Technology is altering how we learn, think and live – and not necessarily for the better

I recently had the pleasure of attending a performance of the musical “Annie Jr.” at my daughter’s school. It is a happy memory that will stay with me forever.

I am not so sure if the gentleman two rows ahead of me will be able to say the same. As the young actors sang and danced, he filmed the action with his iPhone. Rather than watch the drama unfold in front of him, he watched it on his smartphone's screen. I couldn't help but think that he was missing something important.

His phone had become a barrier. He wasn’t able to experience the wonder and joy of the moment because he was too busy capturing the moment for perpetuity. His example highlights larger issues and problems concerning technology that seem to grow daily. Technology is shaping us in ways we hardly recognize, threatening our capacity to wonder, and damaging our ability to think deeply.

Only a fool – especially one writing for an online magazine – would deny that real progress has been achieved through digital technology. Still, I'd like to suggest a few issues that we may be missing in our embrace of it.

First, the very architecture and form of technology shapes us. We repeat the trope that technology is neutral – that it can be used for good or ill. But this neglects that technology has a logic – or internal form or structure – that we are required to follow if we use and employ it. Reading a hyperlinked document on a screen works on me differently from the way the text on a printed page does. The conversation I have on a cell phone as I walk down the street is necessarily different from a face-to-face conversation or even one in which I sit on the couch with my landline talking to an old friend.

Indeed, studies and science are confirming that technology is hardly neutral. As Nicholas Carr has detailed in his seminal article in “The Atlantic”,” “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and his book, “The Shallows,” the architecture of the Web is changing the way we read, think and study. In a hyperlinked, tweeted world, our minds are becoming as deep – or shallow – as the way we manipulate information. While we might be exposed to greater volumes of information from a wider variety of sources, we aren't becoming deeper thinkers as a result.

These concerns are particularly acute in the educational context. A recent article on Slate examined the research on students who multitask while studying or listening to lectures. The results were not encouraging: “When students multitask while doing schoolwork, their learning is far spottier and shallower than if the work had their full attention. They understand and remember less, and they have greater difficulty transferring their learning to new contexts.”

Second, the ubiquity of technology and its various manifestations are a form of “noise” that threatens to drown out all else. We have neither the space nor the quiet that would allow us to do the deep thinking and contemplation that, in turn, allow us to generate authentic culture – the true, the good and the beautiful.

There are, however, specific actions we can implement to combat the corrosive effects of technology. First, we cannot be afraid to resist the drumbeat for more technology in our schools and classrooms. We should question, for instance, the assumptions that say that we need a one-to-one ratio between computers and our students.

Second, we should place a premium on silence – from audible noise, for sure, but also from the “noise” of the interruptions of our technological devices. We should create distraction free oases  – where texts, tweets, and status updates dare not enter – in our schools to allow students to read, think and contemplate. We need to do this in our friendships and families, as well. For those of us who are parents, we can intentionally establish times to set aside our devices, so that that we and our children can simply be together.

None of this means we have to banish technology. But it does mean finding ways to re-establish the primacy of the human over the technological so as to allow us to experience real joy in the moment, rather than having it mediated to us through a screen, or skimming past it on the way to our next technological thrill.

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bill fullmer
Mon, 05/20/2013 - 8:29am
Conor Dugan nailed it. His fine article reflects research, thought and compassion. Thank you Mr. Dugan.
Michele Strasz
Mon, 05/20/2013 - 9:26am
I could not agree more after spending the weekend videotaping my son's graduation so my dad who just had surgery could watch it. I feel like I need a do over!
Mon, 05/20/2013 - 11:00am
Technology is consistent, it is ever changing inspite of what others may do.. The better approach maybe rather than fear it and resist it is to teach it and to provide the tools to manage it.
Paul Roese
Wed, 05/22/2013 - 12:47pm
while i can agree in part with the author's point it just came to my mind the picture of the story tellers and keepers of the oral tradition saying WHAT! You want to put down the story on clay tablets! whats next papyrus! instead of a communal gathering around the campfire you want to be able to go off and read the tribes stories on your own! what's this world coming to?