Tuesday, February 21, 2012

KCPW Radio Interview

Susan Matt (my spouse) and I were interviewed on KCPW today about our course "Are Machines Making Us Stupid?" Here is a link to the podcast on the KCPW site or listen to it here as well:

Segment 2: Living the Tech Life

Today’s conventional wisdom may be that a well-rounded life must include Facebook, iPhones and constant connectivity. But does technology and omnipresent media really enrich our relationships, boost our moods and enhance our intellectual capacity? Professors Susan Matt and Luke Fernandez join us to explore the question: Are machines making us stupid?

Dr. Susan Matt, Professor and Chair of the History Department, Weber State University
Dr. Luke Fernandez, Manager of Program and Technology Development, Weber State University

Saturday, February 11, 2012

William Powers and The Technological Humanities

Last week William Powers visited Weber State University and spoke about his book Hamlet's Blackberry. Recent articles in The Atlantic and in the New Yorker have cast him as a bit of a grouch about technology. Such portraits don't do justice to his message. While Powers says it can be beneficial to disconnect (via Walden Zones or via Digital Sabbaths) he's also quite upbeat about the ways that technology has drawn us closer together. The point in taking an occasional recess from our technologies and from our social connections is that it can complement our more social selves. By moving between these different experiences we can lead richer and more meaningful lives than if we simply seek one of these experiences while excluding the other.

He also isn't trying to dictate to anyone. Each of us needs to find our own balance between inner directed activities and outer directed ones. The way to find that balance is to examine our personal patterns of technology adoption and to identify the combination that develops this equilibrium in our selves. Diversity is good. If you don’t feel that the “world is too much with us” William Powers (unlike William Wordsworth) isn’t going to hold it against you.

Of course, in defending Powers, I'm not also trying to say that everyone needs to like his book. In fact, a portion of the students in the course I'm co-teaching this semester ( titled "Are Machines Making You Stupid?" ) took issue with Powers' claims about digital maximalism. (See footnote below.) That's fine. The larger point is that Powers visit sparked interesting conversations in our local community that complement ones taking place regionally, nationally and globally. Below are two short viral videos whose popularity suggest how salient these issues are in the zeitgeist (Powers showed them during his talk):

I. Disconnect to Connect

II. Girl Fall Into Fountain (sorry this one I can't embed)

Finally, if these issues seem present globally it's also worth noting that they are present historically. As our class is discovering, anxieties about technology are not new. We've been wondering for centuries whether our inventions are making us smarter or dumber, shallower or deeper. But just because we've been worrying about these questions since the time of Socrates doesn't mean we can stop worrying about them now. In order to adopt technologies wisely each generation needs to think these questions through anew. That's the curse (and blessing) of the "technological humanities."



For our first writing assignment we had students respond to the following question:

 In Hamlet's Blackberry, William Powers asserts that "we've effectively been living by a philosophy . . . that (1) connecting via screens is good, and (2) the more you connect, the better. I call it Digital Maximalism, because the goal is maximum screen time. Few of us have decided this is a wise approach to life, but let's face it, this is how we've been living."

For your first writing assignment, we would like you to respond to this assertion. Do you agree with Powers's claims here? If so, why? If not, why do you disagree? You might also consider the following questions: is it truly a philosophy (or is it something else)? Do we truly value maximum screen time? Is it truly how we've been living? 

 A significant portion of the class questioned whether digital maximalism was as pervasive as Powers claims. They did so by referring to examples in their own lives or their family's lives in which they had been able to spend time away from screens. They also were reticent to blame technology for any pathology or addiction that might emerge in the presence of technology. To do so, in their view, would constitute an abdication of personal responsibility.

While those criticisms are fine as far as they go, I hope, as the course progresses, to encourage them to dwell a little more on this issue. In my view, taking personal responsibility and finding blame in technology are not necessarily mutually exclusive or contradictory positions. In fact, often times they complement each other. By uncovering ways in which technology encourages certain behaviours while discouraging others we're in a better position to make informed and responsible choices about how to use our tools.

Getting students to speak with nuance about the ways that we shape our tools, and in turn, how tools shape us is a perennial challenge in courses like this. Students tend to think about these things in binary categories: either we're completely free beings who must take complete responsibility for the way we use our tools or we are "tools of our tools" who therefore can't have any responsibilities. Few consider whether there may be a spectrum of states in between these poles.

Beyond the conundrum of technological determinism I also hope that we get to explore digital maximalism in terms of Neil Postman's third idea:

The third idea, then, is that every technology has a philosophy which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards.

If digital maximalism isn't the "idea" or "philosophy" that is embedded in recent digital developments what philosophy is it then?