Saturday, October 30, 2010

To Screen or Not to Screen

            In Hamlet’s Blackberry, the journalist William Powers muses on our relationship with screens and what he calls “the conundrum of connectedness.” We can do wondrous things in our interconnected world. At the same time, however, living in cyberspace has a high cost in terms of expectations, loss of focus, and shallowness versus depth. Constant tension exists between our internal and external worlds. Powers embarks on this meditation after his smartphone is ruined when he fell overboard while fixing an outboard motor. After moments of panic, he felt liberated. He illustrates how this essential issue always has lain at the heart of a society’s struggle with any emerging dominant technology.
            Recently I’ve had a small taste of Powers’ experience. At certain points in our building, I lose any cell phone signal. At first this frustrated me greatly. Particularly as a new head of school, I wanted to be in touch constantly, perhaps to ease myself with the illusion that I had things completely under my control. I found myself checking not for messages, but to see if I even had a signal. I began thinking about the possibility of offering our roof as a place for a new tower for my provider. Slowly, though, I gave in to this situation. In fact, I’ve even begun to embrace it. Now I sometimes even leave my phone in my office as I explore the school each day. Certainly I’m making human connections that I would have missed when staring into my screen.
            Meanwhile, as someone who always has sought meaningful ways to use digital technology in education, I’m concerned. I’m worried particularly because I see younger and younger children staring into screens more and more frequently.  We can become so enamored with tools that they drive instruction. We hold out possibilities and the rare example as rationales. For example, yes, a blog does make it possible for a student to have a world-wide audience. But does that ever happen? And how does a teacher give the same type of detailed feedback? I’ve heard tech fans argue that teachers must use plenty of technology because that is the world in which kids now live. But perhaps the inverse is true. As a class of high school juniors told me last year, in school they want face-to-face because they spend the rest of their time in the on-line world. The lesson for me: don’t lose sight of the more essential human objectives.
            The ease of the tools presents another dilemma. Create, click, and publish—what about filter? The process has been inverted. So too often rants replace crafted, thoughtful prose. Too many tweets or status updates suggest nothing other than a desperate need to be noticed. Jason Lanier, one of the early pioneers of the Internet, laments some of its consequences. In You Are Not a Gadget he challenges, “Post a video once in a while that took you 100x longer to create than it does to view. Write a blog post that took weeks of reflection before you heard the inner voice that needed to be out.” Ultimately, Lanier cautions, “You have to be somebody before you show yourself.”
            Therein lies the challenge. Our children are living in an increasingly connected world, and we don’t yet know the long-term consequences. But we have to consider an essential question raised by Powers: How does one develop a strong inner self when the focus is always external?


pam said...

It’s the age of living out loud. I think about that nearly every time I post something on Flickr, facebook or a blog. I’m a firm believer that content should drive format and vehicle, not the other way around. But I also think balance is key – whether in reference to the time I spend online, how/where I share info, or the ways in which my kids are learning and developing. Smart boards are great, but so is memorizing poetry far from any electrical outlet (and out of wifi range). I see nothing wrong with time spent on a PSP, but I also think participating in team sports is invaluable for a child's physical and emotional development. Time to head to the park on this very pretty afternoon!

Sylvia Venable said...

A few years ago, I vowed to myself that I would hang on to my typewriter, the companion of all my years of graduate school. However, it was eventually discarded when I was given a computer for my birthday in 2000. When I wrote my first transatlantic e-mail and received a reply almost instantaneously, I was hooked and mesmerized by its capabilities. I have been an e-mail "junkie" ever since. And for the dissemination of information quickly and efficiently, there is nothing that can exceed it or one of those fancy I-phones (which I have not succumbed to as yet).

However, when a piece needs to be well crafted and critiqued, and when research requires thorough,well-documented and diligent intellectual integrity, the computer, for me, becomes the generator of the end-product. Call me unsophisticated, but the yellow legal pad and its eternal crossouts and editings before the final product, and the solid research in real libraries with touchable, handlable books create the environment for thinking that goes beyond surface musings.

Sam Kraus said...

I remember being taught in the 70's that emerging technology would lead to more leisure time than any previous generation had the luxury of enjoying. Hahaha. NOT. I've often said the decline of our society began with the fax machine and went down from there. That being said, I'm a big proponent of technology. Technology is not inherently anything other than a tool.

I sometimes wonder if technology is being used as a scapegoat for more pervasive problems. Therefore, I hesitate to put too much emphasis on technology being the root cause of the societal erosion I observe ie. a self absorbed one with hollow goals and ideals as our leading measures of the good life. I see a connection between them for sure. I think our accelerated pace of life is largely attributable to technological advances. However, I wonder if higher expectations, greed and less likelihood for taking personal responsibility aren't closer to the root cause. Technology makes us all spin faster, but it can't account for much more than that. Perhaps it's the "more, better" part of the "more, better, faster" that's spiraling us down?

This is the most interesting topic of all for me over the last couple of decades. Historically the fall of many great civilizations began with the lack of personal responsibility and a pervasive sense of entitlement amongst it's people. Skipping over how we got here in the first place, since what is done is done, how does a derailed culture get back on track? What are some incentives that might lead to a ground swell of meaningful change that moves us closer to a more 'desirable' tipping point? What exactly would suffice as a societal wake up call sufficient to create a culture shift before it's too late?

What gets us back to developing a solid sense of self based in principles and values as a nation? Without it we are truly rudderless in life. As parents and teachers we can hold fast to our own. I'm not sure how this happens in a macro way, but I'm keenly observing and hoping I begin to see signs of a shift...

Mark Crotty said...

Pam, yes, balance is the key. And that balance should shift depending on circumstance. I worry that we are losing the equilibrium in some concerning ways.

Mark Crotty said...

Sylvia, there is something about playing with ideas with pen in hand that stimulates brain flow which I've never been able to reproduce in any software, not even mind-mapping programs. But I've had students who thrive on using software such as Inspiration as part of the early process.

Mark Crotty said...

Sam, thanks for the great and provocative comment. There is so much in here that I could comment on. But I'll boil it down to one point: Ultimately, aren't we responsible for the decisions we make regarding any of this? Sometimes we forget that.