The Light Of Other Days
If 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: