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Our Digital Nation
PBS’ “Frontline” had a rather depressing topic the other day, our “Digital Nation.” The next two weeks I want to highlight interviews conducted with two of the participants in the program, both of whom are major university professors. First up, Sherry Turkle, psychologist and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. Interview conducted Sept. 22, 2009.
Frontline: There seems to be a mass of cheerleaders out there who are celebrating this digital revolution, particularly in education.
ST: I think that we live in techno-enthusiastic times. We celebrate our technologies because people are frightened by the world we’ve made. The economy isn’t going right; there’s global warming, in times like that, people imagine science and technology will be able to get it right.
In the area of education, it calms people to think that technology will be a salvation. It turns out that it’s not so simple. Technology can be applied in good ways and bad. It’s not the panacea. It depends how; it depends what. It depends how rich you are, what other things you have going for you. It’s a very complicated story. But I definitely think that we’re at a moment when nostalgia for things that we once got right is coded as Luddite-ism.
I see part of my role in this conversation as giving nostalgia a good name. If something worked and was helpful to parents, teachers, children, that thing should be celebrated and brought forward, insofar as we can. It’s not to say that technology is bad – robots, cell phones, computers, the Web. The much harder work is figuring out what is their place. That turns out to be very complicated.
You can’t put something in its place unless you really have a set of values that you’re working from. Do we want children to have social skills, to be able to just look at each other face to face and negotiate and have a conversation and be comfortable in groups? Is this a value that we have in our educational system? Well, if so, a little less Net time, s’il vous plait. Technology challenges us to assert our human values, which means that first of all, we have to figure out what they are.
ST: We are at a point where the fact that something is simulated does not, for this generation, make it second best, and that leads to some problems.
This is really the first generation that grew up with simulation to the point that they see simulation as a virtue and have a very hard time identifying where reality slips away from simulation, often in subtle ways.
I think when you have a generation that doesn’t see simulation as second best, doesn’t know what’s behind simulation and the programming that goes into simulation, but just takes simulation at interface value, you really have a set up for a very problematic political, among other thing, set of issues.
The turning point was the introduction of the Mac in 1984, because the Macintosh said you don’t have to look under the interface we give you; you can just be at the interface. And so that’s when you start getting into terrible trouble with simulation, because you’re so dependent on it. You don’t know how it works, and there begins to be slippage between the simulated and the real.
Children who loved to program are now absent. People talking about computers in education for the most part [are] talking about children using computer tools. They’re not talking about understanding this technology.
Frontline: When one talks to people who are enthusiasts for technology, they often will say, look, it’s not one or the other. Having robots or text messages or cell phones to deal with all the things that we don’t have time or the inclination to deal with ourselves gives us more time to have meaningful connections that we really want to have.
ST: This is a very compelling argument until you hang out for five years with teenagers who theoretically are the ones who are supposed to be having their text messages and their long conversations, too.
What I’m seeing is a generation that says consistently, “I would rather text than make a telephone call.” Why? It’s less risky. I can just get the information out there. I don’t have to get all involved; it’s more efficient. I would rather text than see somebody face to face.
There’s this sense that you can have the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. The real demands of friendship, of intimacy, are complicated. They’re hard. They involve a lot of negotiation. They’re all the things that are difficult about adolescence. And adolescence is the time when people are using technology to skip and to cut corners and to not have to do some of these very hard things.
So of course people try to use everything. But a generation really is growing up that, because it’s given the option to not do some of the hardest things in adolescence, are growing up without some basic skills in many cases, and that’s very concerning to me.
One of the things I’ve found with continual connectivity is there’s an anxiety of disconnection; that these teens have a kind of panic. They say things like: “I lost my iPhone; it felt like somebody died, as though I’d lost my mind. If I don’t have my iPhone with me, I continue to feel it vibrating. I think about it in my locker.” The technology is already part of themselves.
And with the constant possibility of connectivity, one of the things that I see is – a very subtle movement from “I have a feeling I want to make a call” to “I want to have a feeling I need to make a call” – in other words, people almost feeling as if they can’t feel their feeling unless they’re connected.
I’m hearing this all over now, so it stops being pathological if it becomes a generational style. And I think we have to ask ourselves, well, what are some of the other implications of that? Because certainly our models of what adolescents go through in order to develop independent identities did not leave room for that kind of perpetual reaching out to other people in order to feel a sense of self….
There is a reason that when you go into an organization, people are in their rooms feet away from each other, sending each other e-mail. And you ask them why, and they say, “Oh, it’s more convenient; I don’t have to bother anybody, waste anybody’s time.” It’s as though everybody lived in a world where we’re all wasting each other’s time. So now we don’t waste each other’s time. You only have to get your mail when you want to.
Frontline: What about parents and teens in this new world?
ST: One of the interesting things about studying teenagers and adults at the same time is you see teenagers beginning to want to correct parents’ seduction into the technology, because teenagers have needs that aren’t being met that they’re very vocal about.
For example, teenagers complain – often these are teenagers from parents who have been divorced – they would not have seen their mom in four days. The mom comes to pick them up at the soccer game; this is now their time with their mom, right? The mom is sitting there with the Blackberry, and until she finishes the Blackberry stuff, she doesn’t look up to look at the kid. The kid’s in the car, and they’ve driven off before the mom looks up from the Blackberry.
This infuriates children. And children are more critical of their parents’ seduction by this technology than they are by their own behavior, because every kid wants to feel – Blackberry generation or no, iPhone or no – that their parent is there for them at the moment that they need their parent. And having all of these parents who are on the Blackberrys during pickup, this comes up so often in my interviews.
ST: Because technology makes it easy, we’ve all wanted to think it is good for us, a new kind of thinking, an expansion of our ability to reason and cycle through complicated things – do more and be more efficient. Unfortunately, the new research is coming in that says when you multitask, everything gets done a little worse.
Let me just speak of my own experience as a writer. I work on a networked computer, and I have it on a word-processing program, and I’m writing and I’m thinking, and I have my interviews all around. And I’m trying to make a hard point, and it’s hard, and I hit my e-mail, and I do a little e-mail. You know, 20 minutes passes; a half hour passes; 10 minutes passes. And I’ve lost my thought. And I go back to the writing. And once again, when it’s hard, I hit Safari and I’m Googling somebody; I’m checking if my books are selling on Amazon.
I’m doing every little thing to break up the difficult. And in my interviewing I find that I am not alone, that the pull to do a lot of things when something is hard is a kind of universal seduction. And it does not make for better writing.
I talk to my students about this a lot. Many of them say, what’s the difference? You get up; you stretch; you have a cup of coffee. What about that? There is a difference. When you get up and stretch and take a walk around the block, you can stay with your problem. You can clear your mind; you can move your body. You can stay with the thing, whereas if you’re answering an e-mail about scheduling baby-sitters or quickly writing a letter of recommendation, you’ve lost your problem.
I think we’re getting ourselves out of the habit of just staying with something hard. Some intellectual problems are quite hard, and they need full attention. And the more you hear educational specialists talking about multitasking as though it’s a big plus, the more I think we seduce ourselves out of what many people, when they actually get to doing a piece of hard work, really know what the truth is.
Frontline: So how does this manifest itself in your students? How are they different, and what do you?
ST: I teach at MIT. I teach the most brilliant students in the world. But they have done themselves a disservice by drinking the Kool-Aid and believing that a multitasking learning environment will serve their best purposes, because they need to be taught how to make a sustained, complicated argument on a hard, cultural, historical, psychological point.
Many of them were trained that a good presentation is a PowerPoint presentation – you know, bam-bam-bam – it’s very hard for them to have a kind of quietness, a stillness in their thinking where only one thing can actually lead to another and build and build and build and build….
I think it’s for a generation of professors to not be intimidated and say, “Oh, this must be the way of the future,” but to say: “Look, there really are important things you cannot think about unless you’re only thinking about one thing at a time. There are just some things that are not amenable to being thought about in conjunction with 15 other things. And there’s some kind of arguments you cannot make unless you’re willing to take something from beginning to end.”