The 2013 holiday season is now concluded and I feel like I’m suffering from “technology advertisement withdrawal.”
Is it me or was every other holiday commercial about smart phones, smart TVs, and smart fathers who got their kids the perfect gift for Christmas — some sort of smart technology device?
The frequency of these commercials, no doubt, is a sign of our perpetually logged-in and signed-on times. But the sheer abundance of these messages left this 50-something teacher and father with an uneasy feeling.
Most distressing to me was an ad for Apple smart phones. In it, a teenager accompanies his family on a holiday vacation, but he never looks away from his cell phone. Relatives are ice skating, frolicking in the snow, and decorating Christmas trees while the boy dispassionately stares at his phone — a typical 21st-century teenager, it would seem.
As the commercial comes to a close, however, we learn that the boy was filming his family the entire time. Indeed, his cell phone is not some malevolent diversion, but rather a camera that enables the teenager to produce a holiday film that brings his relatives to tears. All is not just okay with the world, but actually better — thanks, of course, to modern technology!
And so it goes in public schools. Educational technology has advanced so that students today can use personal devices to become better learners. Aside from technology’s connectivity that gives students perpetual access to the Internet, teachers now connect with students via Twitter, blogs, and YouTube videos.
School districts, including mine, recognize this reality and have instituted policies of BYOD — “bring your own device” — allowing students to use their own gadgets (mostly cell phones) in the classroom. It’s a policy that I have found helpful — at times.
It is now commonplace for students to text as they walk the hallways. Moreover, deliberate texting has spilled into the classroom now that cell phone use is permitted in schools.
I’m leery about the situation; I question whether schools have dived too quickly into this ocean of technology.
Clearly, I’m not unlike other technology skeptics — people like Conrad Gessner, who worried that the modern world “overwhelmed people with data and that this overabundance was both ‘confusing and harmful’ to the mind,” explains Vaughan Bell in a piece for Slate.
Gessner actually wrote a book about it. In 1565. Regarding the printing press.
Alarmists like Gessner have existed throughout history, from Socrates, who believed the written word would ruin human memory, to Nicholas Carr, who wrote for the Atlantic a 2008 article headlined, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
Yet, humans have survived — indeed, thrived — in spite of the evil advances of the written word, radio, TV, and the Internet. My skepticism of the current cell-phone culture makes me just one more technology-averse Chicken Little.
“The writer Douglas Adams observed how technology that existed when we were born seems normal, anything that is developed before we turn 35 is exciting, and whatever comes after that is treated with suspicion,” writes Bell.
“This is not to say all media technologies are harmless, and there is an important debate to be had about how new developments affect our bodies and minds. But history has shown that we rarely consider these effects in anything except the most superficial terms because our suspicions get the better of us.”
So yes, I am suspicious — I can’t get that Apple commercial out of my head. Nor can I blithely accept high school students resisting even a temporary separation from their cell phones.
The kid in the Apple commercial no doubt made his family happy with the help of his smartphone, but what about the kid himself? While his family participated in actual holiday events, he was disconnected. Wouldn’t his relatives have been even happier if the boy had simply joined them in their activities?
I am similarly suspicious with educational technology: Somewhere in those cell phones, within those tablets, behind those Twitter posts, are living, breathing people. As a teacher, I can’t ignore those people. What’s more, I can’t allow my students — human beings — to miss the actual life that’s happening around them while they’re distracted by technology.
Who knows? Maybe the 2013 holiday commercials were an anomaly, to be replaced next season by more redeeming ads. Then again, don’t trust my judgment — I’m no Socrates, after all.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who also teaches courses in journalism and media literacy at Haddam-Killingworth High School. .