Colin Hannaford: Adolescents Impacted by the Internet

Jun 21, 2015 by

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An Interview with Colin Hannaford: Adolescents Impacted by the Internet

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Professor Hannaford, I would like to begin this series of interviews by discussing how adolescents today are impacted by the Internet. In later interviews, we will go into some depth regarding some of your newer work. But in general, how is the typical adolescent being affected by the Internet and how has the post-adolescent been impacted?

It is virtually impossible to answer your first question simply; and this, therefore, makes it an immensely important question!

Let us first undertake some useful groundwork.

The simplest, and incomplete, answer is that when, in 1989, the British computer scientist Tim Berners Lee first created the World Wide Web and therefore made the Internet possible, he created a monster not at all dissimilar from that created by Mary Bysshe Shelley’s Doktor Viktor Frankenstein.

Now this needs to be explained.

Due to its later portrayal in comic strip and film, we generally understand her monster as wholly terrifying and evil.

But in Mary Shelley’s story, first published anonymously in 1818, the monster is created by a deranged doctor, called Frankenstein, and his creature’s life is tragic precisely because it wants to be good. It wants to learn; above all, to speak in order to be able to share its life and its experience with us, with humans.

When the humans it wishes to serve fail to understand its appetite for knowledge, and fail to show a proper respect for its powers, it is turned from an eagerness to serve to an attempt to destroy its creator, and

Usually forgotten is that Shelley’s title for her book, and of Frankenstein, was ‘The Modern Prometheus’.

Within twenty years, the Internet has become indispensable in the lives of millions of our young people, to billions of others worldwide. It would seem only to be meant to serve. Nothing like it existed before 1989.

This is what makes it a truly existential change. And it must be recognised as an existential challenge that presents us all with uniquely unpredictable risks; the most urgent of these being created in cultures either unable or refusing to meet it.

As a result of its monstrous appetite for knowledge and its equally monstrous powers of recalling and presenting knowledge, the youngsters I have consulted here in Oxford can scarcely imagine life without their mobiles, their tablets and computers. Without these gadgets – which provide them with continual connection with their modern Prometheus – some say life would hardly be worth living.

For somewhat similar reasons, as we shall see, others find the Internet such a threat to the way they want to live that they are ready to use the Internet to destroy itself.

And even to destroy us all. In a previous report of mine, published recently in Education News, this is what Professor Lord Rees, the co-founder of Cambridge University’s Centre for Existential Risk, called his ‘worst nightmare’, for the Internet now provides anyone possessing only modest resources and a little technical expertise with all the instructions necessary to construct weapons of mass destruction in a secluded laboratory, or locked garage or city basement, even in their bedroom.

It was for events like these that the Greeks invented the word irony. Originally intended to describe the happy anticipation of an audience expecting the heaviest sections of stage scenery soon to collapse on their comic thespians’ heads, it developed its darker sense of tragic outcome later.

Prometheus, in the original Greek myth – and his name, incidentally, means ‘forethought’ – is remembered for rescuing the first human beings from their ignorance and chilly nakedness, for Greece is not always warm, and generally wretched existence, by bringing them the gift of fire.

The fire that he brought was not only glowing embers and leaping flames. There was that fire too; but he gave them with it the fire of creative and imaginative freedom: needing always to be fuelled by more knowledge.

His careless impiety so angered the older gods that they punished him for it horribly, and they would have continued to punish him eternally, if Heracles, the epitome to the Ancient Greeks of aggressive masculinity and omnivorous sexual prowess, had not rescued him, more or less in passing.

But that’s another story.

Meanwhile: since all the knowledge, wisdom, inspiration: since virtually all the inventions of humankind are now within reach of any youngster owning one of these technological miracles, it would seem that the ambition of Eleanor Roosevelt is everywhere in reach.

Writing in 1948 to support the United Nations’ adoption of a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, her ambition was ‘to persuade all nations to accept that all men [sic] are born free and equal in dignity and rights, are all endowed with reason and with conscience, and so should act towards one another in a spirit of Brotherhood.’

These principles, now enshrined in the US Constitution, inspired the American colonists to reject the right of government by the tyrannical, and mad, King George.

Over two millennia earlier – in 1333 BCE, when according to the Torah he was in his eightieth year, and herding sheep: we must believe what makes best sense – this is how Moses was told to persuade the Hebrews to end their serfdom in Egypt, by telling them of God’s injunction: ‘You are who you WILL be’ (in Bohm, D., 1985).

From the moment of their own first beginning, Americans saw themselves, in Herman Melville’s words, as: ‘the peculiar, chosen people, the Israel of our times, bearing the ark of the liberties of the world.’ (in Patten, C., 2005)

There is a wonderful confidence here: quintessentially American!

But Mary Shelley’s history of her monster’s hopes and tragic disappointment contains a warning of increasing relevance to us today. ‘Nothing,” she wrote, ‘is so painful to human minds as change.’

In my following answers will appear the consequence of the great and sudden changes the Internet can bring to many nations: one of the most dangerous being the explosion of religious fundamentalism: its outright rejection of universal human values, its denial of the dignity, freedom, and creative potential of young minds, and the continuing domination of societies by the requirement that women have no purpose except to bear more children.

The challenge is to show that the habit of resisting change has this fundamental aim. Even Pope Francis, in his recent encyclical ‘Laudato Si’ (Be Praised), has recognised its cause. ‘Change your life-styles’ is his demand, addressed to us all, ‘to stop climate disaster’.

Look over your habits’, he might have said: but remember that this would have first to be written in Latin, ‘and ditch all that you know you don’t need’.

A good man, he might also have added that the purpose of modern societies can no longer be to increase the number of the poor to serve the powerful and rich.

Yet another comment of the author of Moby Dick is as appropriate here as it was to his own contemporaries: “Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.”

Despite the horror expressed by some eminent Jews at their impertinence – and, indeed at their impiety – this is how my friends in the Tikkun movement in the United States, others in the Hillel Foundation, and in the Oxford Foundation, founded, rather obviously, here in Oxford by Monowar Imam Hussain, and in many other multi-faith organisations, are trying to bring the first Promethean fire to those who are in need of the intellectual and spiritual courage to change the way they live and to change as well how they see and treat others.

Pope Francis, you are not alone!

Now, with thanks for your patience, let me try to respond to your other questions!

(To be continued: possibly!)

Colin Hannaford,

Oxford 20 June 2015.

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