[This was written for an assignment of sorts and, as a result, is long, somewhat pedantic, and self-indulgent — all being requisites.]
As a developmentalist and someone who is deeply interested in technology and learning, I think that technology is changing humans in important ways (e.g., psychosocial development, identity development, cognition, etc). Over the past 6-9 months, I’ve done a lot of reading on the subject and what I’m most sure of is that I am no closer to a definitive answer (and probably further away). Optimists and pessimists litter the socio-cultural and educational landscape. What’s more, many people (like myself) are just confused bandwagon-jumpers evangelizing the revolution of tech one minute and espousing our old-school conservativism and/or the perils of tech-reliance the next. Take this blog for example which is subtitled, “Technology changes, humans don’t”. Yet, in one of the more popular posts on the site, the authors enthusiastically trumpets the wonderful possibilities of tech saying, “the participatory, social web requires a new design sensibility and new human skills & behavior that we are only beginning to understand.” What we are only beginning to understand is that we’re confused, hyperbolic, or over reactionary… or all three.
So, are the rapidly evolving worlds of digital technology, ubiquitous Internet connectivity, and technologically mediated communication changing fundamental aspects of human development? In a Vygotskian sense, have we created the tools that are now creating us? Well, the only valid sample that I can currently study is myself–and that is what I shall do. For the balance of this post, I will outline my personal experiences with technology growing up, and the ways in which I think these experiences have and/or have not changed who I am and how I see the world. It will be an autoethnography of sorts, and I honestly do not know what data will emerge or what conclusions I may come to. I am writing this as a stream-of-thought commentary. At the conclusion of the paper, I will attempt to connect my experiences with popular techno-thinkers on this subject.
The Younger Years (not to be confused with the Wonder Years)
My first recollection of interacting with technology was either with an Atari 2600 video game system or an Apple IIe personal computer. I very vaguely remember playing “Pong” and perhaps a few other cartridge games on the Atari, but my memory gets foggy any earlier than age 5 (or perhaps it was just the industrial-age chemical fog hovering over the “armpit of America” aka Lima, OH). I also never owned an Atari so my experience with it was limited to one at my babysitter’s and neighbor’s house. Either way, I don’t remember being too impressed with the Atari–at least not enough to make a lasting impression. I’d like to say that I was mesmerized by my ability to move colored graphics around on the screen with a joystick, but that’s just not the case. I had a neighbor who had a boatload of Atari games, but they all seemed pretty repetitive and looking back, I think I kind of felt sorry for him and the countless hours he spent staring at that screen. I have more vivid memories of trying to shoot 100 straight baskets in a row at my babysitter’s house, flying kites with the neighbor kids, playing soccer with my dad, and hitting home runs in t-ball. Score one for the techno-contrarians.
My next experience with technology is much more clear (~age 6) and it revolves around that little company that had the audacious goal of trying to make everyone “Think Different“. Ironically (at least with regard to my story), Steve Jobs parlayed his experience working at Atari into the eventual development of the Apple I personal computer. Jobs and Steve “Woz” Wozniak went on to found Apple Computer and the rest is history. Anyway, I believe it was around age six that my family bought an Apple IIe computer. I was the first of my classmates that I knew of that had a computer at home. My dad has always been interested in the latest technologies and we often had them at home.
I remember being quite enamored with the Apple IIe and it’s dual 5.25 inch floppy drive goodness. We went to this little specialty computer store to buy the computer and often returned to try new software and purchase it. One of the games I played a lot with was the edutainment program called Reader Rabbit. From what I remember, we got a bunch of the Reader Rabbit modules (e.g., math, language arts, typing, etc) and I used them quite a bit. Looking back, I wonder why my parents felt the urge to steer me toward learning with these tools? I understand that, being both educators, they wanted me to have the resources I needed to learn at home. Being a 5th grade teacher, certainly my mom had access to countless ditto sheets and other low tech learning tools. Either way, I think that this experience of learning on the computer at this age has had a profound impact on me. I remember feeling somewhat proud that my parents were so “innovative.” I used the computer with pride, celebrating every new thing I learned to do with it–it made me feel smart and it made me feel unique. Ultimately, what I think was implanted in me was a bent toward self-directed learning and a desire to learn in new and “cool” environments. I’m not sure if using the computer was the only antecedent, but I’ve always had this strong intrinsic motivation to learn alone and appear “smart.”
I remember one other poignant experience with the Apple IIe. I believe it was around the age of 8 or 9 that I become obsessed with the sitcom Doogie Howser. Doogie was a child prodigy who became a doctor at age 14. I wanted to be Doogie. The show influenced me so much that I put into practice one of Doogie’s most common activities — keeping a computerized personal diary (see clip below). At the end of every show, Doogie–being the renaissance man that he was–took to his personal computer to type down personal thoughts and reflections about what he encountered during that episode. For a fourteen year old kid, it was pretty profound stuff (at least to me). So I grabbed a 5.25 inch floppy disk, stuck it in the Apple IIe, fired up AppleWorks, and composed my first ever digital journal entry. I remember this well because my grandmother had just died, and I used this journal as a place to reflect on the experience of losing her and seeing my family struggle through the process. I don’t think I actually made of ton of entries, but I do remember this being a secretive and private thing for me. I would steal away to the basement to compose my thoughts on the screen. I don’t think my parents ever knew that I did this. It has been a secret that my little Apple and I kept until now. I sincerely wish I still had that data although finding a disk drive to read it might be a challenge.
The Awkward Years (aka teen purgatory)
OK, so purgatory is a probably a bit strong of a word to use here, but I don’t know anyone who really can say they loved the hormonal onslaught of pubescence. It really wasn’t that bad for me, but when you wear big thick glasses and a mock turtle-neck sweatshirt with “Harvard” plastered on the front, your social options as a young teen become somewhat limited.
During this period, we got a new Apple Macintosh Performa computer. More importantly, the Performa came with blazingly fast 2400 bits/sec modem. I was the one that unboxed the Performa and set it up. Once the computer was up and running, I set about trying to get the modem to work. I remember waiting through the absolutely obnoxious dial up sequence for what felt like a thousand times (why did modems have speakers?). It took me a long time to get connected properly. I would watch the little world icon spin on the screen, but it would never move to that blasted third icon of two little wires being connected. I was characteristically persistent and within a few days, I was happily surfing the WWW at glacial speeds with my trusty Netscape Navigator web browser.
Now I’m not sure why I was so keen on getting the modem up and running and instantly drawn to the Internet. There were plenty other interesting pieces of software that came with the computer including a whole encyclopedia on a disk (imagine that!). This was sometime around 1993, so the Internet wasn’t yet a ubiquitous socio-cultural phenomenon. AOL was just beginning its wildly successful campaign to bring Internet connectivity to the average Joe/Jane. I don’t remember a lot about first getting on the Internet, but I do recall feeling like I was just plopped down in a vast and foreign realm, pregnant with possibility, but difficult to navigate. It’s weird that while I could basically do nothing on the Internet, it still felt so cool and captivating. I felt like I was physically “out there”, teleported into a new realm if you will. I had used a lot of computer programs by this time and quickly realized that they were limited, definable, and predictable. The Internet, on the other hand, was this dynamic, limitless beast and what kid wouldn’t want to play around with something like that, right? This all also again brought me pride in that I had figured it out on my own and could tell others how to get onto the Internet. Imagine that, some 12 year-old kid showing college professors how to get on the Internet and send electronic mail. So I kept at the whole Internet thing and soon I was finding myself connecting to resources and other users in productive ways and finding myself in the less savory places on the WWW.
The Wild-West Internet Years (good, bad, and ugly)
Somewhere in my high school years, someone planted in my mind the genius idea that it would be better to have a PC than a Mac (there’s no wonder it ended badly). I purchased (well, my parents purchased) the fastest Dell Dimension available at the time and quickly installed a blazingly fast 2x CD burner all by myself. At about this time, I had a friend that somehow got hooked on Warez and the growing IRC communities forming around illegal content.** It was a pretty crazy thing and opened up a world to me that was both incredibly interesting and a bit scary. I remember being in these IRC chat rooms with hundreds of people chatting in code either trying to get access to some FTP server or trying to trumpet the latest piece of software that they had unlocked and parsed out for delivery. While this was a largely unsavory activity, it did cause me to learn a number of computer skills that I wouldn’t have otherwise cared about at the time. I learned a lot about FTP and servers. I also learned to be proficient with DOS and the many different file types that this content was delivered in.
**Disclaimer: For any digital right lawyers or future employers that might read this, I feel the need to say that I no longer possess pirated digital material of any kind. I think I realized even quicker than many of my cohorts that possessing such material was stealing and a serious crime. I have purchased every song, video, and piece of software that I currently use… so don’t sue me, OK?
During this time, I also got involved with Business Professionals of America. I was on the “presentation management” team that placed 3rd and 7th in the nation in consecutive years. I really loved this. Our competition involved writing a speech to promote some fictitious company and/or product as well as creating a multimedia presentation that went along with it. I cannot overstate how cool this was to me. My three other teammates and I would hole up for hours working on how to develop animations and graphics that would go along with our speech. We had to build a new computer that could handle the multimedia intensive aspects of our presentation, which wasn’t difficult since one member of the team, at age 18, already owned a computer business. I created many of the animations in our presentation with 3D Studio Max which was no small feat. I taught myself how to use this complex program, and although the animations were pretty basic by today’s standards, I was very proud of them at the time.
Again, it’s a bit hard to remember why I gravitated to something like multimedia presentation. I remember taking a computers class in high school and being recruited for the team because I was good at writing and using computers. There was again this “Doogie Howser thing” of doing things at a young age that adults could only marvel at. We did our presentation for the city commissioners and they had no idea how a group of teenagers could produce a presentation that looked like it was straight out of a Fortune 500 board room (probably a small exaggeration of our talents). There is also some aesthetic quality to multimedia that just resonates with me. It’s why I don’t mind wasting so much time creating and searching for graphics for this paper. I chose to write this paper on my blog just for that fact alone.
This all led to me getting my first educational technology job. The State of Michigan hired my BPA team to teach in-service technology trainings to inner-city Detroit teachers. I still remember my role was to teach these teachers what MP3s were and why they were becoming so popular. I remember popping my huge MP3 library on the screen and playing all sorts of music and sounds for them on my Winamp player. We also showed them how to make PowerPoint presentations. I took pictures of everyone with a new and, at the time, exotic digital camera and then made a funny PowerPoint presentation with snarky captions and drawings. They got a kick out of it. Anyway, I remember getting my big $75 check with the words “State of Michigan” printed at the top and really feeling weird about it. I mean, I just got paid to teach teachers about pirated music and multimedia. Obviously, the knowledge and experience that we were developing with technology was important to a lot of people and in high demand. For some reason I didn’t quite get that at the time, though. I had lots of other interests like sports and girls and I just never completely dove into this world. My other teammates parlayed their BPA and related technology experiences into highly successful careers. I am decidedly the least accomplished of the bunch. Perhaps I’ve always still held onto some of my conservative roots, holding out hope that life still ultimately transcends computers and digital information, that reading real books, flying real kites, providing a real hand of support, and writing poetry on real paper can still change the world. I’m not so sure anymore. I still believe in one transcendent thing/experience, but everything below that altitude is fair game, increasingly intertwined with this “tool” we create called technology.
The College Years and Beyond (commitment issues)
I went to college with my now-aging Dell Dimension computer. This was the first time I had access to high-speed Internet and it was quite amazing. Another related development was that dorm network systems quickly became ad hoc LANs connecting most students in a given dorm. These LANs were, at the time, completely unregulated by the university and so pirating music became a way of life for the average college freshman. This led to an unexpected experience for me. I was browsing through a friend’s computer via the network and bumped into a collection of poems she had written. Her avoidance of capitalization intimated at her preference to the work of ee cummings–someone I was also deeply influences by. So I started to write secret poems to this girl. Not love poems, but autobiographical stuff, stuff I was dealing with and didn’t have any other outlet for. I remained anonymous for a long time using a false pen name even as we became friends in the “real world.” We started to write back and forth, interacting face-to-face while holding a secret digital correspondence. At some point, I revealed my identity to her and we continued to share our writing with each other for a year or two.
Thinking back, I’m not sure what to think of this experience or what it means with regard to whether technology has changed me. What I do know is that this platform of communication was perfect for a thoughtful, emotionally immature, introverted, and somewhat-lacking-in-confidence individual. I’m almost positive that I wouldn’t have made this connection with another person without the capabilities of our dorm LAN. I probably never would have had the chance to read this girl’s poetry if it weren’t accidentally shared on the network. She probably never would have shared it and her writing wouldn’t have seen the light of day. I am sure that I never would have taken the risk of planting my writing in someone else’s stuff if I couldn’t hide behind the anonymity of the network.
As I’ve alluded to earlier, in moving through college and into graduate school, my immersion in and interest in technology was somewhat tempered by my desire to help people, specifically at-risk youth. These two things don’t, on the surface, seem like they would be mutually exclusive, but they have been for me at times. I did my master’s degree in human development and family studies because I wanted to learn how to better help the children and families I was working with. The usefulness of technology to this line of work just wasn’t that salient to me. I mean, when a family is in crisis, your knowledge of MP3s and PowerPoint doesn’t seem to be terribly helpful. You need to know people and what makes them tick. In some ways, the Internet, computer, and other technological gadgets seemed like a distraction of the privileged, insulating them from the needs of those around them. What’s more, it seemed like the indigent families I was working with were only wasting what little money they had on technology in some misguided pursuit to fit in with mainstream families. Technology often trumped the more basic needs of the family. Technology only seemed to further grease the wheels of family decay.
So I spent a number of years keeping technology at arm’s length. I wouldn’t say that tech went dormant for me, but it got marginalized as I aimed my education and professional life in another direction. Looking back, if I would have fully committed myself to technology, I’d probably be working one of those cushy six-figure IT jobs, but I digress (and I’m thankful).
Anyway, technology is moving back into the center of my life. Whether that means it’s returning home or just renting another apartment for a while is yet to be seen. What is clear is that technology has been a part of some very significant parts of my life. I am now re-immersed in technology, studying it full-time and working a part-time IT job. I voraciously consume information and pant at the ever-widening possibilities for learning on the web. I still steal away to be with my computer and learn on my own. I still feel somewhat safe hiding behind the technology, able to express myself to the world in highly-controlled dribbles. I still personify my technology and the computer I’m currently using is affectionately and appropriately called “Mac-ie.” It’s been good for me, it’s been bad for me. I still wonder if it really matters, if it helps me to be a better human, a better friend. I guess I’m still a bit confused.
If nothing else, technology and the Internet in particular has introduced me to the omnipresent “other.” You are the other. You are this vast, dynamic, seemingly infinite landscape of interconnected nodes staring at me. You are always there and as a highly conscientious introvert, I care a lot about what you think. I feel a as if I’m a part of you, but I’m suspicious of what you might do to me if I sign on the dotted line, carry the membership card. I feel proud and smart when I master a part of you, contribute something meaningful to the mix, or show others around parts of you that they have never seen before. I have been introduced to you and the world has forever changed, contracted. Many posit that the beginning of identity is being able to distinguish yourself from the world, separate but a part of it. If that is the case, I am still trying to distinguish myself from you, the nearly infinite you. I’m not sure if that is possible or what that looks like.
Some Quick Application (to be continued…)
There has been not shortage of optimists to trumpet the great advancements that technology is producing in our culture. Heading the list is Dan Tapscott and his two books on the subject: “Growing up Digital” and “Grown up Digital“. Much like some of my experiences, Tapscott notes the significance of a younger generation gaining knowledge at a much faster pace than the older generations, teaching the older generations. He calls this the “generation lap” saying, “kids are outpacing and overtaking adults on the technology track, “lapping” them in many areas of daily life (Tapscott, 2009, p. 28). In his exposition of his “digital natives” thesis, Marc Presnsky characterizes the change this way saying, “a really big discontinuity has taken place. One might even call it a ‘singularity’ – an event which changes things so fundamentally that there is absolutely no going back” (Prensky, 2001, p. 1). As I said, this is somewhat congruent to my experience of teaching in-service trainings to adults as a 16 year-old. Technology has certainly shifted the “knowledge hierarchy” between generations and within families. I don’t think this is a shift that can be underestimated. There has never been an modern era where the students so readily and pervasively have become the teachers.
Many have also forwarded the thought that immersion in technology is changing human cognition in positive ways. Tapscott, and others like Steven Johnson, often cite the fact that IQ and SAT scores have steadily risen over the decades with a steeper increase beginning around the rise of the Internet. Some like Henry Jenkins of MIT believe that the increasing amount of information-sharing on the Internet is producing what he calls “distributed cognition.” He argues that through the increased collaboration and information sharing facilitated by the web, individuals are able to expand their cognitive capacity. Prensky often suggests that technology is expanding cognitive capacity because of the amount of information that tech-savy learners have to learn to wade through to get their answers. He posits that having to sift through all this information and filtering out what isn’t necessary promotes problem-based learning. I think I see some of this in my own experience. From a very early age, I was using computers to explore issues and generate my own conclusions. Unlike the traditional direct-instruction I was getting in school, I think I have learned best by using technology to gather disparate nuggets of information and synthesize my own answers.
Now, there are plenty of opponents to the view that technology is making us smarter. Nicholas Carr speaks for many in this camp in his article entitled, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”. Among other things, he worries that fast-twitch search and streams of instant information streams are sapping our attention spans and turning us into robotic automatons. Mark Bauerlein is even more explicit about this thesis in the unnecessarily long title to his book “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future”. The title of his blog echoes the concerns of many in his camp: “50 Million Minds Diverted, Distracted, Devoured”.
I, for one, take a little offense to Bauerlein’s calling me the dumbest generation. That’s the type of needless, bombastic jabber that polarizes the issue and sells books while going nowhere productive. In case Mark hasn’t noticed, the Internet and digital technologies are becoming ubiquitous (and the vehicle for his opinions) whether anyone likes that or not. Thus, I take a pragmatic view: it depends. Just like pretty much every other advancement in human history, there are affordances and constraints associated with that advancement. Immersion in technology can be bad or it can be good. I think it can change and is changing us cognitively for the good and the bad. As such, we should stop wringing our hands about the bad that we can’t change and work on accentuating the positive affordances of technology. Things have moved so quickly in the past 20 years that we still know very little about what is going on developmentally and epistomologically in our culture.
Finally, I want to turn to a development-technology interaction that is infinitely fascinating to me although it is almost as mysterious: identity. This speaks again to my issue of dealing with the “other” represented in the totality of the Internet. There is no better thinker in this area than psychologist and ethnographer, Sherry Turkle. Citing Erik Erikson’s concept of identity moratorium, Turkle notes that mediated technologies allow us to try out “possible selves” in a somewhat safe way. When I started writing poems and sharing them on a network, I was in some ways trying out one part of my identity. The poem-writing, deep-thinking, and highly sensitive part of me came out “on the screen” where I could play with it and test it out on others. I think this was a positive thing for me that wouldn’t have happened without the technology.
Turkle’s idea of the computer as medium of projection, a Rorschach or “second self”, as she calls, is also a very provocative idea to me. Punya Mishra also touches somewhat on this idea in a more contemporary way in his article “On Becoming a Website“. Is our identity being inextricably and irreversibly intertwined with our technology? Are we becoming cyborgs? I think my own experience points in this direction. My life “on the screen” is increasingly becoming my life. I personify my computer equipment and treat it as an extension of my existence. Like some of those in Turkle’s ethnographic research, I would feel as if you killed a part of me if you killed my Macbook Pro.
Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants, On the Horizon, 9(5). 1-10.
Tapscott, D. (2008). Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World (1st ed.). McGraw-Hill.