“Because the Internet” Uncle Wisdom
Good Afternoon Academy,
Esteemed founders, honored guests, treasured parents here in person and remotely, most valued alumni, and saluted staffulty colleagues thank you for being here and for imbuing this moment with your precious presence.
Allow me to begin, as we always ought to begin, with gratitude. There is a treasure in this hall. Please take a moment to give thanks, however you best give thanks, for the confluence of fortune, force and favor which has brought this moment to fruition.
Mes eleves estimees, Tullabi al a3izaa2, Estimados Estudentos, Wudd Tamarioch
Dear, dear students,
What a remarkable cohort you have been. Arriving in tumult, overcoming adversity and making it to this moment. I admire your courage and your tenacity. I think I’m not supposed to have favorite cohorts, and yet. I have so much to say to you, but today we’re here to celebrate the second-year class, so that will have to wait til next year. Jokes. Jokes. I love you all dearly. Why do you think we made your ALA calendar so short.
I have found it exceedingly difficult to write my message for this year’s graduation. Perhaps because I have found you to be an exceedingly difficult cohort. Ok ok I’ll stop. More seriously, perhaps because yours has been an exceedingly difficult journey. I can say without reservation that the past two years have been the most challenging of my professional career. I imagine that most of the faculty gathered in this hall would share that sentiment. We started off on strange, strange footing, at times almost estranged. Strange feet breaking strange paths. Together we learned old lessons anew: to listen before responding, to take your conflict into circles because circles have no opposing sides. For that and for a great deal more I am grateful.
It isn’t that I don’t have much to say to you, or that I’ve said it all already. If anything, having you all here in captive attendance is the perfect opportunity to make up for my sparsely attended attempts at reviving Dean’s talk.
I could for instance complain to you about your concerning and perhaps contradictory views in relation to capitalism. On the one hand, there is a marked — very marked — increase in the commercialization of interactions on campus. Everyone seems to be charging everyone for everything. I understand of course that much of this stems from the EL department’s encouragements for everyone to be Living EL. Entrepreneurialism is, after all, one of our core traits. I am worried, thoughthat this transactionalism makes our community poorer, even as it fattens our pockets. There is a reward in doing something well, doing something beautifully, doing something caringly because we want to do it for someone. Payment perverts that reward, supplants it. On the other hand, and almost in the same breath, I hear more anticapitalist rhetoric bandied about amongst you than I’ve ever heard before. Pick a side folks. Of course, hypocrisy is part of the art of youth, the dance of self-discovery. Also of course, I exaggerate, and exaggerating the shortfalls of youth is a primary past-time amongst us, quickly-greying old men.
I could talk about all that, but I don’t have too much more to say about it today.
I could talk to you about important ideas that I don’t think get enough coverage in our curriculum or in the mainstream. I could have done some wider reading and prepared meandering remarks about Universal Basic Income and the mounting evidence that guaranteeing a dignified life for every human is not only a possibility but a positive feedback loop, a rising tide that lifts all lives. Or I could have asked you similarly to question the lack of research evidencing the supposed economic threat posed by vulnerable immigrants. Do desperate people really drive wages down, making everyone poorer? Or do they increase economic activity, to everyone’s gain? Should that even matter?
I probably could have prepared some meaningful remarks on those ideas, but I’d likely do a poor job of explaining things you’re much better off learning from the experts.
Alternatively, I could have given grave warning about the climate emergency; I’ve done this before. But anyone from my generation admonishing anyone of your generation to do a better job is really being quite tasteless don’t you think? That would be some real raw and uncut hypocrisy.
I could, of course, in typical fashion, have waxed lyrical and at length about some element of the natural world and drawn from there a metaphorical lesson for your humorous edification. For the long-time listeners, I understand that the Cavendish continues to survive in the fight against fusarium wilt, mitochondria are still the powerhouses of the cell and continue to perform microscopic miracles and trees continue to carry networked wisdom. This whole metaphor thing feels a bit played out though, doesn’t it? Perhaps it’s time to buck the trend.
I’ve decided, perhaps ill-advisedly, not to try and do any of those things. Instead, I want to try and point vaguely at something very important. I want to take this opportunity to exercise something of an intellectual earworm. A proverbial monkey on my back; a chip on my spiritual shoulder. Something discussed at length, for decades now, and still I think (at least for me) poorly understood. Something that is simultaneously the biggest boon and the biggest threat to the advancement of human culture, perhaps civilization itself. I want to talk about the The Internet.
Part of the reason this discussion is vague is because the subject is hard to define. By “The Internet” I think I mean the technology of connecting people and media and the behavior built on that technology.
When Donald Glover undertook to create a multimedia behemoth of a creative project for his second studio album, he set out to capture a defining generational experience. His generation, my generation really and that of much of your faculty, came of age as just the internet was emerging. Our experiences of consuming and producing culture and ideas progressed as the technology progressed. Speeding up a little and increasing in fidelity each year. The album is intricate and, in the eyes or ears of some critics, a masterpiece. I’m talking about Childish Gambino’s album Because the Internet.
That album will be, unbelievably, ten years old next year. But it isn’t Childish Gambino, or any of us quickly eroding millenials that deserve that title. It’s you. Without question, this cohort, more than any other before, and perhaps since, it is you that are here, you that are at all, Because the Internet.
Let’s get one thing quickly out of the way. The internet is of course a good thing for ALA. Our entire admissions process, especially for your cohort, is run online. A moment here to appreciate the admissions team: Ms. Memuna, Ms. Gaby, Ms. Laurene, Ms. Rajae, Ms. Karen and Mr. Chris.
You all started your ALA journey in a Virtual Term, architected by Mr. Jake and others on his learning agenda. You joined the community through a virtual Taalu and attended months of virtual assembly in that once great Zoombabwe. I don’t know what we would have done if this pandemic had hit 10 years ago. Just that long ago all of this would have been impossible, and frankly, ALA might not have survived. The internet saved us. So that’s the upside.
At the same time. I am scared. A little scared of you, especially Victor, but mostly I’m scared for you.
While it may not seem that way, I have generally tried to avoid peppering my appearances on this stage with fusty old stories that start with “in my day.” However, as my grey hairs begin to outnumber my black ones (a battle the tide of which swung violently during your cohort’s tenure) I feel it may finally be time for me to lean into the ultimate form of wisdom: the sort of wisdom delivered haltingly, on a quiet afternoon, after a big meal, between sips of tea: uncle wisdom.
In terms of the internet, I have three things to tell you about my day. For exactness, “my day” here is roughly the decade from 1995–2005; between when my family first got a home computer and when I went away to university, incidentally this is roughly the decade before you were born, on average). For reference, and revealing my privileged childhood, the World Bank estimates that internet penetration in Africa went from less than 1% to about 7% during this decade.
Uncle Wisdom Number 1 — in my day — the internet was not instant.
While the internet was always blazingly fast relative to virtually any other media, there was a long time before it was instantaneous. There are many exhausting and infuriating ways by which to try and communicate just how much this has changed. This past Saturday I watched Isaias very capably DJ the senior dance. Excellent work by the way Isaias. Using nothing but youtube, skipping from request to request, from tab to tab, and filtering all this instantly through his mixer app he delivered hours of uninterrupted joy. He was doing this on a laptop, presumably over wifi. He was streaming video.
In my day, when we first started pirating music, long before legal streaming services became accessible, howzit Jocelyn, if you were lucky enough to have a stable broadband connection at home that could run overnight, you would load up the download in the evening, go to bed, wake up in the morning, go to school, engage in a full day of learning/or not, come home, eat dinner, hopefully clean up, and then come to check how your download was doing. This was for one song, audio only.
If you were unlucky, something went wrong, the download was corrupt, or someone tricked you and it was not the track you wanted, or it just plain stopped and had to start again. Now imagine the labor of compiling an entire album? To put it in less dramatic but more distinct terms. A solid home connection when we first moved away from dial-up was 256 or 512 kbps; on campus you can often get download speeds between 10 and 40 MEGAbitsps; that’s between 20 and 80 times faster.
Instant is great, but there are two elements about the downspeed of your life which I lament. First of all, while I was not really young enough to know the magic of the mixtape recorded on a tape deck from the radio, I am young enough to remember what it was like to get a CD someone had burned for you. What it was like to curate a playlist that required hours of trawling, and organizing, and not an insignificant amount of technical confidence. A link, as much as I enjoy the art-form, will still never be the same.
Secondly, in the world of instant everything, consumption becomes superficial. There are books from my childhood that I read, and re-read, until they were tattered, because that is what was on the shelf. There were also films on that shelf, cassettes (VHS to be specific, after Betamax), two or three, from which I still have dialogue memorized, because that is what was available to watch. Sound of Music buffs, come at me. I know for a fact that Ms. Takondwa can basically repeat all the dialogue from the Lion King for the same reason.
Because media is now instant, it is so much harder to linger, to wait, to sit, to be bored. Properly, properly bored, the kind of bored that sends you inside, scrolling on the timeline of your soul. Instant access to an endless ocean of media keeps us skimming on the surface, of the world and of ourselves.
Uncle Wisdom Number 2 — in my day — the internet was not constant.
If you wanted to get online you had to go to a specific location and use a specific device with a specific attachment and CALL THE INTERNET. Literally. The first widespread connections were dialup connections made over a physical phone line (another thing you won’t likely recall). Not only did this mean, if you were lucky enough to have internet at home, that if your parents received a call your 7th attempt at playing starcraft with your friends would be aborted, but more importantly, there was no such thing as instant notifications. You checked your email once or twice a day, like a physical mailbox. In between, you went about with your normal physical tangible day to day life.
When I imagine what it must be like to be your age today, I shudder. Our brains are hard-wired for sociality. Your brains, adolescent brains in specific, and I know some of you despise this label but the WHO says it applies at least until 19, your adolescent brains are swimming in chemical concoctions that make the experiences of social connection much more powerful than they will ever be again. We theorize that this is evolutionary adaptive, forming the neural pathways that guide our sociality, one of our survival superpowers. As an aside, for anyone in the crowd who is pining unrequited or experiencing a crushing heartbreak (or a blissful entanglement) which I hope is most of you, you will be ok, this will pass, savor it.
In my day, if you had a bad day in class or at school or with your friends, you went home and you got a break. You retreated to your family or your solitude and your emotions would have a chance to reset. If you had an argument, it would have to end, eventually, at least for a while. How many of us nowadays have stayed up late into the night typing angry whatsapp messages? Even after a good day you could let your guard down, stop wondering about who felt what about whom and how that made you feel. That stuff is exhausting.
I love the Teams assembly chat. I really do. I think it is playful and productive and that it can bring us closer and amplify voices that might otherwise go unheard. The GIFs make my day, regularly. Second shout-out to Ms. T. But who amongst us can say they’ve never scrolled to count the hearts and laughing faces, wondering why this or that quip garnered more reactions? Who amongst us has not tried a little too hard to squeeze a complicated topic into a truncated joke? I know I have.
The constant onslaught of notifications, of likes and lack of likes, of measuring ourselves, our images our posts our quips our gifs against the next. It is unrelenting. Our brains, your brains in particular, need breaks.
This brings me to my third and final lamentation for today.
Uncle Wisdom Number 3 — in my day — you were not your username.
When I was 15 or 16 I wanted to be a hacker. After school I would go online and log onto a messenger app (mostly MSN messenger, after it was ICQ ,and before it was GChat, never AIM) to talk to my school friends. I would also log onto a different, more ancient, chat client called MiRC. This was (maybe still is?) one of the old-school chat room clients of internet lore. There were different servers for different communities, different rooms for different topics, each of them a sub-set of strangers.
In this community I was V00D00TRIX. I hung out with much more experienced people and they taught me simple tricks. I had a different personality and could experiment with my behavior (sometimes on the edges of the law) in a largely safe and impermanent way. My friends and I never got up to too much trouble. Mostly we learned how to scan IP ranges in our country for computers that had already been compromised by some of the widely available “kiddie hack” trojans. You could take control of someone else’s computer remotely and do silly things like turn on their camera or look through their files or put up a screen with green on black text and pretend you were in the matrix.
For the most part it was innocent fun, we never did any major harm and when it was done, we logged off and went back to being our normal highschool selves. The two worlds didn’t mix. Except once when my friend tricked me into meeting one of his victims at the mall. The guy turned out to actually be a national squash champion.
As an aside, how come Egypt is so damn good at squash? If you check right now you’ll see that all 3 of the top-ranked women players are from Egypt and 2 of the top 3 men. It’s been like that for more than a decade. I am not exaggerating. Egyptian women have been first place and runner up for 7 of the last 7 world squash championships, men have been 8 out of the last 10 (first place and runner up!) In every competition and at every level of play Egypt is squashing the competition. Ha. Writing for The Atlantic in 2014, just as this dominant streak was starting, Philip Shorer theorized that Egypt’s dominance was due to two big factors: a) most of the players played at the few same clubs nearby each other, so even from a young age players were in a community with champions and b) Egyptian tournament rules allow players to compete more often, and so they get more practice. Community, Practice, Excellence. Sounds familiar.
Any case. We met this squash champion. Told him how to clean up his computer and were not arrested, thankfully. This is not the point. The point is that — in my day — V00D00TriX and Hatim Eltayeb were and could remain separate people. I had other usernames too, for playing videogames (I was Mujahidd on Counterstrike) or playing fantasy roleplays (too many to remember) or for posting on reddit. I was disgraceforcommunity on Instagram, jkjkjk. I wasn’t Hatim Eltayeb anywhere online, really, not even on email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Today, though, there is so much expectation and requirement to curate a public persona online. Whether it is about “being honored to announce” something on LinkedIn, which is rarely an announcement worth honoring, frankly; or posting a well-cropped well-manicured picture of your coffee or showing off your timepiece on TikTok; we are always parading a persona that is about US.
This leads to some bizarre and, in my view, unfortunate perspectives. Back in the painfully isolated winter of 2020, when the killing of George Floyd set alight the long-ignored underbrush of centuries of brutalization, there was a moment when social media was taken over by black squares. A few alumni reached out to our leadership team and asked why ALA hadn’t done the same. I was flabbergasted.
If I haven’t lost you yet, this is where I’ll lose you.
I was flabbergasted because a black square isn’t advocacy, a black square isn’t justice, a black square isn’t work. A black square is performance. You are not your username and your posts are not your work. You are flesh and blood. The world, and everything that is wrong with it, is here, right now, in this interaction — not in an image of it.
Obviously this is an old-fashioned perspective. How can I say that after the internet shut-downs that brought on the Arab Spring? How can I say that when facebook, twitter and Instagram have more followers and generate more content than any of the world’s organized religions? How can I say that when you are all sitting here in front me Because The Internet.
I am not saying posting the black square is bad. For some it might even be a necessary signal, an exorcism. I am saying that only posting the black square is bad. I felt that ALA posting the black square that day was disingenuous because I couldn’t simultaneously say that the image represented real work on real issues in real time with real people really here in person on this campus. If we didn’t take time off to attend a protest, we shouldn’t perform passing outrage. Do the work, it starts at home, post about it after. Rant over.
Michael is checking his watch; he’s like are you done talking, Dean Hatim are you done talking.
I’m almost done. SO those are my three nostalgic wise-uncle lamentations. In my day, the internet was not instant, In my day, it was not constant and In my day, it was not always public. I recognize of course that I am painting you all with much too broad a brush. I know many of you only experienced this kind of connectivity upon arriving at ALA. Over the course of your lifetimes internet penetration in Africa exploded from less than 10% to just under 50%, driven mostly by mobile over the last decade. So, some of you had to wait outside a teacher’s office on several successive Saturdays just to borrow a laptop to finish your applications to ALA. But you’ve now been brewing in this digital stew and it will undoubtedly be a big part of the rest of your life. Unless of course you choose to go live in a cave as an ascetic, which I hope at least some of you will.
For the rest of us, I leave you with these antidotes:
Since the internet is instantaneous, do slow things. Cook a big meal. Memorize a poem. Go for a meandering walk. Give your brain, your spirit and your heart time to linger, to savor, to slow.
Since the internet is constant, find time to be bored. Read the same book twice. Doodle. Sit quietly and wonder, just wonder. There is so much to wonder about. Also, if you can, call your mom.
Finally, since the internet conflates public and private, foster connections offline. With real people. Really there. Really engaging. Talk, laugh, love, argue and make up.
You met this community online. You were introduced to it on zoom and teams and canvas and privately I’m sure on a number of other platforms. But what you are leaving with are real connections with real people that do real work and that can last a lifetime.
So take those connections with you.
Take with you the covalent bonds of Mr. Phenyo and the quantum entanglement of Mr. Keshav. Take with you the hyperlinks of Ms. Lina and the rhyming couplets of Mr. Dash. Take with you Mr. Demeke’s combinations and permutations; Mr. Keen’s grand unifying theories and Ms. Ssanyu’s color wheels of coordination. Take Ms. Mairead’s intercultural fluency & Mr. Morake’s poem for every occasion. Take with you Ms. Maya’s intersectional analysis; Dean T’s aspirational coherence and Ms. Sumanah’s kindest listening ear. Also take Mr. Summerhill — just take him.
Take most of all, yourselves.
When your confidence wanes, reload Moody’s killer moves; when you’re at the end of your rope, gather in Bereket’s artful threads; when you are stumped, recite Karl’s secret bars and when you enter a room invoke Malik’s presidential gait. Has anyone noticed that? When you are anxious, envision Mallasi’s kind, patient, meditative smile. When you tell a story, channel Seif and Makenna’s directorial energy pair it with Jaelene’s choreographic zest and fuel it with Abiero’s unrelenting, and I mean UN RE LENT ING insistence. Take Khady’s capacity to see the profound in everything. Take Rahma’s ready, earnest laughter. Take Janya’s fastidiousness and Michael’s mellifluousness. Take Hundaol’s excellent grammatical eye. Take Osman and Kamuskay’s entrepreneurialism, Tamuda and Abdul’s hustle. Take Finu’s enthusiasm. If you are sad, remember Tina, just remember Tina.
Take each other. Take this place. Take this moment.
In a few weeks, months, years. When the time comes that you find yourself again doomscrolling, plugged into a constant onslaught of instantaneous shallowness. Put it down. Log out. Delete. Reconnect.
The internet and its threats are here to stay, but so are you, and I hope you will win.