I think natural fears of immersing oneself in virtual environments to learn through digital media are a) that facets of your personality will be clouded and b) there is an inability for true “human” interactions to occur. I would agree this is a possibility, but I argue that it is not a guaranteed result of working in these environments.
When I first began reading You are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier, I was skeptical that I would agree with his many points of how our society’s use of social media and technology are causing us to lose pieces of our humanity. But after reading a few of his opening thoughts,
This book is not antitechnology in any sense. It is prohuman.
You Are Not a Gadget argues that certain specific, popular internet designs of the moment—not the internet as a whole—tend to pull us into life patterns that gradually degrade the ways in which each of us exists as an individual.
I was on board.
These are my main take aways from the reading and the connections I see to our work with students.
We shouldn’t seek to make the pack mentality as efficient as possible. We should instead seek to inspire the phenomenon of individual intelligence.
The central mistake of recent digital culture is to chop up a network of individuals so finely that you end up with a mush. You then start to care about the abstraction of the network more than the real people who are networked, even though the network by itself is meaningless. Only the people were ever meaningful.
People are meaningful. We can’t forget that behind every tweet, blog post, Facebook status update, and 4Square check-in, is a person. A person with feelings, ideas, hopes, and dreams. I wrote about the day I decided to rename all of my Google Reader subscriptions to include the author’s name, because I wanted to associate the ideas expressed with the actual person who shared them. A child who blogs about what he has learned is the same complex human being who summarizes his learning orally in front of the class. We must ensure the responses we craft to the ideas shared by students and adults alike are respectful, constructive, and meaningful. We must model this for our students.
Much discussion has occurred regarding the pack mentality of Twitter, and how perhaps we all jump on the same sharing bandwagon, virtually high-fiving one another whenever we reiterate common themes and beliefs that drive us. I see that. Do we want our forums to become “mutual admiration societies?” No, we don’t, and we don’t want our children thinking that they have to agree with the thoughts of others simply because they’ve surrounded themselves with like-minded learners. We all need to hone the skill of expressing dissent respectfully and justifying our beliefs and ideas.
Demand more from information than it can give, and you end up with monstrous designs. Under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, for example, U.S. teachers are forced to choose between teaching general knowledge and “teaching to the test.” The best teachers are thus often disenfranchised by the improper use of educational information systems. What computerized analysis of all the country’s school tests has done to education is exactly what Facebook has done to friendships. In both cases, life is turned into a database. Both degradations are based on the same philosophical mistake, which is the belief that computers can presently represent human thought or human relationships. These are things computers cannot currently do.
We have to keep our wits about us when faced with the power of information technology. Data, data, data. Do we want our lives turned into a database? Do we want to create a data wall where a child’s performance/worth is represented by a few benchmark scores? Do we want to give every kindergartener an iPad? Do we want the successes of our schools to be reported in the percentages of students who are proficient on state assessments? Or the value of our nation based on a comparison of how our students perform on international testing measures? No. Look past the numbers. Look past the tool. See the child.
I always said that in a virtual world of infinite abundance, only creativity could ever be in short supply—thereby ensuring that creativity would become the most valuable thing.
There are days when I wonder what the impact to my learning would be if I allowed my connections through social media to dissipate. I have made a conscious effort to read more books (okay, they’re Kindle books), and not to spend as many hours of my week reading and commenting on blogs and tweets. I have not posted to my blog as often. This transition has caused me to feel a bit out of the loop, but no matter how far removed I become from social media, I know the technology will always allow me to jump back into the conversations when I find a relevant need to do so.
I’m human, after all.
Lanier, J. (2010). You are not a gadget: A manifesto. Knopf.