Can We Have Too Much Technology?

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Maybe my reading has been a little one-sided lately, the weather is tempting me to spend more time outside, or it’s the fact that I’m trying to prepare for NECC while my cubicle is filled to the brim with new stuff for our research lab, but it sure has gotten me to think about the question whether there is such a thing as too much technology. Digital tools can be great, make our lives easier, and provide affordances for learning that we otherwise wouldn’t have. I have written plenty about that. However, I’ve also written about the idea that connected and connecting technologies don’t necessarily make us feel more connected, as well as the importance of balance.

Louv writes in Last child in the woods that in many ways we are losing touch with the most important part of our lives, and that is the environment that we live in (nature/Earth, whatever you want to call it). He specifically mentions that technology (more specifically computers and the Internet) is partially to blame for that, in that it provides merely a window into our world, cutting off many of our senses such as touch and smell. I agree with Louv here in that experiencing nature and the outdoors requires more than the visual and auditory senses. While it is great that I can go visit the rainforest or arctic by way of the Internet, I have a much more profound experience in nature by observing it in my own back yard.

In addition, Honore argues in his In praise of slowness, that while technology allows us to do things faster and more efficiently, essential parts of an experience may get lost in the process. Examples include cooking, health, relationships, and yes, education. Again, the question becomes, how much is too much?

John Naisbitt probably says it best in his High tech, high touch, as he talks about the ever inceasing importance of balance and that:

High touch must begin to inform high tech. High tech * high touch now means consciously integrating technology integrating technology into our lives… if progress is to be meaningful.

He goes on to say that often we develop and introduce new technologies faster than we can adapt to them. Just because we can create new technologies doesn’t mean we have to, at least not at the speed that we are able to. The current development of cell phone technology or web 2.0 tools are good examples of this. While these technologies are great, sometimes I wonder if we aren’t just jumping to whatever the latest gadget is just because it’s there, not because we should.

Don’t get me wrong, digital technologies are extremely important in our society today, including in our schools. However, I wonder if some of the backlash against these tools happens because of the fact that we are moving too fast, and hop from one tool to the next, from desktops and web 1.0, to laptops, mobile devices, web 2.0, podcasting, blogging, and wikis, and who knows what it will be next year….

So the question really becomes one of opportunity costs: what are we losing out on by our (over)emphasis and dependence on technology and our neverending quest for the lastest, fastest, and coolest tool? This is not a nostalgic call for a return to “simpler times”, but rather a challenge to think more critically about how we use digital technologies in our lives, including in education. In my opinion, this is something that’s really missing in schools. Schools are struggling to keep up even though they are investing lots of money and time into getting basic technology into classrooms (while simultaneously trying to figure out how to block access to more advanced tools). The thinking that does take place has more to do with how to block access to “dangerous and distracting” tools than to teach and learn about meaningful, responsible, and safe use of these tools, and that includes knowing when to embrace technology and when to push it back.

Finally, I think more of this type of thinking needs to happen in the ed blogosphere as well. While there is much quality writing on using new technologies for teaching and learning, I think we need to focus more on:

  • What technologies are best/most useful…. for the current realities of school. Some work, some don’t, at least in formal educational settings;
  • How we need to change teaching/learning and educational systems to meet the demands of society and technology;
  • How we need to change society and technology to meet the needs of education (it works both ways!);
  • How we need to change the mindsets of those in education to prepare students for the world beyond school

I wonder if the current lack of real answers to these questions has led to frustration among the likes of Will Richardson, who seems to be struggling as of late with his quest in bringing about real change. What do you think?

Image credit: “Truck”; simondavidson’s photostream:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/suzanneandsimon/439015062/

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