I have a quote here, from a teachers’ association in 1815, which says “Students today depend upon paper too much”. It says they can’t use their chalkboards correctly; when they try and clean them, they get chalk dust everywhere.
And then I have another quote, here, this time from 1907, that says students depend too much on ink. By 1929 – just twelve years later – the problem has become store bought ink, because students won’t be able to make their own ink.
In 1941, the problem was fountain pens. Nine years later, the problem was ballpoint pens – biros, just like this. A huge impediment, according to teachers across the country. But obviously now they’re essential – no one’s going to seriously make a case that biros challenge our fundamental values, which is what they were saying in 1950.
Now, you can track this back all throughout history. I’m sure if you go back far enough, you’d find someone, somewhere, bemoaning the fact that the kids didn’t know their hieroglyphs well enough, and they were learning all that fancy Latin.
People resist change. They always have – and perhaps maybe always will.
We’ve reached the point, though, where it’s not the biro which is the focus of people’s ire, but rather digital technology. Computers, smartphones, iPads.
And, crucially, the internet.
The internet gets a pretty bad rep, as it goes. I think that’s largely based in ignorance – the majority of people have this ridiculous image of the neckbeard guy. You know the one? Slightly overweight, lives in his mother’s basement, wears an egg stained jumper, deathly pale, it’s dark and the only light comes from the screen, and he’s probably wearing a fedora or some such similar too. And he has a beard on his neck, hence the moniker.
Or maybe they’re thinking of the creepy pervert, sat stalking kids, somehow finding out their address and popping round in a white van, ready to whisk them away, and groom them or something like that.
Or, even more likely, perhaps people don’t even have these preconceptions, because they’re not even at that level – they can barely open a web page, let alone make wild stereotypical claims.
Now, it’d be naïve to suggest these people don’t exist, and that’s not what I’m here to say. But it is an inaccurate idea. It’s nothing more than a ridiculous stereotype that’s been popularised because people use it as the punchline for cheap jokes.
The digital age is more than that cheap joke, and deserves to be championed, and to be celebrated.
Everyone knows about Wikipedia, right? I’m sure everyone here has checked it at some point. Did you know it has over 5 million articles? And that’s just the English-language version – Wikipedia exists in nearly 300 hundred different languages. I think it’s brilliant, personally speaking – it’s made knowledge accessible to the masses, and truly democratised information. That’s a huge step forward, the sort that cannot be understated – not just in terms of the last minute homework, but honestly, genuinely, in terms of our social and cultural development as a species.
As much as I love Wikipedia, I fully recognise its limitations – it is, after all, just an encyclopaedia. It’s a repository of knowledge and information, but not necessarily of learning.
So isn’t it rather wonderful that places like Harvard and Yale and other top universities across the globe are beginning to offer courses online, for free, through websites like edX? Huge range of courses you can take through that website, linked to all sorts of different topics – architecture, literature, programming, ethics. I actually took a course on the History of Superheroes a while ago, which was being run through the Smithsonian, with input from Stan Lee himself.
Equally, another website you might have heard of is Khan Academy, which works on a pretty similar basis. Alternatively, you might have heard of TED Talks – the internet contains recordings of hundreds of these talks, all linked to different subject matters, given by all manner of people.
Knowledge and information and education is transcending boundaries of class, culture and country, all through the power of the internet. This is something that would have been impossible a hundred years ago! It would have been impossible ten years ago!
Another great thing, of course, is the fact that as well as having information on these myriad subjects, the internet has people interested in those subjects. The internet creates and forges communities, bringing people together through their common interests.
If you’re interested in reptiles, there’s a community discussing reptiles online. If you’re interested in rugby, there’s a community discussing reptiles online. Adam Sandler films. Trevor Noah’s standup. Art. Trees, even! It’s not just the refrain of “nerd” interests, like Doctor Who – although they exist as well, and I know, given that I’m a member of about 5 such forums.
No one is alone on the internet. There is always someone who is going to share interests with you – friendly, kind people, who are just as passionate about these topics as you are. It’s a forum to share things. I personally have made friends through the internet – Tom, and Ethan, and a different Tom, and Conrad, and Rihanna. Not the Rihanna, of course, but with the level of connectivity we’ve got today, there’s little stopping you from interacting with your favourite celebrities.
For many people, though, these communities become something much more important. It’s not just about discussing Gibson guitars or Homestuck or Stanley Kubrick movies, but finding people who understand you, and whom you can be yourself with. Lots of individuals in GSRM communities – that’s Gender, Sexual and Romantic Minorities – are able to find solace and forge lasting relationships over the internet, because they have the freedom and the liberation to be who they are. You may have heard of Leelah Alcorn, a transgender teenager who committed suicide last year because her parents refused to acknowledge or accept her gender identity. For her, the internet, and the friends she made on the internet – in this instance, it was the website tumblr specifically – were the only people who genuinely treated her with kindness and respect. They were close and meaningful relationships.
That’s not the only way internet broke down boundaries, and united people. In 2008, in Columbia, 10 million people marched, demonstrating against the guerrilla fights, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia – and that had all been arranged through a facebook group. Over the past few years, Twitter has been used to organise all manner of protests as well – #BlackLivesMatter, anyone? The ability to communicate and spread information in such a way has revolutionised every facet of our lives, and it lets us do great things – topple corrupt regimes, shed light on institutional racism… and online shopping as well.
I hope now, having heard this, you’re a little more aware of the successes of the internet, and of the digital age that we live in. Personally, I count myself very lucky to live in a time when this sort of resource exists – like I’ve said already, I genuinely believe that the internet is a force for good that has immeasurably improved the human species, culturally and socially.
This was something I wrote as part of a public speaking competition a few years ago. I lost, obviously. Misjudged the timing of the delivery somewhat. However, I’m still quite fond of it; today seemed an appropriate time to post it, given that it’s ‘Internaut Day’, the 25th anniversary of when the public could first access the World Wide Web.
Happy Internaut Day, everybody. Here’s to the next 25 years.