Friday, September 16, 2011

No App for That

When I first saw this cartoon by Hugh MacLeod (follow his wonderful work at, I found myself recalling the recent story about an Israeli couple who named their baby daughter Like.  Yes, after the Facebook feature.
For me, angels symbolize our higher natures. I see them as somehow having transcended human limitations and having achieved a perspective most of us lack. They embody (is that really the right word?) ideals to which we should aspire. I see them as particularly discerning.  In that regard, the humor becomes rather obvious and ludicrous. Like many humorous pieces, however, this one points to a more serious issue.
Clearly the Israeli couple has a penchant for unusual names. Their first two children are Honey and Pie. They had a clear reason for naming the girl Like:
When they chose the name Like, the sound was at least as important as the meaning, explained Lior.
Like had a nice and [sic] international ring to it, he said, and Facebook had become the icon of today's generation.
"If once people gave Biblical names and that was the icon, then today this is one of the most famous icons in the world," he said, joking that the name could be seen as a modern version of the traditional Jewish name Ahuva, which means "beloved."

Still, while I’m trying not to be judgmental, this strikes me as implusive for many reasons. But this is not a post about parenting decisions. However, because the like button represents “the icon of today’s generation,” this naming story hits at what struck me about the cartoon.
                The combination of our hectic lifestyles and the technological ease of social media has made some things too easy. Have an opinion on something on-line? Simply click if you like it or not. I understand the thinking behind this: that if your “friends” like it, and enough of them click on it, then you’ll probably like it also, etc. It’s the collective wisdom of crowds notion. The feature has become so ubiquitous that this effect has become weakened. Meanwhile, what about the rationale? What about paying attention to nuance? Yes, people can provide comments. Most that I’ve seen aren’t much deeper than the button and often resort to vitriol.
                Similarly, being connected all the time, particularly with smartphones, sometimes leads us to do things rather impulsively—fire off that angry e-mail, leave an accusatory message—before we have all the information. I almost did just this the other evening, when I heard something that really ticked me off. Luckily I was in a place where it would have been totally inappropriate for me to be tapping away. By the time I left the event, I had calmed down enough to know that I needed to gather more information before making any conclusions. I have other strategies I use at various times. For instance, I often draft e-mail in Word so I don’t send something off before I’m ready; sometimes I write the response I’d like to send in the heat of the moment but know I shouldn’t. Still, I make mistakes. And, no, I’m not going to share any examples of how I learned my lesson the hard way.
                Like the angels in the cartoon, we risk giving away some of our key human qualities. We need to think quite carefully about our relationship with technology—and how it’s affecting our relationships with others. Human identity and interaction is too complex for reduction to binary code.
                That’s why great schools remain vital. They are about so much more than the transmission of information and quick, over-simplified analysis. Yes, a student can study something and say he likes it. But he also has to be able to articulate why in a stylish and graceful fashion, to connect it to other understandings, to consider it from multiple perspectives, and to see why it all this matters. Plus so much of what happens in those schools comes down to meaningful human relationships. When I send my children to school, certainly I worry about their academics. But I also pay my tuition because of the people with whom I want my kids spending time as they form their identities.
Ultimately, no matter what advances are made in artificial intelligence, I don’t foresee a day we can simply download an app for wisdom. We have to keep channeling our inner angels.

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