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Technology addiction?

This morning at TGIF Dr Marlena Kruger spoke on the impact of our technology addiction.

I think she made some useful points, for example that young children learn more from playing with hands-on toys that from playing with simulations of them on a computer screen.

Shape sorting toy

Shape sorting toy

When our kids were small, they had one of these shape sorting toys. It would be possible to design a computer app to match the same shapes to spaces on the screen, but kids learn a lot more by handling the shapes, coordinating their sense of sight with the sense of touch by feeling it, and yes, putting it in their mouths.

So playing with computer apps is no substitute for playing with actual things in the real world.

But the problem with this kind of talk about “technology” is that people seem to get locked into a narrow two-dimensional world like a computer screen. What do we mean by words like “technology”?

Consider, for example, this article, which seems to be making a similar point to that made by Dr Kruger — 10 Reasons Why Handheld Devices Should Be Banned for Children Under the Age of 12 | The Huffington Post:

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Society of Pediatrics state infants aged 0-2 years should not have any exposure to technology, 3-5 years be restricted to one hour per day, and 6-18 years restricted to 2 hours per day (AAP 2001/13, CPS 2010). Children and youth use 4-5 times the recommended amount of technology, with serious and often life threatening consequences (Kaiser Foundation 2010, Active Healthy Kids Canada 2012).

Think about it for a while, especially the heading, because it is an example of tunnel vision — like limiting yourself to the number of pixels on a computer screen, and seeing nothing outside that.

What is a “handheld device”? A pen, a pencil, a crayon, a pair of scissors — all these are handheld devices. All these are technology. Specialists in early childhood education have been saying that children should learn to handle such things long before they start school.

Ah, you say, but those are mechanical devices, and we are talking about electronic devices.

But experts in early childhood education say that listening to music is important for the development of young children. Does that mean you are going to take your toddlers to symphony concerts? No recordings, because playing recordings nowadays usually requires electronic devices — when last did you hear a wind-up gramophone played? No discos, because there they use electronic devices to amplify the music.

I’m not simply being pedantic here. Before making huge generalisations about “technology” and “hand-held devices” we need to see the three-dimensio0nal world beyond the computer screen. When you dig in a garden you are using a hand-held device and a spade is technology. Technology is part of what makes us human. Saying that children under 2 should have no exposure to technology is insane. No cooked food, because cooking uses technology.

huntgathEven hunter-gatherer societies use technology, at least for the “hunter” part. Without technology we would just be gatherers.

So when we talk about being “addicted” to technology, we need to think about the wider meaning of technology, and the extent to which technology has made us human.

And when we speak of a remedy for addiction to technology, we need to think about whether the addiction is to technology, or to something else that the technology is used for.

When television was invented, people learnt how to send images to a cathode-ray screen (later LCD) in a remote location. At first, in television, the image was controlled by the sender. The receivers were passive. They could perhaps choose between images sent by different senders, but they had no control over the content of the images received.

Technophobes lamented the bad influence on children — “the flickering blue parent” was one phrase bandied about.

But it was not the TV that was generating the images. They were being sent by people who decided on what was sent, to serve their own purposes. It was one-way communication, yes, but it was one-communication from one group of people to another. The technology facilitated the communication, and to some extent determined it (yes, I’m old enough to have been influenced by Marshall McLuhan, and maybe I’ll say more about him some other time) but it was still communication from people to people.

For me it was a huge liberation when personal computers came along.

Yes, there I was looking at images on a cathode ray tube (CRT), but they were images that I put there. They were things I could control. For a while the rest of the family thought I was opting out of family life. I was “playing with the computer” instead of being sociable and watching TV with the family. That was tantamount to being accused of being addicted to technology. But it wasn’t. If I wrote a letter on the computer, I was no more addicted to the computer as technology than I was addicted to the typewriter before I had a computer, or addicted to a fountain pen before I had a typewriter.

In every case I was “using technology” to communicate with other people, and what I was doing was not “playing with the computer” any more than a handwritten letter is “playing with a pen”. Yes, I do sometimes play with a pen. I twiddle it, I idly click a ballpoint pen so the tip comes in and out.  But using it for a task is not “playing with it”. Is doodling “playing with” a pen? Idly and absentmindedly drawing little pictures? Is sketching fellow participants at a meeting playing with a pen? Perhaps great art exists because some people were addicted to playing with the technology of paint and paintbrushes.

One of the things Marlena Kruger said was coming home and putting your cell phone down and not touching it. Abstain from using the cellphone, because people are more important than the device.

But on Wednesday night we went to church in Brixton, Johannesburg. On the way home at 9:30 pm, on a badly lit road, with cars with bright lights coming the other way, we hit a pothole which dented the wheel rim so the tyre went flat. It was the first time in 11 years and 250000 km that we had had a flat tyre. Where is the jack? We’ve never had to use it before.

So I phone my son, who is a Toyota mechanic and knows these things. And ask where is the jack (it’s dark, you see). It’s under a plastic cover under the front passenger seat. You’d never find it by feeling for it. And how do you remove the cover, and how do you get it out?

But if he switches off his phone, because he’s not going to be addicted to it, it’s not a mere device. There is a person at the other end of the device. So by switching off the phone, you are switching off the person.

So speaking of “technology addiction” can be a bit simplistic. Your addiction can be to the device, like a cell phone, but more often it is addiction to what you do with the device. A cell phone is mainly used to communicate with other people. And you have the stereotype of a group of people all sitting together, all using their cell phones. Are they addicted to their phones? Not necessarily. What it means is that they prefer to communicate with people elsewhere than communicate with the people they are close to at that moment. The problem is not so much with the device used to communicate, but with human relations, that you would rather communicate with someone other than the people you happen to be with.

I said personal computers were a liberation, and its true. I can store information on my computer and find it much more quickly than if I had written it down on bits of paper. I’m writing an essay or an academic paper or even a blog post, and I need to verify the date of a historical event. Google leads me to that information much more quickly than trying to see if I have a reference book that has it.

E-mail was a liberation too.

I used to hate phoning people, and still do. I don’t know if I will be interrupting them when they are doing something important. If I send them e-mail, then they can read it and reply to it at their convenience.

But the people who liked the one-way, one-to-many model of broadcasting did not like this liberation. They wanted their captive audience. And Microsoft developed Windows 98 which was the first version of Windows to be integrated with the Internet, and the developed “push” technology for it. It was an attempt to re-enslave people that personal computers had liberated — by networking those computers and then pushing stuff at them.

And now cell phones use “push” technology too. My smartphone had “push” notifications for Facebook and Twitter, which drove me mad until I found how to switch them off (they don’t give you a manual, so it’s not easy to find out how to do that). So yes, cell phones are useful, but they can drive you mad. And there’s even a cell phone advertising itself with the slogan “Never miss a moment” — you’ll be so busy not missing moments that you’ll never have a moment to do anything.

But even though this is labelled “push technology”, it is not the technology that is doing the pushing. It is people doing the pushing. Yesterday I downloaded 90 emails and 85 of them were spam, sent to my “junk and suspicious mail” folder and deleted in bulk. They may have been sent by bots, but it was people who programmed the bots to send them.

Then back to TGIF, where technology, even electronic technology, was not absent.

TGIF: technology addiction. Two laptops and a projector

TGIF: technology addiction. Two laptops and a projector

I’m not against using educational technology. At one time I used some quite complicated gadgets to improve students’ reading skills, or at least show them how they could improve their won reading skills. But there is also this: Universities should ban PowerPoint — It makes students stupid and professors boring – Business Insider:

Overreliance on slides has contributed to the absurd belief that expecting and requiring students to read books, attend classes, take notes and do homework is unreasonable.

Courses designed around slides therefore propagate the myth that students can become skilled and knowledgeable without working through dozens of books, hundreds of articles and thousands of problems.

I’m not sure I agree with that article either. A lot depends on the content of what is being taught. Some topics can be enhanced by the use of slides, and others not. I must say that in this morning’s presentation I paid very little attention to the slides, and can remember little of what was on them

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