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Has Reality Finally Caught Up to Thomas Pynchon?
“Paranoia’s the garlic in life’s kitchen,” remarks the central character, Maxine Tarnow, of Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel, Bleeding Edge. “You can never have too much.” Pynchon seasons his latest epic voyage into the American psyche with enough paranoia to ward off even the most persistent of vampires, if not his critics. Since winning the 1974 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction for Gravity's Rainbow, Pynchon’s watched the trajectory of his stature as a novelist steadily rise, all while he remains grounded in a worldview based in a distrust of systems and a faith in the individual. Bleeding Edge begins just before September 11, 2001, in the calm after the bust of the dotcom boom and before the storm of the terrorist attacks on America and the ensuing and never-ending War on Terror. Pynchon travels back a decade to show us the beginnings of the American age of paranoia, an age that might one day be called the Age of Pynchon. With Bleeding Edge, can we accept that reality has finally caught up to Thomas Pynchon?
Pynchon takes his title from the concept of “bleeding edge technology”—technology so cutting edge that it hurts, financially in terms of the monetary cost of keeping it running and psychologically in terms of its unreliability for still being in basically the testing stage. For Pynchon, the internet remains bleeding edge technology regardless of how we view it. As in all his books, Pynchon dives deep into the language of the internet itself and resurfaces with a fresh appreciation to share with his readers. What The Crying of Lot 49 was to snail mail, Bleeding Edge is to e-mail and online communication. Many of the characters in Bleeding Edge work in the virtual world in the wake of the dotcom crash and still feel the aftershocks. At the center of the web of internet-related intrigue is a program titled DeepArcher, both a pun on “departure” as well as perhaps an allusion to Aristotle’s archer analogy in his Nicomachean Ethics that likened the search for a good life to the quest of an archer to hit the bull’s eye. All of Pynchon’s characters miss the mark to varying degrees, but the fact that they keep trying to the end gives all his work its poignancy.
All the usual suspects of Pynchonianism appear in Bleeding Edge: eccentricities such as “professional nose” Conkling Speedwell’s obsession with how Adolf Hitler would have smelled, snicker-worthy character names (Vip Epperdew, Nick Windust, and others), sudden breaks into little doggerel ditties, groan-worthy puns (a ladies fitness center offering pole-dancing classes called “Body and Pole”), and an almost endless range of cultural allusions (from opera and Bernie Madoff to Space Ghost and Scream, Blacula, Scream). For the uninitiated, the first dip into Pynchon’s pool can be chillingly intimidating, but once you allow yourself to splash around in the playfulness of the text, you’ll find the water’s more than fine.
All those stylistic touches, however, serve as a framework for the real star of any Pynchon novel—the system, the plot, the conspiracy that drives the paranoia of the characters and the involved reader. The New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani slammed Bleeding Edge as “weirdly Pynchon Lite” based on what she saw as a plague of two-dimensional characters. I’ll concede to Kakutani her point about the fullness of the characters, but I’ll counter that the real main character in Bleeding Edge is the internet itself, which emerges with a stunning three-dimensionality. In the post-9/11 world of Bleeding Edge, the internet becomes a kind of modern Elysian Fields where those killed in the attacks spend a virtual afterlife as avatars. Just as Odysseus is shocked and saddened to see his comrade Elpenor among the dead in Book 11 of Homer's Odyssey, Pynchon’s Maxine expresses her shock and sadness over the dead of September 11th there, but not there, in the virtual world of DeepArcher. Such departures from the madcap into the sublime mark the true greatness of Pynchon, who rewards those who follow him into the depths.
Ultimately, Bleeding Edge is a cautionary tale of the internet and post-9/11 America. “11 September infantilized this country,” a character rails. “It had a chance to grow up, instead it chose to default back to childhood.” The security blanket infantilized America reached for was the internet, where all your dreams seemingly come true. Maxine’s father alludes to the government and military origins of the internet when he says “[i]t was conceived in sin, the worst possible.” “As it kept growing,” he continues, “it never stopped carrying in its heart a bitter-cold death wish for the planet.” Long before anyone heard of Edward Snowden, Pynchon knew that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that nobody’s after you. (NSA, are you listening?) Rather than freedom, the internet offers only control: “Everybody connected together, impossible anybody should get lost, ever again.” Those are strong words from an author who’s resisted the public eye for the past 40 years, who values the freedom to “get lost.” He anticipates a day when we all wear “Dick Tracy’s wrist radio,” which will be the “handcuffs of the future.” Try watching the Samsung Galaxy Smart Watch commercial with all the pop culture references (including Dick Tracy) now and not think of Pynchon.
As I read Bleeding Edge and the adventures of Maxine as a fraud investigator, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to Herman Melville’s grossly underrated, last full-length novel The Confidence-Man. In Melville’s 19th century, people suffer from a loss of confidence in the face of forces (political, social, economic) increasingly beyond their control and allow themselves to believe any “con” played before them. In Pynchon’s 21st century, the internet becomes the big “con” we use to shelter ourselves against the forces fraudulently offering us freedom and opportunity in exchange for compliance and control. Is that paranoia? More importantly, is that justified paranoia? The Bleeding Edge cuts through all the noise of modern America and strikes a clear, troubling warning bell for us to “get lost” before we lose our souls.
Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
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