In Literature 2 students are discussing how digital technology shapes the way we think about our selves and our cultures today.

They read Dave Eggers' dystopian novel The Circle as well as non-fiction texts and articles that engage with similar issues in contemporary society. They’re also trying out a new form of writing—a book review in the style of the Los Angeles Review of Books, which will challenge them to explore how The Circle, as a piece of fiction, contributes to broader cultural debates.

We began the block with open discussions of the novel, which follows a young woman who gets a job at a giant tech company—a fictionalized combination of Google and Facebook. The students discussed the company’s focus on "transparency" through massive online data collection, including the use of private body cameras to live-stream an individual’s every waking hour. While intended to enforce integrity, the individual use of body cameras also brought up issues of privacy and of performance, as well as artificiality in our construction of a self. Which aspects of human life cannot be captured in a video feed or through quantitative data? Students also noticed moments in the novel when efforts to create a cohesive community led to the suppression of different points of view, the enforcing of a singular world view, and increased insularity.

In writing their book reviews, students are considering how this novel, and fiction in general, can add to broader cultural debates. Together we listened to an NPR report on whether Facebook should be allowed to suspend a person’s account when asked by the police, and we read an article in the New York Times Magazine about the explosive power of the "leak" in contemporary politics and news media. Now they’re doing their own cultural investigations, reading newspaper and magazine articles and relating their ideas about the novel to these outside texts. One student is looking at simplistic forms of communication on social media ("like"/"dislike" on Facebook today, or "smile"/"frown"/"meh" as it shows up in the novel) and considering whether these digital forms of communication actually make our thinking more simplistic, eliminating nuance—such that we can never add to an idea, agree with part of it, or ask a question about it—but can only agree or disagree. She’s particularly interested in considering how these tools add to polarization of political beliefs in America today. Another student is looking at underwater scenes and metaphors in the novel, especially moments when the main character is kayaking and delights in not knowing what’s beneath the surface of the bay, and relating these moments to the company’s motto that "All Should be Known." As she investigates outside the novel, she’s considering questions such as: Does technology make us feel that not knowing is problematic? What does this imply about our changing definition of curiosity and knowledge—of information vs. comprehension?

To develop ideas for their reviews, students each created their own set of brainstorming steps, using previous assignments as models but tweaking these in ways that made sense to them. And just as they came up with their own way to develop their ideas about the novel, they discovered on their own what this new written form—the book review—would look like. We read multiple reviews from the Los Angeles Review of Books and the New York Review of Books, and students worked in pairs to identify generic markers of the review, asking themselves what the tone and style of the language was, whether it made an argument, what kind of evidence and analysis it put forth, and what seemed to be the text’s overarching purpose and intended audience. They thus practiced this crucial reading and writing skill of understanding not only what a text is arguing but how it argues. As the students have discussed throughout the year, the how often shapes the what.

-- Sydney Cochran