Wednesday, June 16, 2021

The Slide Down

 One of the things my young self never really anticipated about getting older is just how much things really do get worse. Of course, this is partly counterbalanced, maybe even sometimes wholly counterbalanced, by the fact that some things definitely get better. But it's easier in youth to believe in indefinite progress because you haven't experienced the obvious deteriorations. I was thinking about this in the context of the internet. Pretty much all of the major Google features that I use occasionally -- search, Google Books, Blogger, are less usable than they were ten years ago. I started noticing a few years ago that often when when you'd search for a literary work that was definitely online, it wouldn't even show up on the first page. There's a lot of variation, of course, but there was a time when that almost never happened. I've never used the Stats function in Blogger all that much, but at some point they made a number of aesthetic changes whose primary contribution is to force me to do a lot more clicking to call up the stats that I once just had to glance at. Google Books was once clunky but serviceable for reading and searching; it's now less clunky and also somewhat less serviceable for reading and searching than it used to be, especially with older works. Blogger more sharply separated the HTML and Compose functions than they used to be; no doubt there was a reason, but the result was that where once I could do everything in either Compose or HTML mode without much difficulty at all, now I find, repeatedly, that I have to switch back and forth, back and forth, and of course it decides it has to mess with the HTML every time it switches from one to the other. To be sure, it hasn't all been deterioration; the Compose mode at one time was not very good at all, and it's much more useable today. But the problem is wider still. Online store websites haven't really improved in a while; indeed, they seem to be much clunkier to use than they were about ten years ago. Perhaps this is a matter of security, or (more probably) marketing, or (I often suspect) laziness, but the online stores with the websites that work best often seem to be those that found something that worked a long while back and have since then made only conservative changes.

One could perhaps explain this just by the crotchetiness of getting older (and it's true that I am much less patient with pretty much everything than I was in my spring lamb days), or by things becoming less familiar (and it's certainly true that I have more often the experience of 'I don't even see why anyone would have any interest in doing this, much less want to waste any time learning it'). But there are all sorts of advances that I can appreciate fully, regardless of how curmudgeonly or confused I grow in my ancient years. It's nonsense to say that nothing deteriorates in quality; you only have to look at flying to see that that's obviously false. And I think a lot of it is that we have a culture that puts pressure on everyone to 'do something', and while such a culture may be one in which bad things are more easily fixed, it's also one in which good things are easily ruined -- and I think in practice it's usually easier to ruin a good thing than to fix a bad one. Academic life is a lot like that -- administrators are always trying to prove that there's a reason for their salaries, and while they do sometimes fix things, most of the time they just make everything less effective. Student evaluations were useful when they were special-occasion things; then they became regular; then they became something that had to be done every term. The amount of evaluation of any sort I have to endure, for that matter, is far greater than anyone would actually need to figure out whether I'm competent to teach, and has steadily increased my entire career,  but is nonetheless not at all of a kind that would actually help either me or anyone else to do anything better; apparently there are things for which we 'have to show numbers' for some administrative purpose or other, never mind that there is no actual way to interpret most of them. More and more time and effort for things less and less useful: that is a slide down. 

And of course there are all sorts of ways I worry about the next generation: the increasing difficulty of getting jobs, the increasing difficulty of preparing for retirement, the increasing difficulty of home ownership, etc. These are all things that can be measured in various ways. Then there are more intangible things. Some of them I worry about quite a bit. In my Ethics courses, I have a few Discussion Board topics that I've been putting up for years. For grading purposes, the students just have to respond and it doesn't matter much what they say as long as it meets a few basic structural requirements. One of those longstanding topics is on Bentham's utilitarian view of infanticide (he thinks it should not be illegal, because it is often times the most merciful thing to do); and I have noticed across my teaching career that students have gone from almost uniformly shocked and horrified at this to an increasing number of students -- it has started tipping over into the majority in the past few years -- saying, in one form or other, "Well, he has a point." I have a sort of standing nightmare that I will have to spend the last decades of my life arguing that, as a matter of fact, it is indeed morally wrong to murder babies. I have been seeing things that could lead that direction for some time now, and they seem to be coming more often.

Of course, it's important to recognize that it's not all a slide down; the downslide can be and often is temporary; some things definitely improve. Downslide and upstep both are always part of the bargain. They've both been going on for much longer than I have been on this earth, and will both continue long after I have left it. And I have a Scandinavian streak in me that takes a sort of paradoxical cheer in the thought that things will get worse before they get better, and maybe will just get worse. If it's inevitable that the Wolf will devour the Allfather, it takes a bit of a burden off; if Ragnarok's guaranteed to come, well, then, you don't really have to worry about it much, do you? You can just focus on what you're doing now.

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