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Susan Pierce

Originally published December 7, 2011 

The corridors of the Los Angeles Valley College teacher’s offices in the school’s Campus Center are dimly lit and bland, the best in early 50’s state-funded architecture. The office of Professor Susan Pierce, in spite of the dull, labyrinthine halls that lead to it, is a warm, inviting oasis filled with books, papers, and soft pan flute music. Professor Pierce has been teaching at Valley for thirty years, first remedial English, then 101 and the Critical Thinking English 103 class, which she continues to teach. After patiently counseling several students on their most recent assignment, Professor Pierce sat down with Drunk Monkeys’ Matthew Guerruckey, a former student of her 103 class, for a conversation about the rapid increase of technology and social networking, and the threat that it may pose to the human spirit.

Drunk Monkeys: You do a lot of your stuff online, has that affected what you’re able to do, how much work you’re able to give a class?

Susan Pierce: Definitely. A year ago, it was at the time of the Ground Zero mosque thing…

DM: …so about then, late 2009 or early 2010.

SP: With all that was going on, between  homophobia and  Muslim hatred, all of a sudden, the world was full of hatred. There were mean spirited people running around throwing hate-balls at others, and I thought, “Oh my god,” so I had that semester’s students write a paper correlating the “Two Minutes Hate” in 1984 and what was going on in this country, as a dry run for the final paper. Because the internet is available, I could pull video off the net, burn a DVD, bring it in, show it in class, and say “take a look at this.” Best of all, it was something that happened that week. I showed the video of Joel Burns,  the openly gay Fort Worth Texas councilman, who confessed at a council meeting that he had considered suicide during adolescence; the video went viral. This was on the heels of the Rutgers student, Tyler Clementi,  jumping off the George Washington bridge when his roommate invaded his privacy and aired an intimate encounter on the Internet. It had just happened, and it brought the issue of hatred home. It also created a situation where people in the class opened up with, “I was bullied.” I am gay.” “This is what happened to me.” “They called me this.” “They did that.” It was a very rich experience for everyone. Those words couldn’t come out of my mouth, but the images and expressions that I showed because of the internet made that experience possible. So on one side of it, it’s decidedly “yay, Internet,” but there are other ways that it’s like, “oh my gosh.” It’s not all good.

DM: With something like that, when you have that kind of organic thing that happens in a class, obviously you can’t predict that. Does that happen every semester, or are there some classes that are just kind of rote?

SP: It comes and goes. And that didn’t happen in every single class. Classes have personalities – you have to know that, having been a student – and some of them fit my personality better, and some don’t.

DM: The worst thing, as a student in class, is to really like a teacher and see them flailing in front of a terrible class. And you see that a lot, especially in the lower divisions. You see some really brilliant teachers…

SP: …that can’t connect. Yes, it’s getting harder and harder to connect.

DM: Do you think that’s a change in the students? In this generation?

SP: I think it’s Facebook.

DM: (laughs) Yeah? What about Facebook?

SP: The last paper that the students wrote was about digital life, and one of the people that they’re required to use is Sherry Turkle. She’s the director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self Program in Science, Technology, and Society. Bright woman and deep thinker. And she’s written a book called Alone Together; in part what she’s talking about is texting, Facebook and social networking becoming the model for interaction as opposed to face to face engagement.

DM: I have received texts from friends immediately after trying to phone them. I will try to call them, and they will use the same device that they’ve just ignored to text me back.

SP: Right. One of her lines is “I’d rather text than talk.” I’m at the point where I don’t want to text at all. I’ve told people I’m on a texting fast because it’s so socially and emotionally unhealthy, from my point of view.  Texting is unhealthy because it’s such sterile communication. There are words on a screen, and they don’t substitute for eyes, vibes, voice tone. She discusses the control aspect of both texting and Facebook. You don’t like what’s said, so it’s “oh I turned off my phone.” If we’re sitting in the same room, and you say something that  I don’t like, or I say something that you don’t like, we’re going to have to do something with that, you know?

DM: Even if you leave the room, that’s making a confrontation; it’s an acknowledgement of the moment.

SP: Right, you are a witness to something that I did, but what if I just turned off the phone? Then what?

DM: Then it never happened.

SP: Yes, delete reality — it didn’t happen, or it’s “I didn’t see the text, so I’m not obligated to respond.” So that by the time I see your text, it’s a day later, hours later (laughs)…then she talks about how a cell phone has become a phantom limb. People talk about feeling it ring and sleeping with it, “well I use it for an alarm clock.” Right.

DM: (taps phone) Yeah. (laughs)

SP: And if Turkle presses users to get real, she gets, “well I might wake up in the middle of the night and find out if anyone texted me, or I might need to say something to someone.” I’ve started doing a survey at the beginning of classes where I start with English teacher questions like do you know MLA? Have you ever written a ten page paper?  It’s a two column survey, and the other questions are: Do you engage in gaming? How many hours do you spend? How many hours do you watch television? Do you do social networking? Do you text? What’s your preferred mode of communication? What would happen if you lost all your screen and wires for a day? I had a guy this semester say he’d commit suicide. When I say guy, it looked like male handwriting, but it could have been a female.

DM: Oh my God.

SP: Yes, this is serious stuff. The last question on the survey is something like, how are these questions for you, did you find them interesting or intrusive? And more and more I’m getting the answer “intrusive.” I’m not asking what kind of underwear you wear or don’t wear, I’m asking…

DM: …really basic things about everyday life.

SP: It’s bizarre to me because as public and as sterile and as shallow as texting and social networking is, it’s perceived of as private information. Yet we’re giving our privacy away. But asking about it is kind of like asking, “do you pick your nose” or something. It’s very strange to me.

DM: Giving privacy away in the name of individuality, to say “this is what makes me me.”

SP: Yeah. In terms of “this makes me me,” one of the things Turkle says is that it appears to have gotten to the place of rather than “I have a feeling” and it’s organic, “I want to share it,” to “I want to have a feeling so I need to text.”

DM: That’s really interesting. I think I’ve experienced that myself.

SP: So that becomes your psychological zip code, to me. You’re no longer living on Earth, your frame of reference for reality isn’t organic physical reality;  it’s non-living. That’s scary to me.

DM: So if that’s where we are, is there a way to change that?

SP: I’ve got students who are giving up their Facebook pages.

DM: Based on your class?

SP: Well, yes, unless they’re just kissing up.

DM: It’s a very difficult thing to do, getting rid of a Facebook page. They do not want you to delete that profile.

SP: You know, I’m working on that one myself. On the texting thing, though, it’s unhealthy for all of us because all of the time we’re spending with the texting and Facebook, we’re becoming unpracticed with how to talk to each other. Human relationships are complicated. We do things that hurt. We’re not always pleasant to be around; sometimes we’re smelly; there are a lot of unpleasant things that are woven in with all of the wonderful stuff. But you have to negotiate the difficult in order to nurture the good stuff. And this control stuff appears to me to create the illusion that it should never be smelly, complicated, dirty, uncomfortable because on screens, it’s not. You can control it and filter it.

DM: Right. If you say something that offends someone, you delete the post, and it never happened. You’re this shining, perfect person out in cyberspace. You spend a lot of time in your 103 class dealing with the Jungian concept of the shadow. What is the shadow side of all of this?

SP: The realness, the complexity, the depth, and pain. Pain is part of it, and we’re being socialized – brainwashed is better – to believe that we can have lives that don’t hurt. That’s crap. That’s total crap. But if what we’re doing is living these sterile, shallow digital lives – non-alive lives – then underneath it what’s the shadow of that? There’s got to be incredible human pain, because there’s no real human connection on the physical plane.

DM: Suicide, as that kid said. Whether or not that answer was in jest, it comes from a real impulse.

SP: The preference for the non-living was hard to communicate. I had to find a way to teach fish about water;  I’d get resistance, and I knew I wasn’t getting through. Eventually I found my way, but it took a while. In the process of doing that and reading their papers, it became an awareness builder for a lot of the students. Because for many students, digital life is real, and if you haven’t had a whole lot of real experience, then how would you know the difference? There’s that thing in 1984 about by 2050 everyone alive will know newspeak, and then the battle’s won because then that’s how it’s always been. I don’t know that there are many people alive now that don’t remember automobiles. Except when we’re talking about this digital non-living stuff, this is a bigger revolution than the industrial revolution, as far as I’m concerned, because at least we were still earthbound. We might not have been planting on it, but we were still walking on it. But this is a new definition of what’s real.

DM: So, in a dystopian sense, what does that lead to? In your worst fears, what’s coming?

SP: Forgetting that we’re human beings. The death of the human spirit. Human being have done too many great things to die for an enscreened bunch of ones and zeroes. Turkle uses robotics as an example. This kid wants a dog; the parents don’t want to get him a dog, “you have allergies,” “who’s going to clean up after him,”so the decision is made to get a robotic dog.  It starts out as, “well the robotic dog’s better than no dog at all,” but it goes to, “this is great, I’ve got a puppy forever. It’s not going to die.” So it goes from it’s better than no dog to it’s better than any dog. And she runs the same scenario with something like social networking. “Well, talking to somebody online is better than sitting by myself staring at the television,” and it goes from “it’s better than ____” to “it’s better than anything,” largely  because of the inherent control. It’s very seductive.

DM: Now do you think, because something you just said registered with me, because you say, okay talking with someone online is better than sitting alone; well do you think that social media has created that isolation or because that alienation was there it took off? Do you think that alienation was already there in society, and that’s why we latched onto it?

SP: I think we’ve been primed for it. And we’ve been primed for it by television; we’ve been primed for it by consumer culture. (laughs) My mom’s neighbor thinks we’ve been primed for it by air-conditioning.

DM: Wait, what?

SP: She misses the days in the neighborhood when people used to sit on their front porches in the evening because it was hot in the summer.  She says “Fred and I used to take walks, and we used to stop by and talk to Grandma Rehner. We used to stop and talk to your parents.” They’d make their rounds, and there were people who sat on their porches and people who took walks, but the neighborhood had unity because the walkers shared the news of the sitters. Not in a gossip way, but…

DM: …you knew your neighborhood

SP: You knew your neighborhood, but a lot of knowing your community, from her idea, is that there was no air conditioning, and it was hot, and then when people got air conditioning they stayed inside, and nobody talked to each other anymore.

DM: And all of these things happened around the same time; this is 40’s, 50’s post-war America.

SP: Television happened first. Central air conditioning in middle class neighborhoods was later — the 70’s and 80’s. And this was Michigan, so it’s not like California; they have humidity. So I think we’ve been primed for it for a long time. TV –  people started using TV trays. They weren’t part of our household, but they were part of my generation; TV dinners and that all had to do with not talking to each other and not eating at the dinner table but looking at the electronic hearth.

DM: Well, you literally can’t, you’re facing away from each other.

SP: That’s right, and it’s like “shhh, I gotta hear this!” I think the alienation thing has been developing along the way, but it’s been escalated with digital stuff. There are ways that being planful was built into life that’s not needed now. Something as simple as having money for the weekend, prior to ATMs if you didn’t have money on Friday when the bank closed – unless you had a friendly relationship with your grocery store – you didn’t have money for the weekend. And in order to have money, a lot of times, what you had to do is stand in line with people from whatever walk in life they happened to be — the lady with the crying baby, the garage guy with grease under his fingernails,  the insurance salesman, whoever it happened to be, but you found yourself talking to people, or hearing other people talk, even if you didn’t talk yourself. These are models for interaction that we don’t have now. 

This coming Spring Susan Pierce will be teaching her English 103 class on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday evenings.

Los Angeles Valley College

Joel Burns, Texas Councilman, “It Gets Better”

Sherry Turkle, TED speech Alone Together