The Digital Divide

Hi Folks:

It’s been a while since I wrote a long, rambling blog post, so it’s probably time for another one. If you don’t have time to read it all you may wish to skip directly to the P.S. at the bottom… 🙂

This post was inspired by two posts that I came across on the same day, and as thoughts are wont to do (at least for me), once planted they began to send out roots in various directions and attracted others, and so on, and so on… The first post I read is titled, “Restaurant Watches Old Footage Of Customers And Uncovers A Shocking Truth“. Essentially the restaurant was looking for ways to circumvent or overcome customer complaints of ‘slow service’. What they discovered (as hinted by the title) was a surprise to everyone. The second post (at least in the order I encountered them) is titled, “The Digital Divide“. I took the liberty of borrowing their title for this post; it fits well. This second post is about Waldorf schools, and a question that plagues not just them but educators all over – should we keep our children from technology? That question is the essence of this post.

Obviously this is a deep and complex question, and there are no simple answers. Last I heard, there are some 1.7 billion smart phones in the world today. That’s quite a contrast to the mid-1970s when I signed up for a Computer Fundamentals class only to find it was cancelled for lack of interest. On one side of the equation there are those who believe that giving our children exposure to phones and tablets and the internet in general lowers attention span, brushes aside the development of critical thinking and increases dependence on superficial connection through social media at the expense of deep and meaningful conversations or activities with peers. We’re teaching our children to be shallow and isolationist.

On the other side of the equation we have people like Sugata Mitra, who started the ‘Hole in the Wall’ project in India. In short, he set up an internet-connected computer in a neighbourhood slum and left it for the kids to discover. When someone asked him what it was and what it was for, he simply replied, “I don’t know.” and walked away. He had no idea what to expect, but what he discovered was that without training or supervision of any kind, in time these kids taught themselves how to use the computer, how to use the internet and in so doing expanded their world far beyond the few blocks that was their home to that point. In a similar project (I’m going from memory here so any errors are entirely mine) he took a computer, loaded it with fairly advanced information on genetics – in English – and installed it in a remote Indian village. Again, when the children came and asked him what it was and how it worked, he simply responded, “I don’t know.” and left.

He returned three months later and asked the children what they learned. The first answered, “Nothing”, which was pretty much what he expected. But then this one little girl came up to him and said, “Okay, we understand that during mitosis the mitochondrial DNA… but what we don’t understand is…” He was flabbergasted. Not only did these children learn how to use the computer, and not only did they teach themselves how to read English, but they also learned a level of genetics that would put many high school students to shame. And they taught themselves.

So. Should we keep our children from technology? In my opinion the answer is a firm no. For one thing, it’s possible but very difficult to do so, at least in first world countries. If we make something forbidden, we increase curiosity about it and that leads to false assumptions and understandings. Should we then keep going with our current status quo? My answer to that is a firm no also. What then should we do? I think the answer is simple, but the implementation may prove to be difficult. We need to teach our children responsible use of technology. Before we continue we need to look at the word responsible. The Latin ‘re’ means to do again. The Latin ‘spond’ or ‘spons’ means to pledge and answer. To be responsible then is to re-pledge, to do so with intention. How do we do this? Therein lies the challenge. We teach our children to be responsible in their use of technology the same way we teach them everything else: by example.

As infants we’re born with a necessarily restricted sense of the world. We can’t move, we don’t see so well, and everything is unfamiliar. We have yet to discover our own bodies and we’re entirely dependent on others. The first connections we make are sensory – sound, sight, touch, scent, taste. We learn to trust by having our needs met, certain behaviours encouraged, others dissuaded. As the saying goes, “There is no such thing as a bad student, only a bad teacher.” Our first bonds are made with those who are closest to us – parents, family, those who give us their time, their attention and their love. We respond in kind.

For many children today, however, by the time they’re a year or two old and have a greater sense of the world around them they’ve discovered that there is one thing in the world that is more important than them. It’s a flat sort of box, and it comes in different sizes and different colours. Sometimes it makes noises, and sometimes it doesn’t. Whatever it is, it has the power to demand near constant attention, and it has the ability to mesmerize, to draw those who care for us away from us and into this little box. It becomes our primary competitor for attention. That little box must be incredibly powerful! Who wouldn’t want to know what that is? Children are born curious. For the first few years of their lives (and, with direction, for their rest of their lives) children are sensory sponges, soaking up information and mimicking it back. As a species we’re not alone in this: kits, pups, hatchlings… every species that is born into parent care learns about its environment from its parents in this way. A recent study with marmosets showed that they could learn by watching instructional video of other marmosets on a screen set up in the forest. EVERY parent has been in a situation where his or her little one has said or done something that begs the question, “Where did you learn that?” The answer is always the same – from you.

Anyone who says being a parent is easy has never been a parent. It’s a 24/7 commitment at first, and it gets more challenging from there. In a world where people feel ‘expected’ to commit to surfing a constant feed of information, taking time away from our phones, our tablets, our screens in general is breaking a form of addiction. Having suddenly found ourselves with that added responsibility of having a small, noisy, smelly being who is completely dependent on us for survival can be a huge challenge – especially in a culture where extended families play little to no role in helping to raise children. As with any addiction, when we feel stressed we want to retreat, and so we retreat into our technology. One more update, one more news feed.

Bob Proctor once said, “Most people live their lives the way they think other people think they should live.” There’s tremendous freedom in that statement, or can be. In the movie ‘The Terminal‘ there’s a scene where Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones both hurl their pagers from the balcony onto the pavement below. I don’t think we need to go that far; the ‘off’ button works just as well.

I’m not going to suggest to anyone else what responsible use of technology should mean to them. With 7+ billion people in the world there are 7+ billion answers to that question. There’s only one person in the world you can change, and you see him/her in the mirror every time you look. Within that is choice, and choice is tremendously powerful. I remember seeing children of friends back in the 1970s who were daily ‘Sesame Street’ watchers. Before they started school they knew the alphabet, could count to 12 and had a vivid sense of imagination. The daughter of an internet friend recently used the word ‘crocodilians’ in an explanation she was giving about alligators; she’s four and she watches instructional videos on a tablet. It doesn’t have to be a case of being a zombie linked to a hive mind (as per The Matrix) or being a Luddite. We begin by remembering that our electronics, as with other devices, are tools for our use. We don’t serve them (as much as some people would like to argue that we do).

Marcia and I both have laptops, and we both have smart phones. We write, we tweet, we make digital photographs. We read e-books. We have a blog. We read articles that are of interest to us, and we share uplifting/ inspiring information that we discover with others. There are times when we’ll be sitting together in a coffee shop and looking at our respective devices, and there are times when we’ll both put our phones away. We interact. We play. When we’re apart we text each other throughout the day, and that maintains a connection we wouldn’t otherwise have. Once a month we read books onto video for our grandkids who live in other cities, and we post the videos on YouTube for the boys to watch. Our six-year old grandson knows how to initiate a Skype video call with us on his parents’ iPad. So does his 91-year-old great grandfather, on his.

There is a way forward, one that balances intelligent use of technology with getting dirt under one’s fingernails and fresh air in one’s lungs. We simply have to choose it.


P.S. I came across this article from Terri Windling this morning: On time, technology, and a celebration of slowness You can go away and read it; I’ll wait.

Welcome back. In her post she references two articles that she recommends reading in full. Did you read them? Isn’t that the point? 🙂

This one’s worth reading too… Planting words like seeds

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.