My Entry Into The Great American Think Off: Does Technology Trap Us or Free Us?

A few years ago, a student at my school was the victim of a devastating house fire. Upon learning that the student, an avid reader, lost her bookshelf of favorite titles, teachers combed their personal libraries and local bookstores in hopes of surprising the teen with a replenished bookshelf. The cause of the fire was old, faulty wiring—the only blame to be laid was at the foot of the landlord. As terrible as the fire was, the fire did not knowingly choose to devastate the family’s home. It was a tool of civilization that slipped its harness. In the proper times, when used judiciously, fire is the tool of civilized people.

The same can be said of technology. Does technology trap us or free us? That question presumes that technology is able to independently initiate action, knowingly determine how, when and why people will use it. Despite gains in cognitive robotics and the growing ability of our “smart” devices to anticipate our needs and wants, at this point, people are still the sentient force guiding the creation and evolution of the array of technologies we have surrounding us on a daily basis. Technology doesn’t either trap us or free us; human wisdom is the operating system determining when we are chained and when we soar. The shortage of wisdom to guide our use of technology is the heart of the issue.

Evidence abounds that we use technology in ways that hurts us on a societal level and on a personal level. Technology has changed the realities of childhood, for instance, in ways that my parents’ generation would never have tolerated when they were raising my generation. The idea that children would be “safer” in the house with electronic “games” than playing freeze tag until twilight throughout the neighborhood? Preposterous. Children as young as kindergarten spending multiple days taking computer-administered tests to assess their “progress?” The PTA would have been in an uproar. The incessant screen time that my children and students view as normal averts their major bugaboo, boredom, and leaves them in a consuming haze—the limits to watching that were common in my childhood are nearly unenforceable and unimaginable now. Even the idea that teens and preteens “need” a phone in case of emergency—were there emergencies that previous generations never learned about because the ubiquitous cell phone hadn’t been invented? People—parents and children, friends and lovers—expect constant, instant communication because the tool for it exists, not because the bulk of us face daily crises.

The degree of intrusion and surveillance that we accept knowingly is staggering, and the fact that we not only accept most of it unquestioningly, but we feel reassured that we are “safer” because “they” can watch. In return for the promise—or illusion—of security, we sacrifice privacy and autonomy. As parents allow corporations to follow their children’s browsing, watching and traveling to create more targeted advertising, we all agree that it’s basically harmless, and.. well..it’s not as if we could stop it anyway at this point. It’s easy to shrug, then immerse ourselves in Netflix or YouTube to see the latest viral video.

But technology is a tool, and there are innumerable benefits and advances that are possible because of our ability to design better technologies. Medical “miracles” happen because technology works. My friend has a grandson with SMA, Spinal Muscular Atrophy, and technology gives that baby both a higher quality of life and reason to hope that progress towards a cure is coming. Because of technology, also, information and support is only a mouse click away. For every scary story of sexual predators or bullying teens, there’s a counter story of lives changed for the better because of the wonder of instant, credible information and support that is available because of technology. And, as last fall’s Ice Bucket Challenge proved, the internet can be used to raise awareness and funds that last long past the fad.

When the first cavewoman got the great idea to harness fire for cooking as she was trying to decide what to do with a dead Mammoth, it was progress. There were probably cavemen screeching warnings about the danger then, too. But wisdom and knowledge won out, and generally, we appreciate fire as an indispensable tool. Unless we develop wisdom soon, we will allow technology to trap us—but let’s focus the blame where it belongs. Technology is a tool, and if it becomes our jailer, it’s because we let it.

Why You Might Not Want To Be In Sunday School With Me

We were talking about the Apostle Paul traveling around doing his apostle thing when this conversation took place (recreated as well as I can):

Man: Well, I see the rules that Paul set forth and wonder why we’re not following them better.

Teacher gets a gleam in her eye and turns to me.

Teacher: Jeannine, do you have any ideas about that?

I look at her, deciding whether to nod, smile and claim ignorance.

Me: As far as I’m concerned, one Jesus card  beats a hand full of Pauls.

Man: (looking confused) I don’t know what you mean.

Me: I mean Paul was as much a Disciple as Pete Best was a Beatle.

I stand by that position, but it took a while to explain what I meant to him.

 

 

 

…..But George Was Curious.

When I heard those words as a child, I knew that the Man in the Yellow Hat was going to have to rescue Curious George in just a few pages. The formula was clear: George got curious, George got in danger, George got rescued…usually by the Man in the Yellow Hat.  Even now, George’s antics lead me to intense questioning, like “why did the Man in the Yellow Hat think it was a good idea to leave George alone,” and “Wait–why did the Man take George from his happy existence in his native habitat to live in an urban environment?”

I didn’t, however, learn that curiosity was bad.  That is a major difference between me and almost all of my 11th and 12th grade students. In a recent class discussion, I used the word “curiosity,” and was struck by how many students seemed to assume that word had negative connotations.  I thought–hoped–that was a fluke—so I did what any English teacher would do: assign a writing prompt dealing with curiosity. I gave the students four quotes about curiosity, quotes by Walt Disney, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, and Eleanor Roosevelt–people who knew a bit about the topic. The students were to choose one quote and write about what they believed it meant and their reaction to the ideas in the quote. (That’s the short explanation of the assignment, by the way.)

I read almost 40 papers discussing those quotes. The students’ reactions were nearly unanimous. Being curious was dangerous. People who were curious were at great risk of getting hurt, getting shunned, getting punished. Several of the teen mothers and many of my students who bear a great deal of responsibility for younger siblings were graphic in their descriptions of how important it is to teach kids to stay out of things, not make messes, not bug people with questions. A few conceded that being curious could be helpful, but not generally.

These are kids who want to succeed at college, kids with dreams of being lawyers and engineers, doctors and veterinarians. These are kids whose home lives offer little support for those dreams–and with little understanding of the difference between a dream and a goal. Their parents care, but have themselves come from a culture that penalizes curiosity.  They limit themselves to what they are told to learn, told to think about–in the manner and context that they are told to, of course.

Current educational rhetoric blames teachers for all the ills of student achievements–and I will admit with no reservations that improvements in teaching are possible and needed–but when students have been taught even before they reach their first formal classroom that being curious is bad, student’s are only motivated to do the basic amount required for whatever grade they (or their parents or coach) deem acceptable. Students who are curious are a prime component in creating “excellent” schools and “effective” teachers.

I talked about Curious George with some of the students. A few remembered those stories–mainly from the short cartoons that sometimes show on PBS. Without exception, they agreed George was very bad and needed beat so he’d learn.

….and with that, I lost the curiosity that lead me to discussing the topic with them. There was nothing left to say.