The Efficacy of Digital Tools

From Ruston Daily Leader, November 18, 2010

First of all, thank you to everyone who participated in my survey.  It helped a great deal.

Secondly, I want to go back today to the article I wrote in September concerning the New York Times article on the slow moving maturation of Generation Y.  On Tuesday I went to a Technology and Innovation Symposium on behalf of the Air Force Global Strike Command at the Shreveport Convention Center.  I had the opportunity to hear speaker Marc Prensky and professor Mark Bauerlein debate the effect of technology on education.  Marc Prensky, author of “Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning,” argued for the efficacy of technology and on the converse, Mark Bauerlein who wrote “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future” argued that technology is making us stupid.

Prensky argued we are living in an era that is exponentially changing in which “machines, digital tools, are becoming more and more powerful.”  He argues that we must learn to make the machines work for us, that if we do not learn technical skills such as programming, we will be at the mercy of those who possess the knowledge.  Prensky, wildly positive and hopeful at times, had a valid challenge in urging the crowd to become less dependent on others to do these tasks.  He compares the current phase to reaching one similar to the phase in which professional scribes were hired by the elites to do their reading and writing.  The power is in the translator.

Prensky says we are living in an era in which education begins with capturing attention and engaging the passions.  Counter to Bauerlein’s argument that the use of technology is void of necessary challenges, Prensky argues that technology can offer substantial obstacles such as those seen in video games.  However, technology in terms of entertainment is just a manipulation of the already “written” rules of society.  To argue that technology offers its own challenges by using the example of a video game is to only prove that human beings are driven by challenges, and thus the video game companies have used our nature to their advantage.

Bauerlein, taking on the more difficult argument, makes a really great case for the austere, hard work that comes with having to search, or work, for your goals—goals which must be present by the hunger for knowledge only reached by means of critical thinking.  As he talks, there are many silent rebuttals that come to mind in my head; however, the theory behind his argument is solid.  He talks about the great delays he has witnessed in the maturing process of my generation.  He explains the social network phenomenon as its participants being constantly “in the network”.  There is the “ubiquitous presence of your peers, which intensifies the age segregation.”  All space becomes social because all spaces, even private spaces, are permeated with access to your peers.  Even if the phone is on silent or turned off, you are still receiving the messages.  The influence of adults has been delayed because our generation is spending so much time under the watchful eye of their peers.

His argument is a romantic one.  Whether he intends to or not—he conjures up, for me, images of being in an ornate university library in the wintertime, completely disconnected from the world, only connected to your wise professors and your hungry and insightful peers.  And I am tempted to be angry with technology for taking this particular form of social solitude away from me.

Despite my educational fantasies, the point that can’t be ignored—and precisely why I think Prensky has the easier argument—is that technology is not the evil.  If the students can find the goals compelling enough they will do the work to get there.

You also cannot ignore that our education is severely lacking for more reasons than technological advancement.  We have been watered down into ignorant mush.  Perhaps our education system churns out more numbers, but quantity does not necessarily equal quality.

My 14-year-old brother complained to me tonight about his heavy school load.  His “fortunate” friend’s mother requester her son not be put into gifted and honors programs so that he could make all A’s.  “How unfair!,” my little brother indignantly whines.  And I tell him that he’s actually the fortunate one.  And I want to tell that mom she is part of the problem.

At some point the pretending will have to cease whether it be the pretense of knowing by consulting your iPhone or the pretense of knowing by only doing what is easy.  At some point, you will be asked to perform.  The point is what you are going to do with the technology.  It is the misuse and manipulation of this tool, which has led to the stupefied generation.

The Interactive Dinner Table

From the Ruston Daily Leader November 2010

How many friends do you have on Facebook?  Seven hundred and fifty-eight?  Two hundred and three?  How many of them will sit with you at the dinner table this Thanksgiving?

During the holiday season most of us are drawn together by family.  We come back to our hometowns, maybe see some old friends from high school.  We visit with relatives who may know little about us but are bound to us by blood.  There exists an understood interest because are, by extension, a part of who they are.
But on social networking sites there is no hierarchy.  Every friend is in the same playing field.  When you share something you are not making an intimate gesture but you are sharing it with your entire customized world of acquaintances.

All of this makes me wonder about the role social media plays in the family and private life.   Growing up with Internet and sites such as Xanga (an online blog) and Myspace (a spam-ridden precursor to Facebook) being present for the majority of my teenage years, I have seen it become a necessity in the lives of the youth.  I see this especially with my younger brother whose left hand is an iPhone as he is constantly engaged in a dialogue with his peers, making it easier to ignore the nosy inquiries of his sister.  From my observations, this form of dialogue seems to dissolve the private life.  Not only does the meaningless permeate the meaningful but the private is rendered meaningless by becoming publicized.

Often these outlets are lauded for maintaining connections with people with whom you otherwise would have lost touch.  But if that’s the case, is it really important to have these “friendships of memory” kept?

What I mean to say is that I suspect these social media sites are not beneficial for the relationships that add meaning to our lives.  And furthermore, the participation in them, the kind of strange surveillance of people you no longer know, takes away from the nostalgia wrapped up in the memory and mystery of those people.  How much has it aided in strengthening serious relationships?

In thinking about all of this, I remember something from the last conversation I had with you about the technology debate and how the current generation is more influenced by their peers than ever before, constantly under each other’s “surveillance”.

It makes me wonder where the place is for those who long for an adult conversation.  Does it further implicate a separation for those youth who want something different?  Are they to be viewed as strange and perverse?

Expectations for conformity are already rampant in teenage years but with such little private life, is it possible that in marketing to the many one could become devoid of meaning themselves?

These sites primarily promote those who look good on paper but not necessarily those who are great in action.  They traffic in the immediate.

They traffic in appearances.  The entire foundation of the social network is that one may sell themselves by the image they create.  And I often wonder how much people can back up the way they market themselves.

And all of this has an effect on the private life—on how one calculates meaning and trust.  For a few centuries not there has been a dissolution of the family due to technological advances which led children away from the farm and out into the industries.

The rise of social networking sites is just an example of another development that may not lead people away in a physical sense but the implications of an unexamined participation in the interactive world is that it can separate one from reality, from what is truly meaningful.

Semantic Antics

From The Ruston Daily Leader, September 23, 2010

Disclaimer:  I want to make it clear that I am about to address a topic—political trust—with which books upon books have been written.  I do not presume to know more than the authors of these books.  Rather, read this as the beginnings of an interesting question to which you may have your own opinions and observations.

In light of today being the last day of our Constitution week as well as the upcoming election for Louisiana Lt. Gov., which will be held on October 2, I would like to peer into and pull back some of the layers surrounding how we truth, and thereby choose, our leaders.

It is in the political rhetoric today that a leader must be or, at least be under, the guidance of a shrewdly talented marketer.  (S)he must be presentable but not too stuffy, witty but not too fluffy, educated but not too pretentious, knowledgeable but not too tendentious.  Under the watchful eye of our media, potential leaders of our country must now sell themselves to us more thoroughly and personally than ever before.  These politicians live much of their lives orchestrating a story they can market to a country of people who so desperately want someone to put their trust in.

But the figures show that we are not as trusting of our political leaders as we have been in the past.  The most recent Gallup poll shows that Americans’ trust in the Legislative branch is at an all-time low.  However, it also shows that though our trust in politicians has plummeted, our trust in “the American people as a whole when it comes to making judgments under our democratic system” has been at a consistently high level at 73 percent.

In a PEW research done in 1998 on Americans’ view of the government, 40 percent of those with distrust in government complained about the political leadership—believing that politicians are dishonest, selfish and too partisan.

The Harvard Kennedy School for Public Leadership published some research in 2009 showing that Americans are among the world’s most optimistic people when it comes to our belief in the potential of our government.  We still hold the words of our founding fathers close to heart—that “the power under the Constitution will always be in the people.  It is entrusted for certain defined purposes, and for a certain limited period, to representatives of their own choosing; and whenever it is executed contrary to their interest, or not agreeable to their wishes, their servants can, and undoubtedly will, be recalled” (George Washington, Ibid., 29:311).

This is all seemingly positive, right?  If 87 percent of Americans polled believe that problems we face today can be solved by effective leadership, then it seems that we, as a nation, are more trusting in our own country than the rest of the world.  However, it is only in our potential that we remain so strongly optimistic.  To believe in the potential of an institution or person is to believe in the perceived strengths or capabilities that make up that individual, organization, investment, etc.  But this believe in the potential is only the beginning of the solution.

This leads to some questions about the qualities of trust and the trusted.  Do we trust the qualities that we identify with most or the qualities with which we find admirable?  Do we trust people who seem to share our values, intellect, and background?  Is it the influx of disparaging and vituperative media in our lives that makes us distrustful of our politicians?  Is it the conditions of our environment that make us prone to trust?  Do we simply tend to trust in our government when comfortable in the happy, warm cocoon of a flourishing economy?  And most importantly, how do we come to terms with trusting an individual so desirous of power as to put himself through the dehumanizing process that is American Politics?

In honor of our Constitution week, let’s consult that great work and see some of the rights to which we, as citizens, are entitled.  The Constitution is appropriately called the Living Constitution.  As any great piece of writing, it is timeless and remains alive within the people of this country and those who choose to participate in the political process.  When we perceive these rights being put into action in our political process, there is a perception of greater trust in our government.