Sunday, July 10, 2011

Musings on a Technological Dilemma

Future King Seoul, South Korea

Spanish Word: Por favor (although this one needs little explanation, the literal translation is "for favor/kindness")

Korean Word: 감사해요 (polite-ish way of saying "thank you")

I chose gracious words today because I had a fascinating discussion with a local bus driver here in Boston. She was almost fifteen minutes late arriving at the bus terminal today and when I asked if it was because those darned Red Sox were mucking up the Fens and all surrounding regions with their Sunday game, she said it was actually because she'd had to deal with person after person getting on the bus, on their cell phones, and trying to load money onto their bus cards at the same time.

What struck me, as we talked, was that ten or so years ago, when I was fifteen, cell phones weren't a cultural fixture. Sure, they were up-and-coming in contemporary life, as was the Internet and the MP3. However, in my family we still only had the emergency cell, which I was made to carry when I drove (because my loving parents were not, as such, worried about my driving skillz but rather, about my navigational skillz - they feared that, if once I drove ten miles from home, I would become terribly lost and have to call them for directions). By that time (2000), the computer was also a fixture in our house, complete with dial-up Internet, though all my sister and I ever did was the occasional AOL chat and reading fan fiction (yes, that is how thrilling we were as teens).

I think, now, about all the technology I see around me and I feel like I'm talking the talk of a crotchety old woman. I can't go thirty seconds in Boston without seeing someone on their phone, someone texting, someone surfing the web, someone plugged into their iPod (I admit to being guilty of that final one). Most of my bus-ride or subway-ride home, I'm surrounded by people chatting loudly with friends and family or (and this is true) actually sitting on someone because they were so busy texting or emailing that they didn't see that the seat they were aiming their ample bottom at was taken. The bus driver today mentioned, too, how she's had to raise her voice at patrons who get on the bus, don't use their cards correctly, and then can't hear the her tell them how to use their cards because their iPods are on so loud.

God, I do feel like an old woman. But, you know, maybe the old women are onto something here.

Because what's ten times worse than an adult behaving this way is a child, or a group of children, behaving exactly the same way.

When I was in South Korea back in '08 and '09, I was shocked at how many of my little elementary students had cell phones and how much of my time I spent reminding them that if they used them in my classroom, their phones would mysteriously vanish into The Boss's office (where I'd then have to wait for my boss to get off her phone long enough to hand the students' phones back at the end of class ^_^). Because children in Yeosu, the city where I lived, spend so much of their early years running around the city on their own, I wrote the whole experience off to cultural trends. I was, therefore, shocked to find that when I returned to the states, I was seeing children as young as five or six already plugged in to phones; playing "educational games," I was told. Busy parents also seem to find that playing "educational TV" on their phones helps amuse their child at a fancy restaurant when that child (or toddler, as the case may be) is fussy or impatient or (most likely) bored.

Children don't learn technology behaviors by themselves. They're copying what is modeled by their parents.

This is such a complex issue. Obviously, we can never return to the good ole days of yore, when people could and did function quite effectively without cell phones and other portable electronic devices. I, too, am guilty of carrying a cell phone and iPod and frequently using them. Though I'm the last person in the known universe to have a phone that only sends texts and makes calls, I'm sure my next free upgrade will include Internet.

I can also recognize the value of technology in education. I spent last fall studying with a fantastic tech specialist who spent the semester showing us incredible and powerfully educational activities that used everything from computers to GPS mapping devices to (and I'm not kidding) iPods and iPhones. I admit, the class excited me about Smart Boards and ed tech grants - there's a lot out there in the way of money for classroom technology and I plan to apply for grants the minute I'm a fully functional teacher.

What I suppose I want to see are the following things, modeled by parents, families, and educators, as positive technology behavior that children can learn and adopt:

1) Moderation
2) Etiquette

Moderation in all things - cell phones/MP3s/computers/Internet/etc. are incredibly powerful tools. We're in a transformative era of technology, where information is available in infinite forms and accessible to millions of people. But there's a difference between technology as a tool and technology as a crutch. A grand example: GPS. Awesome tool! Plug in an address, drive somewhere. Brilliant! However, don't leave your map behind and don't stop reading road signs. Being able to navigate by observing your surroundings is also a powerful tool. Sometimes finding your way without a computer glued to the dashboard will help you hone a skill that will allow you to function should that computer miscalculate/misdirect/run out of juice before you get there.

Technology Etiquette - Just as societies form etiquette codes for basic social interaction, so too should those form around technology (though, like those social expectations, you'll always have people who are mind-bogglingly clueless about them). While I don't think it's a heinous crime to talk on your cell phone in a public place, I do think it's reasonable to keep your voice down, to remove yourself from a flow of traffic/people, and not endanger others through phone usage (namely, by driving and texting). Example: you would never ignore the checkout lady at the grocery store when she says, "Hello, how are you?" when you're not on your phone. You would (hopefully) greet her back, ask how she is, or at least make eye contact. That behavior shouldn't change just because you can suddenly talk to everyone you know at any time and in any place. Likewise, when you're at the library or a bookstore, you wouldn't talk to your friend loudly about all kinds of personal topics if you didn't have a phone glued to your face. No more should you now that your phone gets great reception by the reference desk.

I don't have all the answers. I expect there are people who have differing views on technology use and the function it currently serves. For those who don't think technology is something we should be discussing at all, however, I would immediately and urgently refer you to M.T. Anderson's Feed and then carry on the discussion with you after you've read it. Whether or not technology is a "problem," it is something we need to carry on a continual, evolving dialogue about.

Technology is here to stay. It's time we figured out how to cope with that as respectful, thoughtful adults.


  1. I <3 you and this post! I hated it when I worked as a parking attendant and people would roll up in their cars to pay the tab, and were busy chatting away on their phone. So annoying! Do you remember Gilmore Girls, and how they couldn't talk on their phones in the restaurant? That was brilliant! Also, it is very annoying when people decide to carry on conversations on their cell phone during movies and dinner time.

    How I wish the world would live like the Amish for a bit....

  2. I think there should be a national day for that, in fact! What a great idea! National TURN IT OFF Day ... hmm ... how does one start a national holiday, I wonder?