that are both personal and political…These risks spring from the fact that philosophy teaches us and unsettles us by confronting us with what we already know. There’s an irony. The difficulty of this course consists in the fact that it teaches you what you already know…It works by taking what you already know, and making it strange.

This is the beauty of all advanced education, if you ask me. You take what you know and learn to apply it in wild and varied ways. You learn to make connections. You learn to synthesize. You get it wrong a lot, but you slog through.

I’m jealous of the students in that lecture hall, of that environment. I miss it terribly. I confess to being a person who would choose the life of a perpetual student if I had any say in the matter.

Yesterday, we learned that the University of Chicago has told its incoming Freshman class that their’s would not be a comfortable learning environment:

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called “trigger warnings,” we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual “safe spaces” where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

I interpret UofC’s statement positively. They are warning students that learning is hard, and that they will be uncomfortable, and that this is precisely the point of education. UofC actually has a Safe Space they actively promote to the LGBTQ students on their campus, but what they’re doing in this statement is different. They’re saying: “You can’t run away from learning just because it’s hard. But don’t worry. We are committed to helping you work through it. There’s no need to be scared. We got you. We’ve been doing this a while.”

When I was in seminary, I was fortunate to be confronted with the truth of White Supremacy in a formal educational way for the first time in my life. I was taught about patriarchal structures for the first time in my life. I was taught about the intersection of race, gender, and class, and let me tell you: It was difficult.

It was difficult because I was scared. I was a young, straight, Midwestern boy who believed himself to be White. I had (or so I thought) everything to lose. But my professors and classmates were on the journey with me. We were all in this together. It was a safe space for learning, even though I wasn’t able to carve out an “intellectual safe space” in which I did not have to engage something new that would help me grow.

It’s been a LONG TIME since I’ve had that kind of environment to learn in. Nowadays, I learn the way most adults do: I YouTube it or search Wikipedia. I’ll buy a book here and there, but I don’t have the places to work through things that I’m unclear on, or to check theories I’m developing. I lament that I really don’t have a place that will help me grow intellectually anymore. Someplace where I can safely be wrong.

It all kind of crystallized for me a few days ago, listening to Malcolm Gladwell on a podcast. During the episode, Gladwell confessed that he thought the internet as we know it is ridiculous. It is unchecked and undefendable. He thinks the openness of the internet maybe shouldn’t be considered a feature anymore. I’m torn because I’m inclined to agree with him*. The recent horror done to Leslie Jones is Exhibit A for me.

But I want to apply Gladwell’s point to another aspect of internet life: The social web is not built for learning. Everyone has become a “public thinker” with the ability to contribute to the conversation (good), but almost no one has been trained in how to actually have a rhetorical debate (bad). We offer “hot takes” and “quick reads.” We presume a shit ton about what our Facebook “friends” are saying without taking the time to type the words: “I don’t fully understand your point. Could you say more?”

I don’t need to bang this drum. It’s the same thing many folks have lamented. My point is this: I want to learn, and I’d like learning to be easier on the social web. But the ad hoc nature of the platform makes it almost impossible. There are not really any arranged spaces online in which we can explore, suggest, and – most importantly – be wrong. The ability to be wrong is crucial, but the use of the platform doesn’t even think to consider it. In a world full of experts, no one assumes anyone else cares to learn anymore. So all we’re left with is a bunch of people defending positions or responding to attacks.

Or, as Cenk Uyger said on Twitter yesterday:

The whole internet has become Lord of the Flies and everyone is fighting over the conch.

The internet is kind of dumb that way.


*And I’m the guy who wrote a book about open source.