Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Luddites on Facebook

From London Permaculture @ Flickr
I tweet, blog, tumbl and I'm trying Facebook for a class this semester. I'm a huge advocate of Wolfram|Alpha and GeoGebra for math. But I'm secretly a Luddite. I only have an emergency cell phone for the car. I text once a month on my iPod just to keep the service, and I only got the iPod because I was trying to figure out how to use the technology in class. (Though I have grown fond of... my precious. Wait, what?)

Calvin College has a January series each year, accompanying a mini-term when students take enrichment classes. The talks are free to attend, some stream, and there are many remote locations at which you can catch the talks. (Around Michigan, across the country, Canada and ... Lithuania?)  Today's speaker was Sherry Turkle. (Talk description, Dr. Turkle's website and infrequent Twitter.) Her new book on technology is Alone Together, which really captures the essence of her talk in a nutshell.

An outline of the problem:
  • Because of mobile devices we can bail out of reality at any time and moreso, we want to.
  • Technology is children's competition for their parent's attention, and now it is their turn to be distracted.
  • It's dangerous when technology's affordances meet our vulnerabilities. For example, if we're lonely, but afraid of intimacy, or so self-critical that we want to construct our own image.
  • Technology can turn distraction into busyness. Interviewed business people discussed being too busy to think or create, and ironically, too busy with communication to communicate.
  • People are comforted by keeping in touch with a lot of people but keeping them at a distance. Technology enables companionship without the burdens of friendship.
  • What was once collegial is now considered an interruption, but this also becomes a rationalization for avoiding real communication.
  • The essential paradox: the world is growing more complex, but - through social media - we're training ourselves to ask simpler and simpler questions.
  • Technology has interfered with the traditional separation process of adolescence. Separating from parents is harder, and forming your own identity in comparison to friends is harder. She captures this with a phrase: "I share therefore I am." Her subjects have made the validation of a feeling part of having it. A side effect of this is reducing people to something you use for your own purposes.
 What's missing and what to do with it?
  • We are not cultivating the ability to be alone.  They are missing the solitude that refreshes and restores. Creativity demands solitude.
  • This may be especially significant for teachers, who now have the burden of teaching students to work independently and how to be alone.
  • We need to be able to discuss the costs of new technology, without over-reacting or condemning critics as Luddites.
  • We need to ask the question: "does it serve our purposes?"
  • There's a tendency for us to oversimplify by assuming maturity of technology, when in reality it is still changing and malleable. In particular, because we grew up with the internet, we assume the internet is grown up.
  • Everything feels like it's about ramping up volume and velocity. Teaching might need to help students be able to slow down, reflect and isolate.
  • The language of addiction is not helpful, because it frames the discussion as addicted or cold turkey. Instead, analyze for how the technology is meeting your purposes.
  • Young people have all but given up their right to privacy.
  • Mark Zuckerberg said: "People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.  We view it as our role in the system to constantly be innovating and be updating what our system is to reflect what the current social norms are."
  • Intimacy requires privacy.
  • Democracy requires privacy.
Crux of the matter
  • Does the technology encourage us to inappropriately substitute fantasy for reality?
  • She contrasted immersion in a novel, which we know ends, and does not have relationships, with Second Life, where you build a home and can have a sort of imaginary family.
So what did I take from this?

From Intersection Consulting @ Flickr
It made me think about some of the progress I've seen with students accepting and participating in group work. I attributed this to shifting school experiences, but maybe it's due as much or more to developing interdependence.  And was my frustration with students not doing homework this past semester in part caused by increasing difficulty in doing individual tasks?

My fear is the ease of distraction making it harder for students to learn to engage.  People texting at stop signs shows the blurred boundaries. How much easier to text or update your status when you're really stuck on a problem?  I don't want all solitude, but I want to help students find a balance.  I'm definitely considering more solitary work as a precursor to group work.  The power of our technology to support discussion and collaboration would have Vygotsky dancing, so I'm not giving up on it in any way.

I like that Dr. Turkle was against blind opposition, but, rather, in favor of intelligent use.  The problem for me is that I am so different in my use of these things, that it's hard for me to know. My use of Twitter helps me get some insight, though, into the idea of monitoring to see if the tech is serving my purposes.

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