The disconnected academic?

Declan Kiberd, Professor of Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama in UCD – and soon-to-be Professor of Irish Studies and English at Notre Dame University in the United States – is one of Ireland best known academic public commentators, a public intellectual with a world leading research output but also a willingness to address a wider public, as in his occasional comment pieces in the Irish Times.

Declan Kiberd is, rightly, hugely respected in the academic community; but he is also capable of coming out occasionally with some fairly amazing nonsense. An example of that was to be found in yesterday’s Irish Times, in a piece by him under the title ‘Internet can leave you disconnected’. In fact it is more a rant than an article, an energetic riding of a hobby horse, though not a horse that is likely to feature amongst the bookies’ favourites. In a nutshell, Professor Kiberd is not at all keen on modern technology. Any of it, really: mobile phones, the internet, iPods, iPhone, Facebook, Youtube – all get the thumbs down. These gadets or computer programs are disconnecting us from our society and our culture, they are vulgar and bring out the worst in people. But not only that, they have no intellectual or artistic dimension:

‘As yet, alas, the new technologies have produced no new art forms. Mostly, it’s been a matter of bullying, beheadings and bad, bad vibes. Masked and anonymous ranters use the media to vent. Others employ it to steal the copyright of lovely songs and beautiful texts.’

The entire article is full of ‘stop-the-world’ angst, but the passage quoted above is particularly silly. New technology has both created and enhanced countless art forms, from literature to visual art (including some pretty amazing digital photography).

Fear of new technology is nothing new. While doing some research for an article I was writing a few years ago, I came across a sermon preached by a London clergyman in the mid-19th century in which he suggested that science and engineering were robbing mankind of its basic humanity and that railways were destroying the concept of the community. Every generation experiences and has to deal with the challenges of new ways of doing things and new technologies to assist in that, and every generation has those who fear that kind of progress and yearn for a simpler, more authentic society. We probably need to have some of these, because of course not every innovation is good and some need to be probed.

But whether we need this approach (or at any rate such an approach taken to these extremes) at the heart of the academy is another matter. Declan Kiberd teaches literature. To disconnect yourself from modern technology also means losing the modern idiom and losing the context in which much contemporary literature is written. I genuinely admire Professor Kiberd for his willingness to engage in public debate, but on the issue of modern technology he is badly wrong. Frankly, he should get himself online.

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6 Comments on “The disconnected academic?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    In fairness now he was on about the culmative. And that there is always something between the sense and the object, like a glove on the hand.
    Where I disagree with him is in the active mind part of it. I do not think there is active mind in any of this and ascribing such smacks of a Bernard Gui attitude. And bringing in Dylan on this subject is a bit bloody rich.

  2. Kevin O'Brien Says:

    I think Kiberd’s article is a misfire, but I think that he isn’t that far-off the mark.
    Some recent social networking phenomena back up the contention that social media are not all they are cracked up to be. Two in particular are Friend culling(massive purge of the friends list) and Facebook suicide (closing a Facebook account down). Gruesome names for both, but there you go.

    I genuinely think that there are people out there who feel more lonely because of social media, not less.

  3. Kevin O'Brien Says:

    meant to say: not far off the mark on the “disconnection” point.

  4. kevin denny Says:

    I thought it was a curiously unsophisticated piece with a very one dimensional view of technology.
    The reference to Dylan was indeed odd given the negative reaction when he turned electric. If Dylan had shunned new technology would we be better off? And as for the bowsie Joyce trying to bring cinema to Ireland…

  5. Antoin Says:

    Kiberd is famous – and greatly envied – in the academic community for not doing email. At all. I could become a public luddite to avoid email.

    • Hm… I think you mean ‘notorious’, not famous. While I admire much of what Declan Kiberd says and does, even when I disagree with him, this particular trait is one I *don’t* admire. It amounts to refusing to communicate, which is actually part of the job. It’s the 2010 equivalent of what, in 1910, would have been a refusal to respond to all letters not written on pigskin. It’s just silly.

      Of course life would be easier for everyone if we didn’t have to go to the inconvenience of replying to students or others, but that’s not what we’re paid for. To insist that we’ll only do it by a form of communication that is now not used by others is tantamount to refusing to do it at all.

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