Class of 2021 displays resilience in face of rapid technological shifts

Each year at commencement, typically held in May and June in the United States, my thoughts linger over the state of the world, in which these young people are expected to build their lives as grown-ups. This year’s commencement gave me even more to ponder, as the continuing risk of the pandemic forced us to hold this most important college ritual online.

To say that moving the commencement online was an agonizing decision is a gross understatement. The university realizes the significance of college graduation and the emotional investment of the graduating students to “walk” across the stage to receive their diploma from the school president, and their loved ones to bear witness to this moment of symbolic importance. The university leadership endeavored to approximate this emotional experience in alternative events like “car-mencement” (graduates driving by the designated spot to get graduation photos taken) and an online ceremony for the conferment of degrees (each student’s name is read by the dean as their photograph flashed across the screen). These efforts fell far short of meeting the expectation of graduates and their families, many of whom expressed their outrage in their Facebook posts and phone calls to the dean’s office.

Anthropologists have theorized college as a rite of passage, or the liminal state in which to navigate the transition from adolescence to adulthood, and the ritual that accompanies this transition is typically elaborate and arouses strong emotional responses. To paraphrase Clifford Geertz, one of the most prominent 20th century anthropologists, humans live in the “web of significance” they themselves have spun. There is also an added emphasis on physical proximity in ritual performance, which generates a unique kind of excitement that human beings crave, or “collective effervescence” as Emile Durkheim named it over a century ago. It makes anthropological sense, then, that the betrayed expectation for a spectacular graduation weekend triggered such negative emotions. This unfortunate conclusion to the turbulent academic year demonstrated what we all learned in this past year: Online encounters don’t fully satisfy the human need to be together and feel the connection with one another.

Despite this human need for connection, many predict that the use of technology-mediated communication will persist in the post-pandemic world. Businesses realize that videoconferencing is often more convenient and cost-effective than flying people halfway across the world; medical appointments, counseling, taking classes, and other services that were previously slow to move online are now all available online, and with the convenience and cost-savings involved, they are here to stay. The challenge is, then, how to negotiate between human sociality and not-so-human technology.

The related question raised by another major technological shift exacerbates this human-technology conundrum: the prevalence of artificial intelligence (AI). We used to think of it as a monster of a sort, whose superior intelligence, without a moral compass, would run amok and threaten humanity to extinction. How the reality turned out is far scarier in some ways. Instead of an evil computer that takes up a whole room (“2001: A Space Odyssey”) or a human-like creature that talks and walks funny (“Terminator”), AI in real life is innocuous, helpful and everywhere: it runs Amazon warehouses, drives our cars and cooks perfectly fluffy rice. It has made humans dependent (who doesn’t want fluffy rice every single time?); at the same time it reduces the demand for human labor to perform routine tasks (such as fetching the right product from a warehouse shelf). The need for social distancing and worker safety issues during the pandemic only facilitated this already ongoing trend. As AI’s learning capabilities become more sophisticated, it is also expected to affect more “better-paid and better-educated workers” according to Brookings Institute.

The picture I presented above may seem bleak, even hopeless, but we must remind ourselves that our species has survived many technological shifts with equally drastic impact, and that change is the constant state of our species’ being. Take, for example, the “Neolithic Revolution,” during which humans abandoned the hunting-foraging way of life, which sustained their ancestors for millions of years, and ventured into the business of growing their own food in the forms of cultivated crops and livestock. The agricultural way of life literally changed everything about the way human beings live and interact with one another. Not all outcomes were pretty, but they adapted and learned to take advantage of new opportunities that presented themselves. Without this first major leap in technology, human beings would have never achieved all the technological advances and enjoyed improved quality of life as a result.

As many challenges as the technological revolution of our times presents, I’m hopeful for this year’s graduating class, who demonstrated that human resilience is alive and well. In a short, chaotic year, they adjusted to communicating and learning online; they figured out how to maintain their health, physically and mentally, during a long period of social isolation, and give each other support at times of need. In other words, they are the first cohort in history to experience en masse what it takes to negotiate their needs in the technology-mediated environment, all the while contending with political strife and the widespread sense of uncertainty. Resilience, creativity, and flexibility are the qualities in which human beings still have an edge over AI. If they can apply the skills and insights they gained in their challenging senior year in whatever they endeavor to do in their lives, they can become one of the greatest generations in human history.

Sawa Kurotani

Kurotani is a professor of anthropology at the University of Redlands.