more thoughts on technology ...

(And now you can read Matt's thoughts, written for a tech panel at his school, the panel being the genesis of all this thinking. Enjoy!)

So I was recently invited to be on a technology panel for a speaker series our PTA holds at CIS. I was asked to be the resident Luddite, which I am pretty well qualified to be. At least as well equipped as one can be who lives in Hong Kong. There were four of us on the panel and a moderator. It was fun, and I enjoyed bantering with such smart people. The moderator was Su-Mei Thompson, a CIS parent and staff at FT.com (the Financial Times). The other panelists were Kristie Lu Stout, creator and host of the CNN show News Stream; Cat Purvis, Partner and Founder of Exicon; and Jerry Szombathy, director of ICT at CIS. And then there was me, the potted plant. We each spoke for ten minutes (so it'll take you ten minutes or fewer to read) and then answered questions. Below, in my chatty style, is my script, along with some help from Jamie Lorentzen, my dear friend and former high school English teacher (if you're impatient, I'd skip to his quotation. It's a defense of reading that has become my go-to on darker days of teaching, and thus, aptly, is my text's conclusion).

There’s more to technology than the internet, right?
So what is technology? In preparation for this evening, I don’t know how many times I asked myself this question. What are we really talking about here? As I tried to answer what is technology in light of these last ten years, I continually and unthinkingly turned technology into “the internet,” “my laptop,” and “things I do on my laptop and on the internet.” This is indeed reduction, but a telling one. My repeated unthinking reduction reveals the force and prominence personal computers and the internet have in our daily lives. But first a definition of technology and the implications within its definition.

Technology Defined
Upholding a time-honored and truly lame research method, relied on by exasperated, desperate procrastinators, I turned to the dictionary—both in-print and on-line—to find our meaning. And to our good fortune tonight, both resources yielded interesting fruit.

According to our English Deptartment's fat Collins dictionary, our hefty go-to text for etymological history and crossword research, technology is “the application of practical sciences to industry or commerce.” According to The Free Dictionary (on-line), technology is “The application of science, especially to industrial or commercial purposes.” I find these definitions pretty interesting, and they pique what Luddite sympathies I have. We need to examine the nexus of science, industry and commerce, and I’ll do so as a Luddite might.

A Luddite
To most of us, being a Luddite means one of two things, if not both.

1. Being anti-technology
2. Being technologically inept

These are the people who claim they never receive our emails, who scoff at blogs and Wikipedia, who have huge beefs with web 1.0, let alone 2.0, and they’re hopeless with a remote control. They are also the people least likely to drop their cell phones into the toilet.

But let’s deepen our sense of what the Luddites were to deepen our understanding of technology. A bit of history. Luddism was an anti-industrial social movement in 19th Century England. Luddites, led by the fictitious Cpt. Ludd (so that their real leaders wouldn’t be arrested), protested against the introduction of new looms that would replace skilled—and thus, expensive—tradesman in exchange for unskilled loom operators. They were also protesting because these mechanized looms made inferior textiles. Obviously, mechanized looms and good value beat out quality and paying for quality. The real winners, of course, were the loom makers and the textile-factory owners. Even the unskilled weavers gained little because they could always be replaced by other hungrier unskilled weavers. So these skilled, angry, out-of-work weavers set down their shuttles and threads and took up their hammers, destroying these new looms. The Luddite movement gained so much steam—to use a metaphor from the Industrial Revolution—that breaking property such as they did became a capital offense. Matters became bloody and violent. Hence, we now have the disparaging term Luddite.

What a Luddite Sees
Had I had a Luddite around a few days ago, I would have been able to define technology more quickly. What a Luddite sees, and what we might miss, is that because industry and commerce are at the heart of the definition of technology, two critical features—efficiency and profit—are very often at the heart of new technology, very often the reason for the technology, rather than, say, quality or community.

A Luddite knows where the technological impulse comes from. Efficiency beat out quality. And machines beat out people. Essayist and modern-day prophet Wendell Berry said, “The Luddites thus asserted the precedence of community needs over technological innovation and monetary profit….”

But for all their crushing, it was the Luddites who were crushed by the force of technology. Could our own communities, the quality of our friendships or our own lives, be at odds with technology’s ends? Technology won, and it wins to this day. Additionally, we’re ever more living in an environment where efficiency and profit are definite impulses by virtue of our being in a technological environment.

In technology’s definition I hear no mention of the good life, Gross Domestic Happiness, a free world, or humans fully alive. I hear no mention of caring for one’s neighbor. In fact, much is made of the person I can connect with across the world—but far less is made of the important connections I must make with the person next to me. Could it be that technology, with its by-definition-orientation toward profit and efficiency, with its tendency toward expansion rather than restraint, is in fact a shady friend or classmate, gaining more than he’s giving, taking so much of our time under the guise of “our getting so much done in that time.” Or could it be that he’s a dear friend, actually giving us so much, shaping us in ways we don’t even know—ways we can’t even imagine or scrutinize? This friend, we’ll call him Techy, goes on about globalism and connection, but I find I have to prod him to take seriously a commensurate localism and to see the risk of disconnection when connecting elsewhere.

Globalism, Localism, Connection, and Disconnection
In a world of globalism, we must develop a mature localism. We must know where we come from and understand the complex economic and natural systems that bind us to the land and to one another, immediately to my neighbor, and to another on a distant continent. With technology today we love to talk about ubiquitous access. Facebook reminds us to whom we’re connected and forever suggests new possibilities. A common description of the internet is that it’s infinite—that all is possible, and all is connected.

But we forget that the internet actually resides somewhere. When I did research yesterday on what makes wrinkle-free cotton wrinkle-free (it’s treating cotton, by the way, with a form of formaldehyde), I was firing up servers on other continents. I was firing up cooling units, and those units were, by extension, firing up coal-fired plants, nuclear reactors, or drawing, in some way, on a power grid far away.

When Japan was hit by the earthquake and tsunami, we in Hong Kong for a time experienced slower internet speeds. A major trans-pacific cable was damaged. I realized that Japan, my mom, the NYT op-ed page, and my flat in Quarry Bay are all connected—by a big fat cable. The virtual is indeed rooted in the real, tethered by the concrete. Lest we forget this, nature reminds us, by heaves. We need to see all connections, virtual, social, economic and physical.

Likewise, in a world of connectivity, we must be wary of disconnectivity. Our kids tuning out at a family meal. Our tuning out of our kids, choosing the Blackberry. Mutual isolation as a family goes on-line together, separately. Choice and freedom to their fullest might not be richness or diversity but fragmentation and isolation. The irony of this is that by residing in an increasingly virtual world, we may not foster the connections that tie us to the earth and may not deeply respect the connections that have made communities communities or families families. By switching on, we risk switching off.

The Need for Speed vs. the Need for Patience and Patient Imagination
One of my main concerns is technology’s power to propel, its need for speed, and how our keeping pace may affect how we think, read, and relate in this increasingly plugged-in and powered-up world.

When we reckon with today’s technology—technology implies, implores perhaps, that our reading and learning can and must happen quickly. The internet never shuts down; there are no business hours, no public holidays, not even sunsets.

In the face of this, there is nothing about the internet that encourages patience. How long will we wait for a page to load or a video to buffer? Tellingly, unlike food, there is no slow internet movement.

I suppose that if we added up all sites designed to offer information, business, or entertainment, that would be most of the internet. And for all of these, speed is essential. That is to say, the majority of our activity on the internet is speed-needy. It’s a speed-needy environment.

But what kind of thinking, what kind of disposition does the speed of cyberspace inspire? I’ll answer that (and likely close, for lack of time) by reading from a recent letter I received from my former high school English teacher and now one of my best friends.

Why Read Books
(Caveat—more books are published each year. So what my friend says is a caution against a possible present age and the harbingers this present age offers.)

[T]he argument for the simple act of reading that I pitch to my students these days has to do with reading-as-corrective-to-a-nonreading-culture. The pitch goes something like this:

We are creatures whose capacity for remembrance is as great and profound as our capacity for forgetfulness. And our capacity for forgetfulness eclipses our capacity for remembrance when, in the words of Wordsworth, “the world is too much with us”—when, in other words, we are so busy or so distracted by the 1001 little things we habitually feel obliged to do every day (most commonly now on machines) that we forget even to what end or for what meaning we do what we do. Subsequently, I read books to remind myself of what I’ve forgotten, to come back to myself, to regain at least some intimation—if not a concrete sense—of meaning or purpose to my life. I read to recall whatever bent-up, bruised, better angel I still feel is somewhere and somehow attempting (sometimes successfully, most times not so successfully) to take flight in me. Like walking in woods or canoeing in the Boundary Waters or cross-country skiing in my neighborhood state park, reading (with its attendant requirements of solitude, quiet, and reflection, i.e. activities of a lost and forgotten world) centers me. It reminds me of that part of me that still may be able to defy all the world’s gravitational pull toward the lower bar that is its own puffed-up gravitas—even if the reminder comes only from time to time, or even if it comes only in my dreams. The very act of reading, whenever I make time for myself to read, makes me deny the very popular assertion that claims that there’s simply not enough time in the day to sit down and strive to seek out meaning in a life—not actually to discover some highfalutin objective and universal meaning of life […], but simply to strive to find a personal meaning to a life, some idea or even some hem of an idea worth living for.

[…] Which is why I always teach reading in this increasingly non-reading society. I used to think my mission was as idealistic and crazy as Don Quixote tilting at windmills. These days, I simply think that teaching students how to read a book (quietly, patiently, questioningly) is an issue that is eminently practical, pragmatic, and reasonable for the baseline survival of the human—and that teaching reading by reading good books offers the human imagination (namely, that driving wheel of all human endeavor) the greatest workout because language (unlike music, computer screen images, and visual arts like painting and films) requires the greatest amount of patience, solitude, and reflection via the reader’s own imaginative capacities (instead of some designer’s or film director’s capacity). A book, in other words, exercises the human imagination like nothing else.

Thank you.

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