Losing humanity?

CC licensed photo shared by Flickr user shapeshift

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.

It’s not about the technology, it’s about the learning, and it’s about what students create with the tools that matters. I think we all recognize the beauty and value in witnessing a child express her creativity in a way that only she could imagine. We owe it to our students to allow them to think and work creatively.

The excerpts I’m sharing here merely scratch the surface. Lanier explores technology’s historical developments, the social impacts of these developments and questions the merits of information freedom. It is a fascinating read.

I think we need to also consider how the use of social media allows us to be more humanistic in our interactions with the world. Without the use of social media, for example, my students and others would have more hoops to jump through in their efforts to stay informed about world events and contribute to a cause. Another recommended read is Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith’s The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways to Use Social Media to Drive Social Change. The authors explore how passionate individuals and groups harnessed the power of social media to make extraordinary changes and impacts on our world.

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.

18 Replies to “Losing humanity?”

  1. Lyn,

    I couldn’t agree more with much of what you convey above and am now adding “You are Not a Gadget” to my ever-growing reading list. Particularly, the statement about the book being pro-human versus anti-technology is what softened the blow and sparked my interest. I am exceptionally pro-technology in my classroom, yet I hear many of the same arguments that technology is making us less human. I recently, wrote about this, too, in, “Why Technology Can’t Replace Teachers, Yet.” (https://coalcrackerclassroom.wordpress.com/2011/04/03/why-technology-cant-replace-teachers/)

    Likewise, I argue that the technology is just the mere hyperlink between one human and another… that it is the human relationships that matter and there are so many skills that simply can not be taught via technology. Someone recently commented to me, too, that Twitter does tend to be more of ‘mutual admiration societies’ and while I see how that can be for some, it still provides a heightened PD platform for me. Sometimes the mutual admiration serves the dual purpose of motivating, or being motivated, by others like us to do more and to be better.

    Have you seen Amber Case’s TED Talk: We’re All Cyborgs Now? (http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=z1KJAXM3xYA) Case argues that technology, in fact, is making us more human. Of course, it depends upon how we use it.

    Thanks for this thoughtful and very important post. I’ve been fortunate to meet & know many of the humans behind the online profiles and my life is ever-cahnged because of it.

    Did I read correctly that you are also in Pennsylvania?

    1. Hi, Suzie,
      Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughtful comments. I appreciate the link to your post and the resources you’ve shared! I agree, it’s been rewarding to meet in person so many of the individuals in my online network. Yes, our school is near Lancaster, PA!

    1. Thanks for reading, Bill, and for sharing your students’ project. There are many great resources on your blog and I enjoyed reading your students’ reflections!

  2. As I tweeted, I think this is a strong reminder of the person behind the technology. And, interestingly, I have felt a pull lately to think about a “right” balance of blog posting, reading, commenting, tweeting, etc. Being conscious of these things is good practice, I think. You seem to think so as well.

    I have not read the books you name, so I may be speaking out of turn. In so many ways, though, I see my tweets, blog posts, and virtual colleagues like letters and pen pals of the past. Writing letters, in my view, has been seen by most as enhancing personal connection. For me, my tweets and posts are similar to letters. They have caused me to connect with friends and colleagues I didn’t know I had. Last month, I was able to shake hands with Bill Ferriter and Jonathan Martin as a result. In both cases, we were able to have great face to face moments that lasted awhile…because we had connected as humans via our writing “notes.”

    1. Hi, Bo,
      One of my other favorite lines from Lanier’s work is that “You have to find a way to be yourself before you can share yourself.” So many in our PLN are comfortable with transparency, sharing details about not only their professional lives, but their personal lives. While this adds a human element to our interactions, I don’t believe that it is completely necessary in order for connections to be made, since individuals establish relationships around the common goal of strengthening the work we do for kids.
      I think your analogy is well-taken. The technology simply allows us to locate these “pen-pals” in an easier way and communicate ideas quickly and easily. Thanks for your comments!

  3. Technology is a tool, not a lifestyle or life. It can be used for great things or ill, just like every other tool that humans have created and has unexpected side affects. It is how the individuals choose to use those tools that determine its usefulness. Unfortunately, in the the last three decades where management has seen computer technology as a tool to receive more data and as it receives more data, finds that if it had just this additional piece of data it can gain more and more control of what is going on within it span of control. Personally I believe that we need more leadership and less management by objectives/data.

    Social networks are not inherently bad, but you have to seek out those who do not have the same view or opinions that you do and keep an open mind or else you get into the “we speak” mode, which doesn’t really help us grow or see other perspectives that we need to see. There are educators and admins who do not agree with many of the things the mainstream of online educations who are in “we speak” mode say and they lurk and listen, but tend to not get involved in the conversations. Many just don’t want to deal with the negativity that would be directed their way for not agreeing with the “we speak” crowd.

    Lately I have purposely limited my online activities and changed how much I participate in the online dialogue, but at the same time I do not want to loose the great learning opportunities that my online community or PLN offers me. So there is a balancing act that we must find as individual humans.


  4. Harold,

    You have a great point here: “it is how individuals choose to use those tools that determine its usefulness.” Technology itself won’t transform anything. That’s why Lanier spent considerable time in his book detailing the designs of new technologies and how programmers need to consider the effects on humanity when creating technological developments. Lanier reinforced, “People, not machines, made the Renaissance.”

    It’s unfortunate that “we speak” collectives have resulted causing some to be fearful posting dissenting opinions. Lanier would say that in order to be fully present in your online interactions, you have to express those dissenting opinions.

    And I agree, balance is important, and to do so involves finding ways to stay true to yourself and your ideas, while engaging in conversations with others who may or may not share those ideas.

    Thanks for your comments!

  5. I was just discussing this very issue with some colleagues the other day. Many of them are concerned about “balance” for kids- that they are too often plugged in and powered on, and don’t spend enough time “unplugged.” I think that’s a genuine concern, but it goes both ways. Balance should mean that you give value to both and invest time in both digital and non-digital activities. I know a lot of educators who don’t have enough of a digital presence… where is their balance?

    In my experience, the gadgets have opened up opportunities for additional human interaction that I never would have had before. I met you online long before I met you face to face! 🙂

    1. Thank you for your comments, Michelle. I think some educators just don’t know what they’re missing through establishing professional networks this way. And some will never truly be comfortable with it, and that’s okay. I think if it’s not something that adds to their learning, they should find alternative ways of growing. I agree, the technology has made building and fostering relationships so much easier. We just have to do our best to maintain and use what we learned from them to do great things for kids!

  6. I bet you’re really enjoy reading “Feed” by M. T. Anderson. Great young-adult fiction, and something I think should be required reading for all kids today.

    It’s important for adults to be thinking about how kids should or should not be “plugged in.” It’s even more important to get kids asking these questions themselves.

      1. John, thank you for commenting and for the book rec. That book caught my attention but I never had a chance to read it, so I will definitely snag a copy soon!

  7. Hey Pal,

    I enjoyed this post.

    One of the threads that always rubs me the wrong way, though, is when we emphasize the negatives of surrounding ourselves with like-minds in digital spaces.

    While it’s true that there is danger in echo chamber thinking, my PLN is often the ONLY place where I find like minds to listen to, share with, and celebrate.

    I need that support and encouragement, I need access to those resources and ideas, and I need that constant, ongoing validation simply because I’m surrounded by opposing opinions all day, every day.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that just because someone’s PLN is a relatively homogeneous place when it comes to thinking doesn’t mean that they’re living in an echo chamber.

    Those of us who are still working in the traditional beast known as the public school system have plenty of pushback against our thoughts—and that pushback would be exhausting and destructive if I didn’t have like minds to lift me up every now and then.

    Does this make any sense?


    1. Bill,
      As always, love your comments. They make perfect sense. The reason so many of us gravitate to our PLNs is that we are comforted by the supportive voices and relish the shared ideas.
      I think Lanier’s point that the network itself is not as meaningful as the people comprising the network … that is key. Because if your PLN was filled with a bunch of negative, complacent complainers, you likely wouldn’t be turning to them for a dose of inspiration.
      Sad, though, that you’re surrounded by opposing opinions all day, every day… I feel those frustrations sometimes, too, for example when I’m in a meeting where standardized tests seem to be the topic of conversation rather than kids. I think of how members of my PLN would be equally as disgusted with the convos as I am. And then I smile. 🙂
      Thanks, Bill!

  8. I couldn’t agree more. I work as a student assistant for DML Central where we explore how social media can be used for positive interaction and I’ve seen how favorable digital media is in building connection between individuals or groups. True that digital media is a tool and that human contact is just as essential. Though without digital media, relationships today may never have been built and we’d be limited in connecting with others in far-reaching places. Simply, it is how we make of digital media that makes it beneficial and positive.

    1. Connie,
      Thanks for reading and for your comments! It’s not the tool, it’s the relationships, I agree, and without the technology innovations, it would be more difficult to forge and maintain those relationships for learning.

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