Beginning in 1988, the technologist Mark Weiser led the computer science laboratory at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), a company that played a critical role in developing, among other transformational inventions, laser printing, Ethernet, graphical user interfaces, and the computer mouse. “The most profound technologies,” Weiser wrote in Scientific American in 1991, “are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.”
Weiser understood that when technologies work very easily for a great number of people, they become ubiquitous, and when they become ubiquitous, they disappear. He also understood that their gradual invisibility says more about us than it does about them. “Disappearance is a fundamental consequence not of technology but of human psychology,” he said. “Whenever people learn something sufficiently well, they cease to be aware of it. When you look at a street sign, for example, you absorb its information without consciously performing the act of reading. Only when things disappear in this way are we freed to use them without thinking and so to focus beyond them on new goals.”
Thirty years after Weiser wrote these words, I wonder whether we are indeed “freed…to focus beyond them” when “they” are not street signs but computers; and I wonder in turn whether they do in fact disappear. When used as a transitive verb—a verb that takes an object—the word “disappear” assumes a more sinister definition, as in “to be disappeared.” Patricia Lockwood, in her forthcoming novel No One Is Talking About This, writes that the internet, which was once “the place where you sounded like yourself,” has gradually become “the place where we sound like each other.” Would Mark Weiser, who died in 1999, observe our present world and still contend that computer technologies disappear around us, or would he contend that they actually disappear us?
Today we contend with a novel ubiquitous technology. Its mechanism is to bind spike proteins to our cellular entry receptors, express and replicate its genomic RNA, and thereby reproduce itself. The contraction of it can be deadly, and the fear of it has largely disappeared our physical selves from our own and each other’s lives for almost a year. Though we have leveraged other ubiquitous technologies as a countermeasure—leveraged them so that we may reappear—these have had a disappearing effect of their own. The first Zoom room of the day may be “the place where you sound like yourself,” but the fifth Zoom room of the day is more likely to be “the place where we sound like each other.”
We have never forgotten this year at MICDS the essential importance of in-person contact and interactions in our students’ lives. We have endeavored to provide opportunities for students and teachers to connect on our campus—opportunities to reappear to one another—without compromising the strength of our academic program or the safety of our campus. It has been less difficult to balance these competing commitments for students in grades JK-6 than it has been for students in grades 7-12. As the cumulative impact of the coronavirus pandemic grows, we are reassessing the experience of our older students and seeking practicable alternatives to our current operating model. I hope to have more specific information to share with the families of those students in the days ahead.
I often say to prospective students that MICDS is a place where they will be seen and known, a place to which they will belong and be accountable. “No student can be invisible here,” I say. “This is what it means to be a community.” Disappearance is not an option.
Always reason, always compassion, always courage. I wish you a happy weekend with your families.
Head of School