Do we need technology to be connected? A critique of the so called “digital age”

John Taylor Gatto, in his famous polemic “Against School” (http://www.wesjones.com/gatto1.htm), articulated his experience of over 25 years teaching in New York City’s public school system and the failures the system has for fostering genuine curiosity for students. Yet no where in his essay does he claim that a need for more technology is needed for children to obtain this curiosity. One fundamental problem that we can flesh out of obtaining information from digital sources is not only authenticity, but the over-abundance of information. Ibn Khaldun, the famous historian of the rise-and-fall narrative of societies, once said to the effect that in his times, the proliferation of books was causing people to learn less. The well known axiom “less is more” can and should be applied to the concept of connected learning. Indeed one could claim that the narrative of the “digital age” leads to more information does not necessarily lead to the same conclusion that more learning occurs. This known experiential reality by most people was probably best articulated in Nicholas Carr’s piece “Is Google Making Us Stupid” (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/) where Carr argues how Internet jumping from one site to another has altered the brains capacity for depth. While we may have accumulated more information, it is a very shallow information at best. I would finally like to push-back somewhat against this assumed “digital age” that we all seemed to have ushered into; as a historian, the naming of “epochs” “eras” and “moments” is problematic because they imply a universal narrative that is actually contextual. Often the contextual masquerades as a universal. The videos presented here on connected learning assume to much weight as to what technology can afford us without observing the negativity that can come around with new technologies. But more problematically, it assumes that connected learning can happen the world over. Access to running water is a far reality let alone the internet in the world, and the wealth gap is only widening in the very societies that promise universal (actually national) education for all. Are we really living in a digital age? Or are the privileged living in it? I in no way am a luddite (someone who hates all new forms of technology), but I would echo Gatto, Carr and Khaldun that too much of anything is a bad thing; and that with new forms of technology, there are always people who lose out.

See also (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W86P_FX6PdI)

7 thoughts on “Do we need technology to be connected? A critique of the so called “digital age””

  1. I agree there are pros and cons for how the internet is changing our brains, what we remember, and how deeply we contemplate what we’re reading, but I’m more optimistic that it is a net positive.

    Regarding the point that connected learning is just for the privileged, that may be the case currently, but internet access is increasing steadily globally
    (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_Internet_usage). If you extrapolate the 3rd world trend, they’ll be at 1st world levels in 20 years. And that’s not considering Google’s efforts to provide global internet access (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Loon) or the fact that people are increasingly accessing the internet on their phones and cell phone ownership in Africa is increasing rapidly (http://www.pewglobal.org/2015/04/15/cell-phones-in-africa-communication-lifeline/). Internet access is probably an easier to solve problem than running water.

  2. Thank you for your post!

    In someways, I could agree with you on how google is making us stupid, and so is the digital age. Somehow, I see high school students who are struggling with their multiplication tables, because they’re used to using the world wide web, and in fact their high schools (here in Blacksburg) give them tablets to use in schools. Somehow, this calls for students to have the ability to perform certain things, without the web, and random resources. If they learn somethings, and use google in someways, that’s good. A middle ground is always good. Half of what I learned about my research, is from google scholar, after all, yes?

  3. I partly agree with the idea that information in abundance may not be the silver bullet that many are claiming it to be. However, I think that technology in itself isn’t that important. The impact of technology depends on the social and economic context in which it is embedded and subsequently used. Too much of exposure to technology is certainly a bad thing but, in a classroom context, the onus of managing technology and ensuring that students make the most from technology would lie on the teacher and other concerned stakeholders.

    Your article also highlights the need for technology designers and educators to pay greater attention to the social context and students’ learning experiences.

  4. “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end,… We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” Henry David Thoreau wrote this in the first chapter of Walden. I think you’re onto something when you point out that an over-abundance of information can shut down deeper critical thinking and perhaps we should seek to make local communities closer before connecting them globally. However, knowledge is power. You mention the absurdity of trying to connect everyone to the internet when many don’t have access to clean water. I can understand your sentiment but with the internet and all the information it brings it may very well provide those people with the means to secure their own water among other things. I think we are living in the digital age and privileged to do so.

  5. I appreciate the sentiment of this article, and wrote similarly in my own blog entry (at least from a critical mindset of the loss of relational learning). It seems that universities are absolutely forgoing depth in knowledge in exchange for breadth, and our graduates often show this. I am curious, with our agreement on the dangers of over-abundant information, how do we stave the tide?

    In my case, biology is the name of the game for my students. It is my approach to keep them in natural systems as much as is possible, providing tangible learning opportunities amongst the subjects we are studying (plants). It seems that relying less on digital classroom approaches and more on contextual experience drives critical thought more. Again, I am curious on your thoughts.

    Great post, and I look forward to seeing how your thoughts evolve through the semester!

  6. I share your nervousness about the swiftness with which we’ve embraced the concept of a “digital age.” In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera talks about a time when history “moved slowly,” juxtaposing it to “nowadays” when “history moves at a brisk clip.” But while I’m determined to hold on to an expansive understanding of history (one definition of which is simply “change over time”), I’m also compelled to acknowledge that the pace of change has accelerated and continues to do so – whether we are talking about the anthropocene or the digital age.
    The “is google making us stupid?” issue is one we take up later in the term (even though it’s so 2009!), but for a valuable (and I think more interesting) perspective on the challenges of dealing with an abundance of information (or “the shallows” as it’s sometimes called), check out David Weinberger’s Too Big to Know. It’s a provocative book, but one that helped me re-frame my approach to a networked world and to the historian’s task in the digital age.

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