Is technology narrowing our perception of life?

Lowell Monke’s essay, “Charlotte’s Webpage”, is a must-read for any parent with kids of school-going age. Originally published in the September/October 2005 issue of Orion magazine, Monke’s essay preceded the day of personal kindles and laptops for every child (though one could argue the cusp was already apparent). What Monke does is to make a compelling case for hands-on learning where the hands touch something apart from computer keys and the eyes follow something apart from a pixelated screen.

“Charlotte’s Webpage: Why children shouldn’t have the world at their fingertips” (PDF)

Paraphrasing him would be tawdry since he expresses himself very clearly and effectively. For example:

The teacher explained that her students were so enthusiastic about the project that they chose to go to the computer lab rather than outside for recess. While she seemed impressed by this dedication, it underscores the first troubling influence of computers. The medium is so compelling that it lures children away from the kind of activities through which they have always most effectively discovered themselves and their place in the world.

Ironically, students could best learn the lessons implicit inCharlotte’s Web —the need to negotiate relationships, the importance of all members of a community, even the rats—by engaging in the recess they missed. For recess is not just a break from intellectual demands or a chance to let off steam, but also a break from a closely supervised social and physical environment. It is when children are most free to negotiate their own relationships, at arm’s length from adult authority. Yet across the U.S., these opportunities are disappearing. By the year 2000, according to a 2001 report by University of New Orleans associate professor Judith Kieff, more than 40 percent of the elementary and middle schools in the U.S. had entirely eliminated recess. By contrast, U.S. Department of Education statistics indicate that spending on technology in schools increased by more than 300 percent from 1990 to 2000.

Structured learning certainly has its place. But if it crowds out direct, unmediated engagement with the world, it undercuts a child’s education. Children learn the fragility of flowers by touching their petals. They learn to cooperate by organizing their own games. The computer cannot simulate the physical and emotional nuances of resolving a dispute during kickball, or the creativity of inventing new rhymes to the rhythm of jumping rope. These full-bodied, often deeply heartfelt experiences educate not just the intellect but also the soul of the child. When children are free to practice on their own, they can test their inner perceptions against the world around them, develop the qualities of care, self-discipline, courage, compassion, generosity, and tolerance—and gradually figure out how to be part of both social and biological communities.

If children do not dip their toes in the waters of unsupervised social activity, they likely will never be able to swim in the sea of civic responsibility. If they have no opportunities to dig in the soil, discover the spiders, bugs, birds, and plants that populate even the smallest unpaved playgrounds, they will be less likely to explore, appreciate, and protect nature as adults.

Computers not only divert students from recess and other unstructured experiences, but also replace those authentic experiences with virtual ones.

So what’s the problem?

During the decade that I spent teaching a course called Advanced Computer Technology, I repeatedly found that after engaging in Internet projects, students came back down to the Earth of their immediate surroundings with boredom and disinterest—and a desire to get back online. Having watched Discovery Channel and worked with computer simulations that severely compress both time and space, children are typically disappointed when they first approach a pond or stream: the fish aren’t jumping, the frogs aren’t croaking, the deer aren’t drinking, the otters aren’t playing, and the raccoons (not to mention bears) aren’t fishing. Their electronic experiences have led them to expect to see these things happening—all at once and with no effort on their part. The result is that the child becomes less animated and less capable of appreciating what it means to be alive, what it means to belong in the world as a biological, social being.

Monke also worries that the virtual connect engenders a place-based disconnect in young people searching for a place to belong. His points about schools (see below) are being fought by an amazing group of dedicated teachers, principals, and parents in Tuscaloosa who are adding outdoor classrooms and gardens to nearby schools. I am honored to know a few of them.

Rather than attempt to compensate for a growing disconnect from nature, schools seem more and more committed to reinforcing it, a problem that began long before the use of computers. Even relying on books too much or too early inhibits the ability of children to develop direct relationships with the subjects they are studying. But because of their power, computers drastically exacerbate this tendency, leading us to believe that vivid images, massive amounts of information, and even online conversations with experts provide an adequate substitute for conversing with the things themselves.

As the computer has amplified our youths’ ability to virtually “go anywhere, at any time,” it has eroded their sense of belonging anywhere, at any time, to anybody, or for any reason. How does a child growing up in Kansas gain a sense of belonging when her school encourages virtual learning about Afghanistan more than firsthand learning about her hometown? How does she relate to the world while spending most of her time engaging with computer-mediated text, images, and sounds that are oddly devoid of place, texture, depth, weight, odor, or taste—empty of life? Can she still cultivate the qualities of responsibility and reverence that are the foundation of belonging to real human or biological communities?

And, once again, Monke returns with a thought-provoking point about the consequences of our dance with LeapFrogs rather than pollywogs.

The child pushes a button and the computer draws an X on the screen. The child didn’t draw that X, she essentially “ordered” the computer to do it, and the computer employed an enormous amount of embedded adult skill to complete the task. Most of the time a user forgets this distinction because the machine so quickly and precisely processes commands. But the intensity of the frustration that we experience when the computer suddenly stops following orders (and our tendency to curse at, beg, or sweet talk it) confirms that the subtle difference is not lost on the psyche. This shift toward remote control is akin to taking the child out of the role of actor and turning her into the director. This is a very different way of engaging the world than hitting a ball, building a fort, setting a table, climbing a tree, sorting coins, speaking and listening to another person, acting in a play. In an important sense, the child gains control over a vast array of complex abstract activities by giving up or eroding her capacity to actually do them herself.

The computer environment attracts children exactly because it strips away the very resistance to their will that so frustrates them in their concrete existence. Yet in the real world, it is precisely an object’s resistance to unlimited manipulation that forces a child (or anyone) to acknowledge the physical limitations of the natural world, the limits of one’s power over it, and the need to respect the will of others living in it. To develop normally, a child needs to learn that she cannot force the family cat to sit on her lap, make a rosebud bloom, or hurt a friend and expect to just start over again with everything just as it was before.

As a parent, I find the issues of technology to be increasingly important divides between my children and others. Some adults have even expressed amazement that I haven’t started teaching them to type! No one ever taught me to type. Typing doesn’t require teaching- not in this day and age. Not seriously. Children and young adults teach themselves to type when provided with the opportunity. I figure my kids will have an entire lifetime to type, text, and tweet their hearts out. In the meantime, I hope to provide them with something akin to a beautiful, natural childhood. We learn as we go. I’d love to know your thoughts on this essay and on how technology is rewiring our brains for different relationships to other humans and the world around us.

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