Technological Literacy

I’ve been thinking a lot about technology lately. There are times when I feel I have made it too big a part of my life.  While I tend to be positive about this new age we live in, as I’ve written before, there are times when I feel like I might not be made for it because it can get very draining.  I see too much of the compassionless banter in comments sections or Facebook threads; story after story of tragedy, injustice, or prejudice.  Then there are times when I miss it.  There are people I have good conversations with over the internet.  There are moments where I laugh, and there are plenty of moments when I learn something valuable, something important, and something that will make me a better person.  I think about my many friends, some who I have known in person and live far away from, and I can still keep in touch and follow their lives to a certain extent.  I care and wonder about them often and the internet gives me ways of staying in touch that would be harder without it.  Some friends, I have never even met in real life, yet all of who I enjoy learning from, getting to know better, and some who have become as close as any other friend in my life, always provide me with an enriching experience.  In some ways I feel like my life would be less for not having met them and am thankful I have this thing called the internet that has such long arms that I can reach across the world and hold on to people that seem amazing to me and when they reach back I know it’s the beginning of a wonderful relationship.

I’ve been listening to a podcast on NPR called Invisibilia and one episode on there is looking at how computers have changed our lives and how they might change our lives in the future. What’s interesting is that you find many people who have zero problem with the way computers and related technology (smart phones, tablets, Google glasses) have become a regular part of our lives and have made us better humans.  They are ready for the future and all the wonders it will bring.  One gentleman named Thad Sturner believes that in time humans will have interfaced with computers so completely that eventually we will all become essentially cybernetic.  Those that have lived more “integrated” lives claim that the technology has made them better in every way, from how well they do their job to more meaningful face to face interactions with other humans.

Still of course there are those who have a not so favorable view of it. It can be addictive like anything else, and often not in a healthy way.  The validation we often get when we post things on-line through likes and comments can often give us a dopamine release but doesn’t necessarily help us really solve problems we might have or understand issues that make us upset.  A study of Chinese tweets found that anger was the most common emotion expressed over social media, and the anonymity of the internet can cause many people to let out cruelty that they would never let out in a face to face situation.  However that anonymity can also allow people to participate in discussions and express themselves in positive ways, that they may be too shy to do face to face, or because of societal pressures that prevent them from expressing themselves in ways that they would wish.

Rather than spend a lot of time posting all the research about how social media and the internet has or can change us, what’s clear is that academically a lot of people are studying it. People find adverse effects and positive effects.  It seems to me that most of what gets posted are negative impacts of technology or that our choices are between using technology and dealing with the consequences or backing away from it because it is seen as an unhealthy source of stress, shame, or anger.  But perhaps the time has come where we shouldn’t be trying to fight technology.  Our children are going to be immersed in this world, and while there is no doubt that developmentally children need time away from the screen, they are still going to be using smart phones, and tablets, and computers regularly in their lives.  So what they really need from parents, teachers, and society is the simple acceptance of this fact and need to be taught what are the harmful and beneficial behaviors in this new world of the internet and social media.  They need to learn about better ways to communicate through this medium.  They need to be reminded that technology is always a tool to be used as a means to end, and not the end itself.  As a tool, the internet, computers, social media have a vast variety of uses some good and some bad; some enhancing our functions, some suppressing or adversely shaping our functions.   As parents of this next generation we must help our keeps be effective navigators in this digital world, not just literate in finding information and surfing the web, but navigating the emotions, the attitudes, the pitfalls, and the advantages of this world.  Just like being aware of cognitive biases helps us perceive the world in a better way.  Being more aware of the impacts of computers in our lives will help us utilize the technology better.  I would support modern research about the interaction between humans, computers, and social media being used to design a curricula to be taught to school children. Perhaps around middle school.  I think it’s become that important.

I had recently reblogged a couple of good ethics posts about robots and artificial intelligence and what challenges our future holds. This era is coming sooner or later and so it’s time we gave up the fight against these technologies and start using them in a more moral and impactful way.  I say this not in any kind of judgment either, but rather as one who struggles with this myself.  We need to gain the literacy and positive ethics with this technology so that as new technology develops with the potential to be more world changing, that we can don’t find ourselves behind the curve as we seem to be today on the more negative aspects.

I for one am making a vow that I am going to work to use technology in a way that enhances me  and my world instead of diminishing me and my world.

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21 thoughts on “Technological Literacy

  1. Superb post, especially your last sentence. As you are aware are hardwired to focus on the negative more so than the positive, so it takes conscious effort to redirect that focus. I tend to use the negative found in social networks as a backdrop for promoting positive change. I can’t imagine my life without the Internet. It literally saved my life.

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        1. Lol I do. I think the internet is such a broad word that it’s impossible to really categorize as to whether it is a wholly good or bad. It’s like saying this country is bad when in actuality it’s only elements that one dislikes. Like you said it’s making that effort to focus on positives over negatives.

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          1. I can’t remember whose blog you said it on, but your comment was spot on with regard to (an I’m paraphrasing) there being so many positive things in the world, but we are bombarded with negative images and stories everyday, so that we can be led to believe that the world, as a whole, is a terrible place. There is a WP blog I follow, The Kindness Bog, and it brings a smile to me everyday. I also read a website http://www.goodnewsnetwork.org/ and it is also very uplifting and informational.

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  2. That’s a very thoughtful post Swarn. I too think there are a bunch of pros and cons. I think it’s far too easy to time waste, especially on FB, which I only use for work. And therein, immediately, is a pro. It puts people in touch for work. No meetings no thing. Just a few emails. And locally it works for a few small jobs for my partner. And, I learn loads from people’s blogs. It’s like having a personal news filter, or a personal specialist subject researcher delivering topics to me.

    I am however glad that I went travelling pre-Internet and pre-smart phones. It sounds utterly dull these days. Where is the excitement of trying to connect with family long distance from the central exchange in Bombay (as was) or Bangkok? That no longer exists. A few seconds and you are in touch 😦 We sent postcards, rather than posting selfies to FB. There was a real feeling of independence, excitement, adventure.

    My partner has always been very pro IT, buying mobiles when they were suitcase-sized, an Amstrad back when you could buy computers without hard drive, and endless fax machines when nobody domestic ever had one. In these days of email, we’ve still got one, and it occasionally gets used.

    As for social relationships? I don’t know. It’s easy to let people fall off the end when you’ve never met them, but it’s easy to do that IRL too. Perhaps when we have generations unused to any other life, there will be a new equilibrium.

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    1. Thank you for your kinds words and insightful comments. While I am not sure of your exact age I am going to lump us into the same age category, because in some way we do share something in common in which we are alive in the age of transition. Having computers, and perhaps more importantly having mobile computers that can connect to the internet for purposes of communication is a pretty big game changer when you compare it to how things were before. Of course it starts with launching satellites and inventing computers, but from a consumer point of view it really wouldn’t come into everybody else’s until the 90’s. My point being that people of our ilk or going to have I think have a much stronger “all or nothing mentality” because we know what life was like without it, and we know that we survived just fine. And it’s people like us who tend to dictate the conversation in the media, in research etc. So I really like what you said about there being a “new equilibrium”. I can’t even conceive of the mindset that my son will have which is that a smart phone is an absolutely normal part of everyday life, and of course I suspect by the time he is in his mid-20’s that will also be a relic from the past. I guess most importantly communication will have an entire new dimension for him which is absolutely normal, where as for me it still seems in some way like “the new way of communicating” and I actually pay attention to how this “new way” benefits or hurts the way I behave. For my son, he won’t even pay attention to it. Which either means that his equilibrium will be different and it doesn’t matter that he doesn’t pay attention, or else perhaps it becomes more harmful when we don’t pay attention and that means we have to make sure to really educate this next generation about how this technology interacts with their human wiring.

      And you make an excellent point, that I still have not found an excellent counterpoint by those in favor of all this technology that always having the power to “be somewhere else” through your smart phone prevents you from really living in the moment. A friend of mine said once that “nowadays we spend our time recording our lives, rather than living it”. And I think that’s a fair point. Psychologically the best place to be is in the moment, and so I do think that is something we need to pay attention to. One thing we are not going to be able to do anytime soon is be able to predict the future, and even if we somehow did, you can still only do things in the moment, so knowledge of the future doesn’t help you so much if you aren’t paying attention to what you are doing now.

      I am a big proponent of having vacation time where you are unplugged. I find it so freeing. But perhaps I only feel that way because of being alive in this time of transition. Perhaps my son will feel differently. I guess only time will tell. 🙂

      Sorry for the long response. Just had my morning caffeine and my mind took off! lol

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  3. Have you read David Brins $2 novella, Stones of Significance? It’s a truly wonderful, brain-orgasming story…. and it concerns, in some small ways, and in some large ways, the issues you address here, but in a post-synchronicity world.

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  4. A good thought-provoking post Swarn. I do enjoy your balance on a subject. 🙂

    While waiting in the orthopeadic doctors office earlier last week, read this fine related article from the Sept. 21, 2015 Time magazine “Can We Save Conversation?“:

    In this hyperconnected age, the best surprises come when we stop, ask — and listen.

    People call conversation a lost art, which is odd in an age of constant communication. Surely we are talking more than ever, if by talking we mean texting or tweeting or posting, which we frequently do even in the presence of other people to whom we could be talking if some dire digital glitch were to shut down all our devices simultaneously.

    And so many conversations are fast, furious, in binary form—Israel or Palestine? Hillary or Bernie? Taylor or Nicki? When so many sound so certain about so much, there is little left to talk about, no interest, no appetite, just attitude.

    True conversation, the analog kind, face to face, ideally around a table, over food and drink, is perhaps the least efficient form of communication. It requires the patience to listen and the courage to learn, to be surprised, to arrive at a conclusion you’d never have foreseen when you set out from your home harbors. And it is fueled by the kind of questions you wouldn’t normally think to ask.

    Journalists spend their time asking questions, typically in the hope of assembling evidence and finding answers. But some of life’s most provocative questions aren’t answerable. For this issue [Question Everything] we decided to celebrate uncertainty…

    Time.com link: http://time.com/4028512/can-we-save-conversation/

    This article asked several good questions, like “Will Robots need rights?” and “Is Monogamy Over?” and the one I found most provactive and you’ve touched on here, “Should we let ourselves be anonymous online?” The pros-and-cons answers (2 or 3 per question) were enlightening if not surprising.

    I think you’ve hit on an important position as parents Swarn: We must teach our children a balanced awareness of the positives AND negatives of increasing technology. Sometimes we need it, other times we don’t. Is this “device/machine” enabling us to become TOO DEPENDENT, making us weaker, or does it enable us to safely further and better human existence, possibly to other planets? Reference to the 2014 film “Interstellar” which tries to tackle many of these exact questions.

    Great post Swarn. Thank you! 🙂

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    1. Thanks for your kind words and comments professor. From the article: “True conversation, the analog kind, face to face, ideally around a table, over food and drink, is perhaps the least efficient form of communication. It requires the patience to listen and the courage to learn, to be surprised, to arrive at a conclusion you’d never have foreseen when you set out from your home harbors. And it is fueled by the kind of questions you wouldn’t normally think to ask.”

      This is the type of thing I’m talk about where people around our age start talking what real conversation is, and what it is not. The point is that what is “Real conversation and communication” is different from every era. I am sure there were similar criticisms when the phone became popular. There are no hand gestures, you can’t look into people’s faces, you sometimes are doing other things while you are talking on the phone with someone, etc. I know many people who ask questions they might never have the courage to ask in real life, and good ones. I know people who do communicate in thoughtful ways through writing. You being part of that. I think we could certainly make communication through writing a more meaningful interaction if we set our minds to it. So it’s a matter not only of teaching our children when it is good or bad, but rather how to use it in more fulfilling ways, over less fulfilling ways, because they are most definitely going to use it, and it will be a regular part of their lives. Even some of the students coming into college now, since they have reached an age of greater social interaction have had a smart phone for some time. They don’t describe their social experience as necessarily unfulfilling, and they say that do get their face to face time as well. Now maybe they don’t know what they are missing, or maybe they are being affected in adverse ways without their knowing it, but I think it’s worth noting that perhaps humanity will change as a result of this technology and as Roughseas said find a “new equilibrium”. Maybe we are just dinosaurs too! 🙂

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      1. LOL…if not dinosaurs, certainly moving on horse-drawn buggies compared to my chidren’s generation!

        Just in my last 20-years when the internet (world-wide-web) first hit markets, the ease of accessing practically an endless “library” while sitting in your living room blows me away! The ease to reach around the globe in a matter of seconds to communicate with foreigners in another country — like in today’s school classrooms or astronauts, cosmonauts up in the ISS orbiting Earth — are simply mindboggling! Absolutely necessary for humankind to EXPAND and BROADEN our perspective beyond our little 5-mile radius physical existence!

        In contrast, what will happen if (when?) a solar-flare or elecromagnetic pulse-burst hits Earth directly, knocking out fully or frying every single electronic mechanism everywhere; what then? Even electric grids will be useless for a period of time. These possibilities or eventualities beg the question, Is it wise to have all our eggs in one basket? My personal answer is NO WAY! Yet, change is inevitable over time; that certainly includes extinctions.

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        1. That’s a valid point. In fact when they asked Thad Turner what was the disadvantaged to being completely wired all the time, he said the fact that he has to charge the batteries. There are always limitations, but it does seem like a lot of those get worked out over time. Perhaps we will be able to move satellites to higher orbits to avoid the damage. Perhaps we will be able to create temporary hubs hovering at lower altitudes. Or perhaps we will have such massive hard drives of information stored that even the occasional power outage won’t leave us completely without access to information, even if we can’t communicate around the world. Thad Sturner said specifically that he found being wired enhanced his face to face conversations and this was before wireless internet. So it seems that we can apply these new technologies to face to face interactions if we want to as well. In fact things like google glasses and other things seem to be specifically make you more interactive in your world and in the present. It’s astonishing times we live in.

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  5. To me, the most interesting discussions surrounding the internet and social media are how it changes reality.

    How does that specific technology alter reality? I can’t help but think of smart phones. People are glued to their smart phones, and as a result, aren’t really present in any given moment. Rather, they always experience any given moment in retrospect. And you and I both know that how we remember things isn’t the same as how we experienced them.

    Think of people who go to important events or on vacation and spend the entire time taking pictures or tweeting the entire experience. They view everything through the filter of technology. Does that diminish the interaction? Is viewing something through a digital filter “reality”? I think that’s a discussion worth having.

    On social media and over the internet, people can choose to show or hide whatever part of themselves they want, something that they probably wouldn’t be able to do very well in real life because humans are very good at communicating via non-verbal cues. But what does it say when we get to make our own reality, so to speak? When we get to construct a digital reality vastly different than the one we inhabit when the smart phones and the tablets are turned off?

    I guess I think of this whole issue in the framework of this question: Is looking at a picture of a flower the same thing as looking at an actual flower?

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    1. Great points Ryan! I would throw back this question though “What if you could enhance looking at a flower by knowing exactly what type it was, you choose to identify each part of the flower have it labeled and learn more about it. Whether it is annual, perennial, related species, etc.” Some of what Thad Sturner was talking about through his cybernetics device was that memory is actually enhanced. You can have full recollections of conversations, what you saw, etc. Of course we also have to look at the variety of different technology options. Smart phones may be really bad…google glasses might be a much better thing. Not sure. There are two sides to every coin, and this coin isn’t going away, so I’m simply saying that instead of shunning technology maybe we should simply be having more conversations about how to use the technology to enhance life instead of diminishing it.

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      1. Those are fair points. I wouldn’t argue that giving people greater access to information couldn’t or doesn’t enhance an experience. Certainly that’s one of the great gifts or strengths of technology, and expanding one’s knowledge is always an enriching and rewarding experience.

        This is definitely a subjective argument that I’m going to offer, and this is an old fashioned way of looking at things, but perhaps there’s something to be said for simply thinking about something instead of knowing about something.

        I realize that might sound goofy, but on occasion I can’t help but feel that by continually absorbing information people no longer get lost in their own minds, in their own imaginations.

        Sometimes knowing a lot about something just isn’t germane to enjoyment of it. Then again, sometimes it is. I guess there’s a balance required, which you’re getting at.

        But if we become fully integrated with technology, would that balance still exist? If we can’t turn off the technological parts of ourselves, how could such a balance exist?

        Mindfulness and being fully present in a moment don’t seem compatible with technology, at least with becoming integrated cybernetic organisms of some sort. Yet those things seem to be things that people inherently desire or strive for.

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        1. That’s a really important question Ryan. I do think that comes down to whether you are somebody who is a critical thinker or not. The fact that I may learn a lot about a certain flower may start me down a path of thinking about some higher level question. I am not genius by any means, but I find that the more I learn the more connections I make with those things that I learn. And so I would say that the more I learn, or the more information I have, the more deeply I think about things, and the more often I think about things. Even without technology I’m having a hard time turning my mind off these days.

          I think though that the critical thinking aspect has to become integral part of education. We already see some glaring problems with people confusing information with misinformation. For as much quality stuff there is on the internet there is as much biased and opinionated stuff that people take for fact. Maybe someday in the future a computer might be able to sort the good from the bad, or give a confidence indicator for a certain source of information being accurate.

          What leads to my main concern for it all is what if somebody hacks into you. What if you someone hacks into your programming and screws up even just the indicator of whether a source of poor or high quality? If we are reliant on something that isn’t secure from people taking it, then this could be a concern. Nobody can take your brain, but they can sure take your hard drive that has stored every conversation you ever had in it!

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          1. That’s an excellent point with the whole security issue. How would solar activity affect us? Would we all have to stay away from magnets? What would an EMP do to us? Hacking is an excellent point. People can already hack into our cars and wreck havoc.

            And I think I’d kill myself if I was subject to pop up ads in real life everywhere I went. Imagine how advertising and other commercial content might be inserted into our daily lives. I don’t want recommendations or suggestions based on what I’m actively looking at or doing to pop into my field of vision or my thoughts!

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  6. I love technology. In fact, I considered giving my son, Jonathan, the middle name Quentin so I could call him Jonny 5. (I thought better of it.)

    Something that I’ve noticed about “technology” is how the definition has been changed by popular usage, so that technology has come to mean either personal electronics or anything internet related. (Other words like “tolerance” and “truth” have also seemed to suffer similarly.) Nevermind technological literacy, I’d settle for literacy.

    I find your vow interesting. Who not just try to make the world a better place, and where expedient, use technology? This isn’t a criticism of your vow, but an observation that you seem to place more emphasis on the method than the goal.

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    1. Well I am not saying that my vow is my primary life goal. Clearly with the volunteer work I will be doing for children soon, there is no technology involved. I’m simply saying that I like technology, like you, and that I need to start utilizing it in perhaps a healthier way, because sometimes I feel it does take over my life somewhat and not in a way that always gives me a positive sense of well-being. So I am saying that I want to find more ways to avoid the stress…and I want to find ways where it will enhance me as I try to meet my life goals of making the world a better place. Hopefully that makes more sense. 🙂 Johnny 5 is a great name btw! lol

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