Group activities can be wondrous and, in theory, so can groupthink. There’s little more inspiring than when individuals come together to present unique and multiple perspectives on an issue or topic. The problem is when groupthink lives up to its name and morphs into an oppressive consensus beyond the bounds of which neither words nor thoughts are allowed to stray. In university classroom settings I’ve nonetheless had great times exchanging ideas in advance of class presentations. Be it because of different backgrounds, Portuguese or Senegalese for instance, I’ve discovered affinities and differences that were hitherto unknown to my little mind. These “single serving friends”, to quote the immortal words of the movie ‘fight club’ (which, in a Feminism and Film course I delighted in writing my final essay presentation about), enliven our academic experience (Uhls, online). Such protean face-to-face interactions can be a joyful aspect of a traditional classroom setting and they’re admittedly absent at AU.
And yet, (there’s always an and yet when comparing AU to traditional University; precisely because the uniqueness of Athabasca studies provides so much special that brick and mortar schooling essentially lacks or fails to provide), AU’s grouped study courses enable the productive exchange of ideas in online forums. These create a safe and open intellectual salon environment that is hard to match within the social and intellectual vicissitudes of a college classroom. The age of AU students plays a role too; most of us are older, and theoretically wiser, than a typical university undergrad. AU is typically classified as adult education after all. Yet maybe, too, interactions with classmates are fulfilling because in the online forums we get to literally think before we speak (type on our keyboard) a little longer than in a typical classroom. Whatever the causes, group activities at AU can be very fulfilling.
Meanwhile, in individualized AU study, we interact largely with our tutor and within our own minds as we absorb fascinating course material. We also, and this to my mind is an underrated component of distance education, interact with peers in our home communities where we discuss what we’re learning “at school” in a way that teaches us to ourselves teach the material to neophytes. Call it pedagogy on the fly; or, we’re each a Fly on the Wall when we put our learning into social practice. But what if we were all literally wired into the brains of our peers? I have a diabetic friend with a blood sugar monitor implanted in him; could AU students of the future be fitted with brain chips synced to their classmates worldwide for, say, SOCI 287?
Where Theory Meets Practice; The Technology of Discourse
A research team at the University Washington have done just that; they’ve metaphorically wired brains together such that participants can solve Tetris-like puzzles. Led by Andrea Stocco, the researchers “demonstrated the possibility of transferring simple information directly between two brains using non-invasive brain stimulation devices” (Stocco, online). Isaac Asimov would surely be proud and maybe floored. But what does non-invasive really mean? Thinking back to brick and mortar settings, there was always the social reality of peers playing on their laptops and trying to share distracting memes and videos with all and sundry. Here at AU learning around others involves annoying and invasive distractions no matter how much we love our spouse or our cat. This is why we need a good study space.
Plus, and especially in classroom courses with titles like ‘The Psychology of Interpersonal Communication’, there’s the heavy dose of conformity instilled in students either by professors or our cohort or both. Depending on the class, we’re expected to adopt a politically-correct personage, leaving just enough room for one or two pariahs to argue as devil’s advocate. Men and women different wholly by nature rather than nurture? That’s an essentialist and improper assumption in most social science classrooms. Fair enough. But imagine if we were wired into one another; how would we hide the 23% of our minds that thought a contrary thought to our dominant belief systems. It’s like asking if you’d eat a goldfish; probably the answer is no but curiosity spells consideration, right? Being wired to the details of our peer surely would be an Orwellian nightmare. And, more to the philosophical point, the illusion of a coherent self hinges on our capacity to filter our words so that we don’t perpetually contradict ourselves in the eyes of others. Maybe this is why Stocco and Co have thus far been limited to games like Tetris when they link human minds.
Closer to a trial of monkeys than a deep inquiry into what it means to be human, the research at UW thus far remains exploratory and lashed to that great invisible grid in our matrix sky of consciousness: logic. Logic demands binaries of right and wrong. Either the round peg fits into the round hole or it doesn’t. To make square peg fit requires a power tool or a lot of sandpaper action and anyway those modifications are outside the rules. In essence, then, a study in linking minds remains tied to a study in mutual rule following. And yet, within our own thoughts and ideas there’ s much ambiguity easily lost in a Tetris puzzle.
Soft Boundaries, Brains in Vats of Ideas
In terms of human relations, Jacques Derrida suggests that we must accept the soft boundaries that define and demarcate aspects of ourselves and our expressions. Love and hate are linked by passion and our many versions of self would require one heck of a 3D printer to be mapped from a brain scan. There’s more than one way to complete a Tetris puzzle but that’s no comparison to our creative answers to a complex problem like the meaning of our personal ideology of creativity. Answers to such essay-type questions are almost incomprehensibly vast in their potential and easily contradictory in their explication.
Derrida writes, “The unstable or the unreliable is what Plato and Aristotle spoke of as that which is not bebaios (firm, constant, sure and certain, reliable, credible, faithful). Whether in its ultimate or minimal form, the instability of the unreliable always consists in not consisting, in eluding consistency and constancy, presence, permanence or substance, essence or existence, as well as any concept of truth which might be associated with them. This inconsistency and/or inconstancy is not an indetermination, but it supposes a certain type of resolution and a singular exposition at the crossroads of chance and necessity. The unstable is as required here as its opposite, the stable or the reliable of constancy (bebaios) and is indispensable to the Platonic or Aristotelian philosophy of friendship. To think friendship with an open heart—that is, to think it as close as possible to its opposite—one must perhaps be able to think the perhaps, which is to say that one must be able to say it and to make of it, in saying it, an event: perhaps, vielleicht, perhaps (the English word refers more directly to chance (hap, perchance) and to the event of what may happen.” (Derrida, “Politics of Friendship” p.29-30.)
Electronic Maps of Our Electrical Synapses; Giving New Meaning to Electrifying Ideas
You can cut the ambivalence and swerving murkiness of existence with a knife; but could technology ever map it and, if so, is that really what we’d want? We humans are intellectually beautiful beasts; whereas a garden variety chimpanzee has 7 billion neurons in its brain an ordinary human has 86 billion! (King, online). Learning and interacting with others about our studies, as well as within ourselves as new information adds up and alters our very being, is made possible by our species having the use of language. Within our minds, whole gardens of inquiry spring up at the slightest provocation. To simplify our learning process to a single true or false answer, akin to a game such as Tetris or Sudoku, would carve away much of what makes learning special.
So much of the value of AU study is in the intimate relations we get to enjoy with our course material, free and separate from the social engineering of a college campus and the peer distractions endemic to the physical realm. Like writers who require a shed or closet to accomplish their goals, we at AU typically utilize a certain tangible corporeal solitude to succeed at our studies. And yet, when we return to the societal realm from our AU labour in a given course, we are changed and for the better.
Being wired into others might cause us to lose our unique spark of fascination with course material. I certainly fell in love, as it were, with sociology by taking my first courses in the discipline as an AU student. If I’d had to contend with the perpetual recurrence of current event discussions (not unlike Nietzsche’s law of eternal recurrence, but that’s another story) in class, I may not have become so fascinated by the intrigues of competing explanations for social behaviour. To name but two, these range from considering the connection of political affinity to physical geography to mapping life narratives and contradictions of the modern nuclear family. But next week we’ll delve deeper into the personal terrain of the mind and the nether regions, perhaps never to be mapped on terms dictated by neuroscience, of our more poetic ideas and inclinations.
Derrida, J. (1994). ‘The Politics of Friendship’. New York: Verso/Radical Thinkers.
Norton, E., Pitt, B. (1998). fight club. (1998) youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PXcEPSUl0uE
Stocco, A: Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences. (2013). University of Washington. Retrieved from http://ilabs.washington.edu/institute-faculty/bio/i-labs-andrea-stocco-phd
Uhls, J. (1998) ‘fight club based on a novel by Chuck Palahnuik’. Retrieved from https://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Fight-Club.html