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The Light Of Other Days

April 4, 2007

Light Of Other Days CoverIf you haven’t already done so, can I recommend that you read Baxter and Clarke’s The Light of Other Days. On the one hand, it’s a really good sci-fi tale and should be enjoyed as such… but on a deeper level, I believe it has something important to say to us about the way that society – and by extension education – is changing.

In the novel, scientists find a means of viewing the echoes of times past… there is a very plausible explanation in the novel, but it’s not the science that is of interest. What is interesting is the social ramifications of the discovery. Put simply, if we can see everything that has ever happened then we have no privacy. If we have no privacy, then all the secrets we keep are open for public scrutiny. If everything is open to public scrutiny, then society as we know it is irrevocably changed…

The timescale of the novel covers the discovery of the ‘time-viewer’ technology and cleverly describes the public reaction to it: the most surprising reaction comes in the attitudes of the young who give up on traditional morality… after all, if you can see everything, what’s the point of only making love in private?

The deus ex machina of ‘time-viewers’ appeals because of our intrinsically vicarious nature, but it got me thinking about the parallels between Clarke and Baxter’s vision and the new online world we are inhabiting. I have a sense that the moral codes which I grew up with are being diluted by the ease with which personal information is shared by young people. I have spoken to some of my pupils about what they post on their Bebo/MySpace sites and it’s a revealing (in more than one sense) experience. They think nothing of revealing very intimate details of their activities and adding photos of themselves that would have most of their parents phoning the nearest monastery to ask about vacancies for teenagers… or maybe I’m just getting old(er)? I’ve discussed these concerns with some of my pupils (S5/6, so 16-18years old), and they really don’t see it as a problem. They think it’s a laugh, they think it’s funny, and they say they are happy to live with the consequences… but if this is the case I fear for their future happiness. There’s a world of difference between being an immortal youth and becoming mortal with family… and I for one am struggling to try and explain the difference to the pupils who think ‘flashing’ is a bit of a laugh…

It’s even harder when you read the news headlines over the past day or so: “Cyber bullying threat to teachers” is one that illustrates the problem we are facing. The report it heads highlights how the teaching unions (in England) are taking a strong stance on the bullying of teachers… but I don’t see them calling for pupils to be protected by the same rights. Now I’m not for a minute suggesting that teachers don’t deserve protection from cyber-bullying, but it is not an exclusively teacher-oriented problem. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that the majority of ‘cyber-bullying’ is going to be aimed at pupils, and yet it is only when it threatens teacher recruitment in England that the Education Secretary comes out fighting… No wonder the pupils think we have nothing worth saying about the matter… it looks as if we only care about our own profession.

The problem highlighted in The Light of Other Days is how society copes with new ways of seeing the world, and this is the problem we face with the new online world… and we’re only just beginning to find out what will change. I have speculated as a writing exercise for my classes that, in their lifetime, there is a very good chance that Google Earth will become a ‘live’ service. I ask them to think about what it will be like to live in a world where teachers can use Google Earth to check if you are at home or down town when you say you’re ill… and then I read about this from Google Sightseeing. Don’t worry, it is just an April Fool … at the moment! But having said that, there is no technical reason why it couldn’t become reality… and let’s be honest, Google could certainly afford to make it happen. In a sense, Orwell’s Big Brother is here, and we’re either opting in in the form of blogs and the like, or we’re being co-opted by commercial concerns like Google and the Tesco Clubcard… That Big Brother is being partially created on a voluntary basis is scant comfort… and unless we start educating pupils from a very early age about how to use the tools responsibly and well, we are all – pupils, teachers , parents, everyone – going to find ourselves exposed to all sorts of unwanted and unwelcome attention and there’ll be very little we can do about it.

I’ll finish off with part of the Thomas Moore poem that gave the novel its title. I find a strangely prescient warning in Moore’s words which may be why the novel got its title:

When I remember all
The friends, so link’d together,
I’ve seen around me fall
Like leaves in wintry weather,
I feel like one
Who treads alone
Some banquet-hall deserted,
Whose lights are fled,
Whose garlands dead,
And all but he departed!
Thus, in the stilly night,
Ere slumber’s chain has bound me.
Sad Memory brings the light
Of other days around me.
5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 5, 2007 12:14 pm

    Love that poem! Chilly sort of feel from my perspective …… :-{

  2. April 6, 2007 10:14 am

    Excellent post Neil!

    I had an interesting conversation with a class on how they present themselves online, in terms of future employers etc. Their response ‘just make your page private’ or ‘don’t use your real name’ made me realise that I was trying to get at something deeper than career advice. I object to pornography because it reduces a human being to a set of body parts. When our pupils communicate themselves to the world in these terms they ‘reduce’ themselves in a way that does some sort of damage to who they are as people.
    Are we just being prudish? I don’t think so. I think part of growing up is learning how to ‘reveal’ yourself as a person – in an emotional and intellectual sense, as well as a physical one. The online world is after all, simply an extension of the ‘real’ world. What you do in the real world has consequences. The ‘virtual’ world looks as if it doesn’t have the same sort of consequences. Arguably, however the impact of online behaviour is far more significant – especially since the evidence of it can be stored and shared for an indefinite time.

    Thank you for blogging about this – I’m sure there are people reflecting on these issues who want to hear what others think. Also, how do we make it possible for our pupils to enter the conversation?

  3. April 6, 2007 7:26 pm

    I love this assumption that making a page ‘private’ means no-one can see it. As one of my more computer-literate pupils showed me, there are several online tools that will allow you to access ‘private’ Bebos and MySpaces.

    As a general guide, I think we need to drive home the message that absolutely anything that is posted online is accessible to everyone. There is no such thing as online privacy…

    Have you seen this? I picked it up from Christopher Sessum‘s blog (well worth bookmarking!), and think it should be mandatory for all pupils… but I fear that even then, they still think it’s just a ‘bit of a laugh.’ It’s the old notion that:

    …we are young
    Wandering the face of the Earth
    Wondering what our dreams might be worth
    Learning that we’re only immortal
    For a limited time…

    I think this is a debate we need to have, and you are so right that we should be involving the pupils, in fact I’d go as far as saying that they really need to have the debate themselves and our input should be along the lines of ‘critical friends’…

    What does anyone else think?

  4. Roland permalink
    August 22, 2008 11:40 am

    This book as you have discovered is very profound as we would relate it to today. Sit on any corner, walk among the crowds and we discover, but for the worm-holes we are alot closer to there than most would believe or comprehend.

    I use this book in technology discussions as a base of understanding for those shaping and implementing the technologies to which we are becoming so attached.

    How long will it be before someone truly determines the right technology and the correct algorithms?

  5. derek permalink
    August 29, 2008 3:24 am

    i was hopping around on wikipedia, beginning with something about ray kurzweils singularity, something my friends and i have come to anticipate ever-more anxiously, and for some reason googled “the light of other days,” an awesome book i read some years ago. how fortuitous to find this blog and this recent comment, i only wish there was a way to respond directly to YOU, roland. you see, being an american adult, and currently being interested in futurity, im not much piqued by the concurrent discussion of cyber-bullying, though i believe it has become a problem state-side as well. i was wanting to read about how the books ultimate premise of human aggregation and connectedness was interpreted about pondered upon by others. see i personally think this is a potential future for mankind, we see it already to some degree with hugely invasive cell phone usage, instant messaging, internet community usage. in fact, i often find myself, not a particularly extroverted individual, pining for some sort of internalized internet/communication system, if for no other reason than convenience. in summation, while i think wormhole technology has decades (if not millenniums) to become even experimental demonstrated, the concepts espoused in this book of cybernetically linked humanity, of one single, global network of information and individuals, is forever drawing closer. am i the only one that sees our traditional existence as becoming quaint? the stoic individual as wholly outmoded by the growing cliques of twitterers and chatters and wikipedians? damn the eventuality of it all

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