Connectedness: High Tech and Low Tech

There seems to be a lot of debate about the amount of emphasis on technology in our society today and its impact on young people.  In fact, just over the weekend I watched an interview of Simon Sinek and read a blog post by Peter Diamandis that expressed quite different perspectives.

Sinek is an ethnographer by training and an adjunct of the RAND Corporation.  Sinek has received a lot of acclaim through his TED talks and books, and most recently his commentary on the millennial generation.  He makes the case that social media and other technologies are highly addictive because they release the same chemical that other addictive activities like drinking, smoking and gambling release: dopamine. He claims that too many young people don’t know how to form “deep, meaningful relationships” because they are addicted to their devices, rather than being present with the person sitting right next to them.  He argues that technology has helped to foster instant gratification among young people and an impatience that in turn leads to job dissatisfaction and a lack of joy. Listening to the interview, I realized just how much I have become addicted to my device and I am not a digital native as our students at Roycemore are. Given that they have grown up with iPads and cell phones, their challenge is even greater.

Diamandis is the Founder and Executive Chairman of the XPRIZE Foundation.  He was named by Fortune Magazine as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders,” and is an entrepreneur that has started over 20 companies, many with a focus on the future.  His favorite saying is “the best way to predict the future is to create it yourself.” As a futurist, it is understandable that Diamandis has a different perspective on technology than Sinek.  In his “Thanksgiving 2028” post, he argues that we tend to romanticize the past and are resistant to change. To make the case he shows a recent photo of people on a train with their heads in their cell phones juxtaposed with a photo from the past of people on a train with their heads in newspapers.  Same thing, different “technology.” Diamandis believes that technology allows us to connect with people we actually want to be connected to (versus those we “have” to be connected to), regardless of where in the world they are located. He shared that over the Thanksgiving holiday he was in touch with family and friends through FaceTime, Skype, texts and other technology that gave him the opportunity to be connected even though they were far away.  It is his belief that technology will continue to advance and that within the next ten years half the people around the dinner table will be joining holiday celebrations through Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality.

I can see merit in the points of view of both of these individuals.  I don’t tend to take an all-or-nothing approach to the issue. Just as many things in our lives are wonderful, there can be too much of a good thing.  Think pumpkin pie! Welcome Alka Seltzer! So here are my thoughts on how we might think about “connectedness” when it comes to technology.

Diamandis believes that the use of technology by young people provides an advantage to their ability to stay connected to others that they “want” to be connected to.  This is great when it comes to connecting with friends and family who are in far away places, however, I wonder to what extent this kind of connectedness in bringing like-minded people together further escalates a growing polarization in our society.  Social media has algorithms that suggest sites to follow based on your browsing history, “likes,” or “follows.” Advertisements (political or otherwise) are also targeted based on your prior online browsing history. If we are not careful, we can easily create a cocoon of experiences and interactions that are very homogenous, surrounding ourselves with people and information that reinforce existing beliefs rather than challenge us to think differently.

While there is the potential for creating greater rigidity in our beliefs because of technology, it is also true that because information is more accessible than ever before, the ability to learn from others with different viewpoints is far greater than it was even just a few years ago.  If we want to ensure that we stay open minded to different points of view, we must be intentional in our practice to ensure that we are not just mindless consumers of whatever comes our way. Schools must do their part, in partnership with parents, to help students become good consumers of technology.

In order to stay open to different points of view, we must teach our young people to be discerning in their technology use.  They need to learn how to ask good questions and to consume information with an understanding of what lens the information provider is looking through.  In school, we can support our students in building connections with each other through low-tech, old-fashioned face-to-face dialogue–teaching them how to have respectful conversations even when they don’t agree.  In fact, at Roycemore, we have classes where students are intentionally assigned to argue for a position they don’t agree with at times so they can better empathize with someone who holds a different point of view or perspective.

On the other hand, a high-tech approach, used appropriately, can add additional perspectives to the conversation, such as in a Roycemore Middle School Humanities class where students Skyped with a practicing Muslim woman who is also an expert on Islamic and Persian/Iranian art. Bringing her perspective into the room to enhance classroom studies of different world religions provided students with an authentic lens to better understand the lives of people with whom they might not otherwise interact.  In the future, technology could provide our students the opportunity to “walk in the shoes” of someone from a different race, religion or ethnicity through virtual reality or augmented reality. If students are taught ways they can use technology to take down the walls of difference and truly bring us closer together, perhaps we they can form the “deep, meaningful relationships” that Sinek espouses. Deep, meaningful relationships that most of us would hope for.

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