Culture and research


29 Sep 2020

Nicole Riva

If for a moment we forget about the great classics of the past and try to grasp a closer feel of the literary production of the second half of the twentieth century, it would be clear that, although technology has been part of our lives for several decades now, it has been totally excluded from the pages of the books that we now consider fundamental in Italian literature.  A common thought feared that if laptops and mobiles would be one the norm we would be in danger of losing all our literary romanticism and would therefore drastically reduce the quality and work volume of our literary treasures in this field.  This idea wasn’t only thought by those whom, like myself, bear a longing nostalgia for the old pen and paper, but also for writers which never took to modern day technology. In fact, the word "computer" became part of the italian dictionary Zingarelli during the sixties, but for a long time technology in literature had been relegated only in the science fiction genre, which had a great success in Italy with the Urania series published by Mondadori. This however is only considered a classic today in extremely rare cases and circumstances.  In 1983 some of the greatest Italian writers were dubious of the technical goals being introduced to them. It seemed unheard when the newspaper La Stampa dared asked the question: “Excuse me, would you write a novel on a computer?". Only Umberto Eco, whom later typed his Focault's pendulum by keyboard the following year, seemed enthusiastic to do so. Other writers were more sceptical, most in fact in categorical denial about modern day technology. This commonplace attitude towards technology was feared to potentially lead to the extinction of literature and its authors. Primo Levi, in his collection of Storie Naturali, wrote in a humorous fashion how a poet and his secretary grappled with a new machine: The Versifier. The poet decided to test the machine becoming increasingly overwhelmed with mundane commissions he couldn’t carry out and decided to try out the machine. If it was successful he would be able to rite poetry on any subject. The story goes that although the poet was confident his secretary was sceptical of the idea claiming that poetry can really only be a creation of a human mind not a machine. After some disagreements they eventually decide to buy the Versifier and use it to lighten their workloads.  I will not reveal the ending but the bickering between the characters in the story is hilarious but the moral of the story is clear: Technology will annihilate poetry as we know it. This has been a particularly challenging year for book lovers. We’ve seen a year of lockdowns and business closures making it challenging for bookworms such as myself not to be able to rely on libraries or bookstores. As a teacher I had to let go of my scepticism towards digital media and frame my mind in teaching virtually. After several months of recording lessons and using various media platforms for video calls I almost caved into thinking that this new modern way of life had become a reality when I heard my students say It miss school!’ I couldn’t help but think about Maggie and Tommy which are the main characters of Isaac Asimov’s ‘The Fun They Had.’  The story is set in a distance future where children study from home and have a robot in the place of a teacher which teaches via a projector screen and corrects exercises in real time. In this story a futuristic world is depicted where books have become video-books and kindles, Tommy finds a traditional one made of paper and Margie recalls stories told by her grandfather who had told her that many years ago the printed words didn’t move and remained fixed on the page and you could always return to the page and they’d still be there.  In her grandfather’s stories he had mentioned how children like them would go to a special building each morning called ‘school’ and would have lessons with a human teacher. They were never isolated in their classrooms and mixed with other children of the same age who would all take the same lessons together. Maggie finds this much more appealing than her current situation sitting in a room alone with only a robot teacher to keep her company and wishes she could step back in time to attend a school as they did in the past, mainly because in those days children had an opportunity to be children and have fun. Watching the story unfold between the two main characters discussing limitations in a human’s life, almost as if man and technology were set upon two parallel tracks and unable to meet. When Tommy explains to her that the teacher was not a robot in the past she almost can’t believe it. "A man isn't good enough, he can't know as much as a teacher" she says confidently.  In fact, for those of us born and raised in the new digital age this concept is outdated. Man and technology actually make up the rails of the same track connecting two worlds creating more exciting, new modern concepts. Margie’s final statement, which in turn gives the story it’s title, has always bought a smile onto student’s faces.  In fact, for us who are now born and grow up in the digital age, this concept is outdated; man and technology are the rails of the same track - the goal is to find the wooden sleepers in order to connect the two worlds and create something new and exciting.  Margie's final statement, which gives the title to the story, has always made the students smile. This is because it’s a common thought (especially during mundane lessons) that ‘fun at school’ isn’t always as straightforward as she made out. However being away from their desks and classmates, students have now re-evaluated the role school plays in their lives and I’m sure they’ve come to the same conclusion as Margie did several times throughout the story.  One thing Asimov didn’t consider however was his almost entirely accurate prediction of the future and that teachers must not and should not give up on their roles when potentially being replaced by a machine.  During our recent lockdown when the backboards were replaced with computer screens and raising of haves became an online chat, teachers d hard not to exclude anyone from their virtual classrooms showing how technology isn’t always a representative of isolation but can actually pose as a fool for inclusion with the ability to unite and assist in moments of difficulty. Margie’s mother had said in the story, referring to the robotic teacher, that "a teacher must be adjusted to fit the mind of a schoolboy or a schoolgirl" and she is not wrong. But all things considered she ignored the fact that the same considerations can also come from a human teacher who loves their work and can achieve equally important results.

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