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Hamlet’s Blackberry–Part two

William Powers in his book Hamlet’s Blackberry continues moving forward through time to give examples of how people have been challenged by technology and how their challenges can provide thoughtful questions for us today as we consider how technology will impact our lives.  Last time I mentioned Plato, Seneca, Gutenberg, and Hamlet. Now we move forward with Ben Franklin,  Henry Thoreau, and Marshall McLuhan.

Ben Franklin was a very self reflexive guy, recording a list of virtues he wanted to adopt in his life and painstakingly detailing how he would go about becoming a better person. Using this example, McLuhan adopts Franklin’s practice and discusses how with every new technological device, there are three issues that need to be considered:

1. Functional (What are its best uses? What can this device do for us?)

2. Behavioral (What behaviors do I need to change or acquire in response to this?

3. Inner Human Dimension (How is this device affecting me and my experience? Is it altering how I think and feel? What are the effects on my day, my pace, my work, my home life?)

Although not tied directly to a particular new technology as the other earlier examples from the book were, these questions are important for us to consider as we move forward with our students. Simply using technology because its there, isn’t the point. We need to be just as thoughtful in how we adopt technology into the classroom as we would any other tool we might use. But these questions also are ones we should be asking ourselves as our lives become more awash in technology so that we are able to serve as positive role models for our students who are more and more at risk of being “addicted” to technology or misusing it.

In the 1800s railroads and telegraphs were the new technology that Thoreau and his contemporaries had to negotiate with. A quote of the time describing the telegraph could just as well describe the texting, twittering nation of today (minus the wires): “A slender wire has become the highway of thought. Messages follow each other in quick succession.” While Thoreau had Walden to escape to, Powers argues that in today’s digital society, there’s no where to go to truly escape as long as we still have a screen, be it a smartphone, iPad, laptop or tv. Two costs Powers says we are paying because of this is extreme busyness and loss of depth.

Marshall McLuhan, a philosopher who coined the terms “the global village” and “the medium is the message” would argue that if you feel overwhelmed by technology, you can take control by living more consciously (much like Franklin).  In 1962 McLuhan wrote The Gutenberg Galaxy in which he argues that the tools and technologies we use are actually extensions of our bodies. Before this book, people considered the message itself as the thing that mattered, not the medium in which it was delivered. But McLuhan demonstrates that when a truly big technological development comes along (such as the printing press), “the change is so dramatic that it produces a new kind of human being.” The question that Powers wants us to explore, a question that both Franklin and Thoreau would have echoed, is

“What kind of human being am I becoming in light of the new technologies I’m encountering?”

Click here for a Prezi version of the info in Powers’ Hamlet’s Blackberry.

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Hamlet’s Blackberry (Part One)

In Hamlet’s Blackberry, William Powers argues that we need a new digital philosophy that finds balance between connecting outward and inward. His goal in this book is to explore “a practically useful way of thinking about technology, so it serves the full range of human needs, inside and out”(100). Powers finds the answers of how to face the challenges tech presents by looking to the past. He explores examples of past technologies and people’s reactions to them to shed light on how concerns we should be considering as we learn to negotiate an ever changing digital world.

In the days of Plato & Socrates, the new technology was the written language which started replacing oral communication. Socrates feared that writing would cause people to use their memories less and would eliminate the back and forth communication that speaking offered.

He misjudged writing because he judged it through the lens of the old tools (speaking), an error we still make today.

Writing actually provided a lot of benefits, allowing us to bridge the distances between people (oral communication could only happen in close proximity—at least in Plato’s day); and writing allows us to reflect and ruminate later at our own pace and repeat ideas until we understand them.

But as is often the case, the improvements made by a technology can also cause other problems. By the time Seneca arrives on the scene, writing had grown to the point of the great library of Alexandria and the new challenge was how to handle the increased libraries and mailing. People were awash with info, but not necessarily knowledge.

In an age saturated with info, we have to pare down and decide what is most important or necessary. The paradox of information is that the more there is available, the harder it is to be truly knowledgeable.

In 15th centuryEurope, Gutenberg’s printing press caused another radical technological shift, changing reading methods from a public, shared activity to a private one, and increasing the type and quantity of information available to the masses. By Shakespeare’s day, the printing press had made the proliferation of reading materials overwhelming. Powers points out: “Over and over in history, new technologies arrive that play to our natural maximalist tendencies. At the same time, quietly but persistently, there’s a need to find balance.” (154-55). This balance was found by using another “new” tool, a reusable “tablet” that allowed a person to jot down notes and then erase them later. This offered a way for people to pare down.  Much like in Seneca’s day, people felt the need to find a way to slow down and sift through what was really important.

What tools will we provide our students with that will help them sift through the plethora of information and help them deal with the feeling of being overwhelmed?

Stay tuned for the next installment featuring Franklin, Thoreau, & McLuhan.