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?