Old Dog, New Tricks

I was born in 1986, and as such I have had enough exposure to technology in my young adult and adult life that most people presume I intuitively speak the language of technology.  In reality, I seem to have the kiss of death with technology and if anything am tech dyslexic, not tech savvy. 

Beyond a lack of skill, I have a lack of faith in the net benefit of technology in our lives today. For years the detriment of being "plugged in" has been my soapbox issue, so much so that I think my family probably stuffs cotton in their ears if they hear me gearing up for another rant. 

I formerly taught at a school that, like many other schools today, was toying with the idea of issuing each student a computer and requiring them to have it on hand each school day. Following a faculty meeting on the 1:1 / student:device proposal, I wrote the following diatribe to my administrators (who beyond being my administrators, were also thankfully dear friends, who no doubt took my rant with a grain of salt):  

"Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain has become a bible of sorts for me, and this particular quote resonates deeply: '…for as was true of all human effort, there was never advancement. Everything added meant something lost, and about as often as not the thing lost was preferable to the thing gained, so that over time we’d be lucky if we just broke even. Any thought otherwise was empty pride' 

I am continually blown away that the discussion about technology is not whether or not increased technology is good, but instead which gadget we should adopt. There seems to be carte blanche acceptance that increased technology is a good thing. I disagree with this notion of progress. I recognize that computers (which I’ll use as the catchall for all computer-like devices) do have advantages; I just don’t believe that these advantages outweigh the negative impact of increased technology in our lives. 

My sense is that in fifty years we are going to start really recognizing the devastating effects of our current level of technology saturation. When chemical fertilizers were introduced in the sixties, they were hailed as miracles—the solution for how to feed an ever expanding population. Now we know that was a fairly short-sighted view, because chemical fertilizers contribute to the death of the very foundation of our food system—soil. Computers certainly open positive doors, but they also provide an avenue for students to ignore their peers and teachers (and for teachers to ignore their fellow teachers and administrators) and instead focus on their personal screen following their own agenda. It seems that this personal agenda most frequently includes a social media site, and it seems that increase in two dimensional social skills have corresponded to a decrease in three dimensional social skills. I think the way computers train us to process (as opposed to pen and paper) is to flit from one tab to the next, which I believe teaches the habit of having a scattered brain full of shallow thoughts, rather than thinking deeply and learning to focus on one topic.

One of my best teachers was my freshman English teacher, Kit. We spent the first two weeks of English class sitting around a table discussing one Robert Frost poem-“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I don’t remember much of the content from my other high school classes—or even college classes—but I do remember the final stanza of that particular poem: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.” Kit never rushed. He made space for silence. He provided space and time for us to have our own a-ha moments.

As a teacher, I am nowhere close to being a Kit. As much as I dislike technology, I use it all the time now. It is my crutch. If I have a PowerPoint, I can better control the flow of discussion and ideas. If I’m struggling to explain a concept, surely someone on YouTube has created a video that will do a better job. Like any kind of crutch…if you don’t let it go, the muscle or skill starts to atrophy. It is my personal goal to kick the habit of using technology in the classroom, though I am far from that goal. I hope to someday be much closer to Kit's teaching style. I hope to someday not feel like my inbox is keeping me miles away from sleep. I know the number of academic institutions that voluntarily place limits on technology, rather than expanding its reach, are limited. My world will be very small if I continue to run away from technology, and I haven’t yet decided if I am okay with that smaller world." 

I wrote that email in 2012, and I have my answer to the final line now in 2015. My answer is "Yes, and also..." 

Yes, I am willing to make my world smaller. I have consciously sought out work for a month long stretch the last few summers in a remote wilderness setting where a cell phone or computer would just be dead weight in my backpack. I love that there are still places in the world that cell signals can't penetrate. I imagine those bubbles will vanish someday too, but for now, I cherish and see so much value in time where I--and everyone I'm with--have no choice but to be fully unplugged. I've also transitioned to one of those rare schools that places a lot of value on limiting students tech exposure. Many people would consider it draconian, but we require students to hand in their cell phones and personal computers and devices to play music when they move into their dorms on opening day, and they don't get them back until they leave our program. They share one landline phone and otherwise communicate with the outside world through pen and paper letters. The only computers our students have access to are old desktops that aren't connected to the internet--essentially a modern day typewriter. If they want music, then they have to play an instrument or sing. While teachers still use technology when we aren't working directly with students, it is really nice to be in a culture where for a portion of each day I am required to be device free. And it is gratifying to hear from students, who truly are growing up in a world where devices are so ubiquitous, that they find real value in their technology sabbatical.  I feel privileged to be able to electively place some real limits on how and when I use technology in my life, and fortunate to keep company with other people who are also aligned with this value. 

And also I really am only a visitor in this "smaller world," and more notably I only want to be a visitor. I just dabble in the fringe. I love getting to dabble. In fact, being able to go to the margins feels essential to my well being. But for now I'm not tossing my phone and camera and computer on the junk pile and moving into the fringe permanently. In fact, if anything, I've paradoxically invited more technology into my life in the last four months than I have in the last fourteen years.

I can vividly recall the anger that was boiling in my blood when I wrote that email three years ago, but it is a memory, not a current reality--my vehemence has cooled. I attribute part of this shift to getting to live in communities that do limit technology, but I'd be remiss to say that that is the full picture. Another part of the shift is my increased acceptance of reality (instead of continually wasting energy wailing and gnashing my teeth wishing that the world be different than it is). And reality is: our world is getting ever more saturated in technology, and some of it is genuinely life enhancing. When I announced to my family that I wanted to trade in my ten year old flip-phone this winter for a smartphone and shortly thereafter started this website I wouldn't have blamed them if they had staged a Broadway production of "We told you so." (They've been far more subtle in their chiding). 

I don't know if I qualify as an "Old Dog" in anything but spirit, but I'm discovering that there is a lot to be said for learning some new tricks. The self-help tomes I've consumed in the last year and a half all seem to be variations on different Buddhist concepts. So to borrow from the wisdom that so many self-help gurus like to co-opt, the middle path--which is not strict asceticism nor languid indulgence but some balanced place in between--is the the sweet spot I'm hoping to dwell in now, in all aspects of my life, technology included.