technology: abandoning avatars in the Babel babble

a humble view of technology leads to a greater view of technology

A few days back, I had a dream about Google. I must have been eating something strange:

So, I'm sitting at home when a Google Android arrives at our door.  At first he says, "Hey, can iTouch.  Get it . . ." and we have to give him stars (think little sticky stars to put on a wall) and slowly, his sense of humor starts fitting ours.  He begins with annoying prop comedy and quickly shifts to a more cynical sense of humor. We like him because he rids the pantry of all SPAM (not that we own any canned meat normally) and gives us free cookies so that he can get to know us better. The guy knows the answer to everything and can tell us within seconds.

At first, he starts out with the robotic voice like one would hear on a rap song and slowly, we start using the robotic voice and he starts sounding more human.  I turn to Christy and say, "Where's the bees?" and he interrupts and says, "Did you mean cheese?" and hands me a GPS map to the fridge. He starts reorganizing our entire house and replacing the antique furniture with new, chrome-style decorating.

When I ask him to switch back, he says, "Yeah, you still have the classic theme, but try this for awhile. I have a system that will make your life run faster and more efficiently." So, he becomes our life operating system.

Eventually, in this dream, we realize that Google knows us better than we know each other.  We realize that we're going to him with all of our questions and we get nervous when he starts making phone calls to advertisers and sharing our personal information. So, we kick him out and then feel disconnected to all of our other friends who have invited an Android to live with them. So we invite him back in, but start to ignore him until he silently hums like the refrigerator.

I am reluctant to mention it, because it makes me sound like one of those conspiracy theory nuts who wants to tell everyone why microwaves are secretly giving Americans cancer so that insurance companies increase profits.  Still, the dream reveals something within my subconscious.  I'm nervous about the blending of man and machine.  I'm nervous about living life in a cloud and missing the terrestrial beauty of a coffee on the back porch.  I fear that we'll start to believe that a tweet is something we make with 140 characters and we'll miss the twittering birds nearby.

In teaching tech criticism, I ask students to apply symbolism, metaphor and personification to computers. It is interesting to see the depth of discussion when Google is not an abstraction, but rather a know-it-all geek who wants to run your life (think Oprah, but smarter). Like Mullet Man with cool gadgets.

One student recently compared his iPod to a crowded party where a person starts hundreds of conversations, but is never able to finish one.  "It's like an ADHD story-teller." Another compared the concept of a cyber footprint to the fountain of youth, “But I'm not sure I want a shadow of me living on in a digital world forever.” Unintentionally, she's being innovative by looking back instead of forward.

It's not an accident that edu-conglomerates believe kids study best when they are in an island.  It's not an accident that my orange Activboard (what's with the deliberate misspelling in the tech world?) is named after a Greek god who stole fire and thus brought both destruction and creativity to the world.
There seems to be this mindset that digital citizenship is a simple subset to teach - a standard to hit “if we have time.”  Basically, kids need to be safe, play nice and watch out for perverts. Like an online version of Boy Scouts.

*      *      *

Quinn asks me about how a Luddite can teach with computers. “I'm not anti-technology any more than I am against aspirin. Both are okay in the right context, but both can be addictive and deadly.”

Quinn mentions that we miss the greatest danger of all, which has to do with the creation of personal avatars. “It's easy to warn people about pornography and miss out on other online sins. When people are constantly developing this online profile to boost their ego, it's dangerous.”

It's easy to critique the message and miss the medium.

*      *      *

In a popular television series, a construction worker named Bob has perpetual, long-lasting, very human conversations with his machinery. I get the sense that Bob is lonely and not necessarily insane. So the show has me thinking of my own world and how often I talk and type and interact with machinery, believing it is human. I wonder how often people spend time delicately touching the smart phone, gently whispering words up close that were never meant for a machine but for a soul mate.

Sometimes I start to feel like Bob. I write blog posts to try and get comments. I tweet sarcastic remarks and see who sends a retweet. So, one evening, in thinking about the whole machine concept, I decide to record all of my Facebook Word Verifications (CAPTCHA) from and paste them in the exact order to see what kind of random nonsense I get:

in Romans
lost legacy
we sit
on television
ransacked nation
ankle glory
chained left
lives detached
amen toaster

I think it's about Rome - about bread and circus and our current addiction to technology.  But then again, Facebook Word Verifications are like Nostradamus.  You can make them say whatever you want. No context. No story. No deeper narratives. Just shards of sound byte.

A student of mine mentions this idea, “Technology is like the horcrux in Harry Potter. It splits us up into objects, like a phone or a computer and our image lasts forever and we get to be in more than one place at a time. But there is a cost. We lose our souls if it happens too many times.”

*      *      *

“What is one item of technology that the world would be better off without?” I ask one morning for Bell Work.  It feels like a soft ball question, but a few students struggle with it.

“Let's get to work,” I implore two boys.

“I'm sorry, I'm thinking,” one answers.

“Go ahead and think.  Sometimes I confuse the two.  Working and thinking aren't always the same thing. But after a few minutes, I want you to take a stab at it.”

An ELL student calls me over, “What is he going to stab?”  I remind her of idioms and she says she will try and use it.  She later says to her teacher, “I'm will stab you at the lesson., because of Mr. Spencer”

The Bell Work sparks a surprisingly intense debate, first on our blogs and then in class. One boy answers, “I think we'd be better off without nuclear power.  We found something so small we can't even see it and then we use it to destroy people in seconds.”

“That powers our city,” another students responds.

“Yes, and then we leave the waste for future generations.  It's like the check cashing store of energy.”

“I think television is the worst, because it makes people lazy and unable to think.”

“I think the microwave is the worstest.  No one cooks anymore.  Everything we eat is fast, but it sucks.  Nothing tastes right.”

One student says, “The world would be best without cell phones.  No one talks anymore.  Go to a bus stop.  Who is talking?  No one.  They are all texting instead.”

“I think the people at the bus my actually have it right,” a student explains.

“Can you explain why?”

“Cell phones connect and cars divide.  It's why computers are better than TV's.”

Students generally agree with this principle and offer their own examples of connecting and dividing.
Finally, I point out, “I know this might shock you, but I don't own a cell phone because I think it's a trap.  I think it's a web that people think will connect them and then people build their own cocoon of isolation.  I think that's a trick of technology.  It sometimes promises to connect you and really it is dividing you. It's why I only watch one or two TV shows a week.  I need to connect with the shared pop culture, but I know that too much of it will leave me isolated and I'll miss my family.”

A student responds, “What if it's both?  What if all technology divides and connects?  Take writing.  When you write on paper, you aren't really talking to anyone.  You can end up alone.  Maybe you need some alone time, maybe you don't.  Maybe you need to send a letter to someone and it becomes something that connects you.  Maybe you write a book and people share thoughts through long chapters.    Or a car.  We can say it divides us, but I would never see my abuelita if we didn't have a car.”

And thus they use technology to think about using less technology and in the process they learn more about technology than if the focus had been on using technology.
some tech questions

Digital citizenship is more than simply playing it safe, just as a democratic citizenship is more than wearing an "I Voted Today" sticker or chanting a slogan stolen from Bob the Builder (Yes, we can!). The following are some of the questions I try and ask students.  At first, I sound like Red on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but eventually they catch on.  I get forty-five days with them and if I'm lucky, I'll make them think twice when they log on. I admit that this is a bit long (though not by any means exhaustive), but here it is:

Social Networks
How do sites like Myspace and Facebook shape how we interact with each other? How do those sites make money?  Are we becoming desensitized by advertising?  Have we made social interaction into a commodity?

Digital Identity
In what ways do you create a digital identity for yourself?  What are some of the dangers in being transparent?  What are some of the dangers in being anonymous? Are we becoming more image-conscious? Does this make us more arrogant?  Are we losing what it means to be human? How does the constant obsession with "new" cause us to mistake novelty for importance?

How do images shape your view of concepts?  Are pictures more accurate than words?  What are the dangers in photo-editing software and our ability to believe what we see?  Is a "made-up" picture less real than what you actually saw (especially if your mind is able to misrepresent it as well)?  What are the dangers in "capturing" life on camera?  Are there people, places or ideas that should not be "captured" on camera?  Does the use of digital photography make people less careful about the pictures they choose to take? Does the quantity change the quality?

How do people change when they are on video?  What are the dangers of having to be entertaining?  In what ways do we live in an entertainment culture?  What are the costs of editing a person's words and chopping it up?  How does the narrative change?  In what ways does the act of video force people to be more amusing?  Do Americans trust pretty people more than ugly people as a result of the video-culture demanding good-looking people for things like news and talk shows?

Is the album dead? Is that a good or a bad thing?  Are songs going to get shorter or longer as a result of digitization?  Do you think the instant availability of recording technology will increase or decrease the overall quality of music? Do you ever feel like you know a lot of songs, but don't know any songs really deeply?  Does music have more or less power when it is portable?  People listen to music in isolation.  They used to listen to it in groups.  What did we lose in the process?  We have no shared cannon of music.  What does that mean for our ability to have collective storytelling as a culture?

Intellectual Property
Does creative commons actually destroy innovation?  If property should be shared, why not resources?  what makes an idea "yours" in a world where so many ideas are synthesized and customized so quickly?  What are ways you can be careful about respecting intellectual property?

How do wikis fail to safeguard against errors?  What are the dangers in wiki anonymity?  What are the benefits of a wiki?  How does your voice change when you write a wiki?

How do people change their tone of voice or their style of writing when it becomes public?  How does the structure of the blog change the length that a person writes?  If we can easily edit blogs, does that make us more careless in choosing words than if it were on paper?  What is the downside of a society where everyone can be a blogger? Is there a danger in a world where anyone can be "right" and no one has to be an expert? What are the dangers of libel?  Do most bloggers consider the credibility of their sources?  Is a blog a publishing tool or a communication tool?  If people can comment at any time and the conversation isn't bound to time or space, what do we sacrifice in terms of space and presence?  How does that shape our communication?

Communication Tools
If anyone can access you at any time, are you ever really present when you are with someone?  How do communication tools make us more human or less human?  Are people lonelier when they are more connected? Or does the instant connection allow people to feel a deeper sense of connection to people?  How have communication tools changed our syntax? our grammar? our vocabulary? What is more real to you an instant message or a face-to-face conversation? Why does it seem like we're not talking as much anymore?

Does the instant availability of information change how we view truth?  In an age where it's so easy to manufacture and publish lies, is there any way to know what is true?  How does a website's structure affect your ability to decide if it is true?  Is it possible to have too much information? What happens to the value we place on knowledge if it is so readily available?  Are we getting smarter or dumber or do we simply think differently than before?

Cyber Footprint
How does your online identity and interaction live on even after you have deleted it?  Will that change how you interact online? Is it worth the lack of privacy in order to access the convenience of "living in the cloud?"  Are there mistakes you've made that are now recorded online?  How does that make you feel?

Operating Systems
How do operating systems manipulate you?  How have you changed the way you think based upon the desktop environment you use?  In what ways does your computer itself change your attention span?  Is it true (or simply a myth) that operating systems are designed to make people multi-taskers? Have computers changed our work ethic?

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