In my first few lessons with Russian students, I've run into a serious conundrum. How do you explain the contemporary American internet to someone who is not intimately familiar with the culture of silicon valley?
I'm interested in teaching using podcasts and radio programs, and have shared clips of This American Life and StartUp with my students. The particular materials I was using dealt intimately with the culture of silicon valley, with the ways that the contemporary technology industry in America operates and is talked about. One clip I used from This American Life was about the toast trend in San Francisco, and my students could not fathom why on earth anyone would pay $3 for toast. I'm not sure I want to pay that much for toast, but I understand why someone would, especially in San Francisco. Explaining aspects of StartUp was even harder, despite the fact that I was in a business English class. How do you explain why the billionaire investor has decided to talk to Alex Bloomberg on the street? How do you define "tech casual" as a form of dress? Why is it funny and ridiculous that Alex uses the jargon he does in his first, ill-formulated pitch?
I don't even read that much about the tech industry, but still take it as such a given that phrases like "crushing it" and "disruptive" and "the uber of whatever" are representative of a particular demographic, that the linguistic and lifestyle markers of what people like me would term the "tech bro" are immediately intelligible. I've heard that there's uber in Moscow, and maybe in St. Petersburg, but I don't know anyone who uses it, so it doesn't really make sense to my Russian students call anything the uber of anything else. To crush is to compress, to disrupt is to distract. I don't think there is a single digital invention that has disrupted anything in Russia so far, except maybe VKontakte disrupting traditional mail, but probably not because I don't think Russians sent much mail in the first place. The metro still uses tokens. Plenty of people in Pushkin have smartphones, but no one thinks for a second that they can solve all of life's problems with a simple app. There are barely laundromats, let alone laundry apps.
I asked my friend Hunter, who works in the tech industry, how to describe the internet. He said, "So we put a bunch of teenagers in charge of several billion dollars; they continue to try and reinvent their mothers while 'crushing it'." Hunter and I programmed a film series that's just movies from the 80s and 90s about what the technological future might be. I feel like I want to show all those films to my students, and then have them read a bunch of issues of Wired, and then maybe they might understand American tech culture a little bit. Although, maybe not: there's nothing like the knowledge that you can summon almost anything you want, as long as you have money and a smartphone. It is a kind of power that is awesome and ridiculous, in the literal senses of both words, the former meaning "awe-inspiring" and the latter meaning "inviting ridicule", attributes that are attested to by the endless internet think pieces about the internet. Perhaps it must be felt to be believed.