Beauty, Hope and No More Internet

August 29, 2017


In Station Eleven, Chapter 6 begins with the phrase, "An Incomplete List:" and what follows is a beautiful yet haunting description of what no longer exists after the collapse, both the everyday and the extraordinary. The final paragraph in this chapter describes our current relationship with the Internet and social media:


No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.


In 1997, I was working as an intern for a large advertising and PR agency in Nashville representing clients whose brands are household names. We had one computer with dial up Internet access in our department, and none of our clients had websites. It wasn't a thing.  As I stood for hours sending press releases via fax across the country, I could not have imagined how profoundly the Internet would change the advertising, marketing, and PR industry, much less our world and economy as a whole.


Fast forward twenty years, and the notion of "no more Internet" would send our economy into a tailspin. With the popularity of e-books, some might assume the Library would fare well without the Internet, but our vast collection of materials are no longer in physical card catalogs and patron records are all electronic too. Instead of housing thousands of bound volumes in a research collection, we subscribe to online databases to provide the most current information possible to our patrons. For those who do not have access to the Internet or a computer at home, we are the only place in the community that provides these services for free to anyone who walks in our doors. Our computer labs are filled from the moment we open until we close. The few times we have experienced brief outages with our Internet have undoubtedly put a kink in the day of someone needing to apply for a job or to finish a project for school, work or personal reasons. Even if a site like Facebook were down for a day (much less a few hours), there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth!


While I can remember clearly my life before the Internet, that is not the case for young people today. Their lives have been lived online, and their ability to both navigate and understand the technology is an essential job skill. Even the act of applying for a job requires a familiarity with technology that did not exist when I was entering the workforce. Jobs are posted online, so one must know where to look to find them. I'm not only talking about managerial level or executive level jobs either, most large employers use online systems for every level of employment. To apply for said job, you typically have to create an online account with a password, have an email address, and have created a resume or work history in a document to upload. For those of us who use computers and email and desktop publishing programs on a daily basis, that isn't much of a barrier; however, there are thousands of people in this community alone for whom this would be a challenging proposition. Our tech staff spend hours every day helping people complete all of these types of tasks. Where keyboarding and computer were merely electives when I was in high school, educators today start teaching children from day one how to use technology. Where learning computer programming languages was restricted to those majoring in computer science when I was in college, schools across the country are introducing children to the concepts of coding, and learning how to code is becoming as ubiquitous within our elementary and secondary schools as learning Spanish or French. 


In West Tennessee, The CO provides students and teachers with a wonderful opportunity to dive into the deep end of coding with its Dev Catalyst program. This is a description of the program from The CO's website:


Dev Catalyst began in 2013 with the mission of improving technology education and growing tech talent among West Tennessee students. Since then, students from across Tennessee and beyond have joined the program. Through Dev Catalyst, middle and high school students use a web platform to teach them up-to-date coding languages enabling them to build a website, create a web application, learn maker tech, and cultivate marketable career skills. By the end of their first year, students have learned programming languages such as HTML, CSS, PHP, and JavaScript.


Molly Plyler, the Education Outreach Coordinator at The CO, does an incredible job working with these students and helping them gain these valuable skills in a real world setting. When I approached The CO last year with a general idea of partnering with them in some way for The Big Read, I had no idea that I would have the privilege of working with Molly and one of the student Dev Catalyst teams to create this Big Read website.  I've worked with volunteers and I've worked with various web development and design firms throughout my career, but never have I worked with a volunteer web development team. To say that my expectations were exceeded is putting it mildly. 

The development team (pictured above with Emily St. John Mandel) included Cinque Peggs (JCM Early College High), Katie Lowery (Madison Academic HS), Sumeja Hrnjic (Madison Academic HS), and Bradley Holloway (Chester County HS).  These young adults jumped into this project with such enthusiasm. They took complete ownership over the project and designed a site that both visually and structurally supports the goals of our Big Read project: to encourage people to read Station Eleven and to provide resources and information to connect them to its themes and to others through our special events and programs. They asked great questions and came up with some great features, such as the tools on our Resources page for starting your own book club.


It's one thing to be able to understand a coding language or to be able to use technology to create something like a website in the same way that students can learn how to say "hello" or "goodbye" in Spanish. It's a whole other thing entirely to use those skills to effectively communicate something to another person and to understand the other person when they are communicating with you. This is where the Dev Catalyst program has succeeded; perhaps we should call it "conversational technology."  


I absolutely love the quote from Station Eleven they selected for the Home page


What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.


Out of all the quotable lines they could have selected from the novel, they selected one that conveys the sense of hope that permeates Mandel's novel. Yes, there is no Internet, no transportation, no electricity, no hospitals, no avatars; but there is still beauty. There are people who are creating new relationships with other survivors-turned-family and relationships with the world around them. There is The Traveling Symphony members trying to bring joy to others through music and theatre because they understand that indeed "survival is insufficient" and that throughout the history of the human race we have done more than survived, we have created and performed. If Station Eleven leaves the reader with hope, so too should our work with these students. Thank you Cinque, Katie, Sumeja and Bradley for spending your summer thinking about a world absent a technology you have lived with from birth and for finding within it such beauty. I cannot begin to know how our future will be impacted by new technologies that haven't yet been created, but if these future leaders are any indication, we will be in very good hands!

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