Monday, June 20, 2011

Confessions of a Techno-Luddite

by John T. Spencer - Final Reflection on the Living Facebook Experiment (final posts will be up later this week)

It's a warm and windy afternoon, the perfect Father's Day gift for a desert dweller.  I inhale the waves of mint and basil and fresh-cut grass in an aromatic ebb and flow.  We play barefoot baseball and then imaginary ninja fights.  Interspersed through these games are are garden expeditions, where we touch and smell and carefully examine the tomatoes that will soon become marinara sauce.  After a few hours, we move inside and play this amazing new app called "puzzle."  It's interactive, 3-D and developmentally appropriate.

It's a Luddite afternoon until Micah asks if we can have quiet time and watch Stuart Little.  We follow this with silly faces on Photo Booth, a photograph scavenger hunt and a recording session of Brenna's Amazing Animal Sounds.  I take breaks to post updates on Twitter and Facebook while the boys play a few games of Angry Birds.  We're now immersed in a multifaceted, multimedia, technophiliac reality.

As the boys move back into Luddite mode (doing science experiments in the backyard) and I begin the very earthy task of cooking up a stir fry, I begin a Educational Luddite chat on Twitter (#edlud), posing the question, "What are the inherent dangers in catering education to an image-based culture?"

It might seem like a trendy hipster ploy at deliberate irony (blessed are the hipsters, for they shall inherit the irony), but it's entirely earnest.  I want to step out of the ed-tech echo chamber and ask my Twitter friends a deeply philosophical, but also deeply personal, question about the nature of education in our current context.  

To my surprise, people join the discussion.  True, the topic doesn't fit the medium.  It's a bit like creating a Facebook Event for an Amish Barn-raising, but in the moment it feels like a vital conversation to have through social media.

*     *     *

When I began Living Facebook, I assumed that I would prefer the real-life version to the online version. I would write a quasi-Wendell-Barry piece and come to the conclusion that I needed to destroy my online mask and engage in the physical world around me.  Like the lovers of slow food and vinyl records, I saw this project as a chance to recover what we lost.

Instead, I found that social media often mirrors life and that the challenges I faced in doing Facebook in-person or online were the inherent challenges of any medium.  Misunderstandings, pride, jealousy, fear - those things are amplified in each medium.   This isn't to suggest that social media can be neutral.  The linear, organized, shiny methodology of Facebook and Twitter fail to capture some of the messy beauty of in-person interaction.

We have no art on Facebook.

We cannot truly share music on Twitter.

Social media cannot provide a venue for sharing a pint, breaking bread or cuddling up to a loved one.

And yet . . . social media can be powerful and profound and intimate in ways that are often too guarded in real-life.

My friend Quinn the Business Bohemian listens to his favorite records on vinyl and then makes his music portable with an iPod Touch.  My friend Rich takes amazing old-school style pictures and then modifies them digitally.  My friend Jabiz plays the acoustic guitar and meanders around a garden and dances with his daughters and then blogs and tweets and records podcasts for the world to hear.

So, as I finish my fortieth day of the Living Facebook experiment, my goal is to continue to do Facebook in-person and online.  I want to congratulate people on the monumental task of remaining alive for another year by posting to their wall and bringing them cupcakes.  I want to share videos in person and online.  I want to bust out the Poloroid and tag people in photos and share the old-school photo albums with my children and then I want to comment on my Facebook friends' photo albums as well.  

*     *     *

Some would claim that I'm hypocritical for being part Technophile and part Luddite.  Perhaps I am hypocritical.  After all, I have an iPad, but I refuse to own a cell phone (smart or otherwise).  I listen to low-fi, earthy Iron and Wine and follow that with The Postal Service. I spend an hour in the garden and then blog about it while sitting in my air-conditioned techno-fied barricade.

However, I see it as a paradox to be approached with humility and nuance.  Every medium is powerful and it's a myth to assume we can approach tech as a neutral tool to that we can wield for good rather than evil.  The reality is that the tools we use will shape us as much as we shape them.  Perhaps I'm being animistic here, but I see tools as relational rather than artificial.  We get to know a medium and it changes us.

So the paradox is this: I need to criticize the media I use and use the media I criticize.  It is deeply human to abandon tools and live in the terrestrial now.  Yet, it is also deeply human to use all media available to make sense out of our terrestrial reality.

*     *     * 

So, how does this connect to the classroom?

I want my students to be geeks and gurus.

The geek is knowledgeable about technology. This person loves it, embraces it and knows how to use it in creative ways. One the best days, the geek thinks of the future and how technology can be used to solve social, economic and perhaps even personal problems. (Think Dr. Salk or Batman.)  On the worst days, the geek becomes intoxicated by the novelty and applies futuristic solutions that lack foresight. (Think Dr. Oppenheimer in his early days or The Terminator.)

On the other hand, the guru is wise about technology. This person sees it as a force that is sometimes negative in its dehumanizing aspects. On the best days, a guru will remind us that the physical is as important as the mechanical and that some things in life should not be chopped into pieces and processed, compressed and then industrialized. A guru knows that, even when we try and predict it, technology takes on a life of its own. (Think Marshall McLuhan or Dr. Oppenheimer in his latter days.)  However, on the worst days, a guru will grow cynical and angry and shake an elitist fist at every innovation while missing out on the ways technology improves society. (Think the Unibomber.)

I want my students to be a bit of both. Call it a paradox or a mystery. I don't want them to abandon technology in a doom-and-gloom fear. However, I also don't want them to get into the mentality that a robotic world will fix everything.

John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at Education Rethink.  He recently finished two books, Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and Drawn Into Danger, a fictional memoir of a superhero. You can connect with him on Twitter @johntspencer


  1. Thank you friend for understanding and articulating the mess we all find ourselves in. Life.

    I love the voice you share and in turn I love you for sharing it. See, weird online intimacies are only awkward if we let them be. We will share a pint someday. Well I don't drink, but I will sip an ice cold glass of water. Till then we have these comment boxes. Two friends chatting in the 21st century.

  2. I find myself struggling with this paradox as both an artist and a teacher. As an artist I shift back and forth between hi-tech and digging in dirt. As a teacher, the media I primarily address are computer based, but I work hard to expose my students to how these technologies are only tools and that great art has something to say and makes a human connection. Geeks and Gurus is an awesome phrase. I feel like I'm going to steal that for something this coming school year.

  3. I am also interested in technologies and geek help me to increase knowledgeable about technology.

  4. Technology is an extension of human power. To use it, is not to de-humanize ourselves but to rehumanize us with new power and horizons. Stop the hand wringing and embrace what we are-human beings who extended their power and reach through extending our senses through technology!

  5. I will always hand wring precisely because of what you mentioned - power. Power corrupts. Always. Technology will always be mixed. To slip into a glossy-eyed technophilia is to fail to see that there is always a trade-off with any medium. With a smart phone, I can have the world at the palm of my hand, but that doesn't mean that I should.

  6. Thanks for the insight.

    I have stolen your lines/terms several times. I remember the indie teacher post in particular.

    Your desire for students to be both geeks and gurus echoes what I have long thought but lacked the talent to say so succinctly

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