January 5, 2009

Technology Ain't Cute

[1st woman, looking at a photo of a one-year-old holding a cell phone]

"It looks like he's got his finger on the button, ready to text! Like he's saying, "How cool is this?" Oh, that's so cute."

[2nd woman]

"Yeah, he'll do the same thing with a remote control; he'll point it at the t.v. and click the buttons. He knows how to use it!"


As Neil Postman says, we should always keep one eye fixed on technology- and be wary of our fascination with it. We should always regard book reading as normal, and reading internet news sources as "weird."

With that in mind, my comment on the conversation above is, someone thinking the infant use of technology is 'cute' is just plain weird.

What's cute? That a baby is already preparing to be dependent on cell phones, computers, diagnostic machines, standardized tests and statistics? That, before they even know* anything about themselves, children know that technology is an integral part of human existence, indeed, that these are the methods by which the flurry of information they spew forth can make any sense at all?

Were the concepts in "Brave New World" cute, or downright scary? I support the latter, as well as the notion that technology should be eyed cautiously, especially in regards to what we allow our kids to use. (This is a no-brainer, given our proclivity to watch like hawks every other substance we give to our delicate, vulnerable children.)

I hear your objection to my analysis: the "cuteness" she's referring to is simply the ability of a child to mimic what they see adults doing.

But how is that an objection to my urging against the wholly doe-eyed acceptance of technology, without question, into one's daily existence and our progression as a culture? If anything, the fact that children imitate what they see without knowing the meaning or the consequences of their actions, should hit home to you the necessity of filtering what technology they use.

Apply the same consideration to technology- we don't know the meaning or the consequences of its actions- and you should now be seriously pausing.

Don't get me wrong, I love my computer (well, not my computer, which is a piece of junk, but computers in general) and the internet, Pandora, YouTube and National Review Online. I also love cars and stoplights, libraries, electricity and sewing machines. You might enjoy making a video call to grandkids far away, texting a friend on your cell phone while waiting for an oil change, or the accuracy with which a Meijer register can determine that you'd like a coupon for $2 off your next purchase of Puffs with lotion (not Kleenex, but Puffs).

For you and me alike, it's tempting to view technology as the sum of the things we love about it: the convenience, the efficiency, the deals.

But consider all the elements of technology that don't, for a range of reasons, immediately come to mind, or are taken for granted: the use of statistics, government regulated information (like the IRS), medical coding, standardized tests. Forget about the positive impact of these methods; how might they bring damage to our humanity?

Statistics show the results of many questions, so that we might see popular opinion come alive. But, what questions did they ask? And is the "popular" opinions what we should be aiming to achieve? Someone once said, "What's popular is not always right and what's right is not always popular." They may have been on to something there.

The IRS now keeps electronic files of your taxes and records. All fine and good, right? It takes up less space and it can't burn in a fire or be lost. Except that... it all could still burn in a fire, or get "lost" in the computer's data files, or be erased by accident. But the real burning question is, are you comfortable having the fate of your finances determined by whether or not the computer "says" this or that about you? If it "says" audit, then audit. If it "says" you owe back taxes, then you owe. When the personal responsibility is eliminated by a machine that stores all the answers, to whom will you object when you think the answers are mistaken?

The same can be said for medical coding, but add one element: are you comfortable being a green-tabbed, region A living, insurance 16297-33 carrying patient? Are you ok being the sum total of test results and medical histories, with actual verbal contact with your doctor or personal acknowledgment of symptoms and treatments having been made obsolete?

Lastly, consider standardized tests; what does it say about us as a culture that we value numbers and percentages above the human-to-human process of learning? Are you only an IQ number? And what IS an IQ number anyway, other than a subjective scale of measuring "intelligence." But could it be that there is more to "knowledge" than what is on the test?

Looking at testing from another angle, "No Child Left Behind" has been detrimental to our children's actual educative development because it asks only for the numbers of "passed" students to match the number of "present" students. When a child seems to have fallen behind- in major skills like reading and writing- they are spoon-fed the answers for the test by teachers who teach according to getting the "numbers game" right. Anything below what is expected of them, by testing results, is considered a failure on their behalf. So imagine their motivation for just passing the kids, even if they haven't learned what will prepare them for the next grade.

* Of course, we cannot say without some hesitation that "knowing" is a concept anyone ever comes to, given the current state of philosophy of mind, but that's another story for another day.

All these questions and more, and in a more eloquent and historical context, are to be found in "Technopoly." I can't agree entirely with his arguments, but obviously it has made enough of an impression on me to write this post. I strongly urge you to read it. Published in 1992, it will probably be at your local public library.

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