Posted by: Mark | May 3, 2009

What Are We Doing?

This is my 100th post. Last night I got my 400th follower on Twitter. Three days ago I got my 10,000th visitor to this blog.

It’s a strange coincidence that all of these things coincide with each other, and this mere occasion has prompted me to really think about what the hell we are are all doing with technology in this modern world we occupy.

I’ve been showing my students a well-known video called “Shift Happens.” It basically looks how the rise of the quality of life in highly populated parts of the world, particularly China and India, coupled with a leveled playing field due to increased technology, are going to present us with a radically different existence in terms of power structure and human-to-human interaction. It’s a simple video with a lot of big ideas behind it. You can watch the most updated version of the video below.

I brought this up in class because we’ve been discussion technology, and how it has impacted societal development, and how it may impact us in the future. To start things off, I did a little survey. I asked kids to write down the amount of hours per week that they spend doing the following 5 activities: 1) watching TV/movies, 2) on the internet, 3) on the phone, 4) playing video games, and 5) listening to music.

The results were extremely interesting. There are 168 hours in the week. Let’s say the average weekly sleep is 48 hours. That puts it at about 6.25 hrs/night, which I think is fair as an average. (Mind you, they should be getting at least 8, but I know that most don’t.) That leaves you with about 120 awake hours per week. I had the students add up all the hours they spent doing those 5 activities, and share them with the class. Now, this number must be taken with a bit of a grain of salt, as many kids (and adults, I imagine….I know I sure do!) multi-task when it comes to technology. In other words, they’re sitting with their laptop open and facebooking each other, while at the same time watching TV. But regardless, the more-or-less average number across my classes was 60 hours per week of engaging modern technology. 60 hours of watching TV, being on the internet, chatting on the phone, playing video games, or listening to music. That means it’s about half of the time that a modern 16 year old is awake.

There are some that freak out about this. They think that our kids are getting brainwashed and are going to lose their minds and engagement in the world, in the vein of Wall-E. We’re all going to become fat lazy blobs that hover around and interact only through screens, with robots catering to our every whim.

There are others that take a more optimistic view. A Stanford guy named B.J. Fogg came to our school to discuss Facebook with our students’ parents, and he claimed that Facebook has the greatest potential of anything every created to achieve world peace. The CEO of Zappos.com very famously wrote a blog post in which he praised Twitter for making him a happier and more aware, introspective person.

For me, I think I find myself somewhere in the middle. There’s no disputing the narcissistic banality that can be found on twitter, facebook, and blogs. And watching so much TV/movies warps ourselves into trying to achieve unrealistic expectations. (I’ll admit it: I watched “Wolverine” yesterday and found myself planning my next work-outs through a lot of it, with the film showcasing so much raw masculinity, and I found myself thinking that I needed to be in better shape.) Not to mention, a lot of this stuff is just flat-out unproductive. Right now, I could be doing countless other things that could be getting much more accomplished, but I’m not; I’m writing this because I want to voice my thoughts. It’s actually really interesting for me to check my stats on this blog. The general trend so far has been that I get regular, steady traffic on Monday-Friday, and then on Saturday and Sunday the traffic almost halves. Translation = people are on blogs during the work week to deliberately distract themselves from doing work, as compared to on the weekend when they don’t have to do work.

But then the other part of me is constantly amazed at how the seemingly trivial connections established through modern technology can be powerful instruments of change. I’ve already blogged about how students in Australia and Qatar have rallied around supporting the Daraja Academy in Kenya, which never would have happened without technology. A friend named Julie has used her blog to create a groundswell of support for tackling homelessness in San Francisco. I’ve seen fundraising drives on Twitter that last one day, and raise over $5,000. I mean this stuff is awesome. We’re more connected, and as such, we can no longer claim ignorance of problems in the world, or sit behind stupid stereotypes of “differences.” Reading someone else’s tweets or looking at their photos on facebook makes them so much more human, and much more difficult to dehumanize, as is typically done in times of conflict. So maybe B.J. Fogg has got a point.

As someone who engages all of this media (on my survey, my weekly tally was around 40 hours, so pretty close to the student average and about 1/3 of the time that I’m awake….and BY FAR monopolized by time on the internet) I tend to lean towards the optimistic side. That’s largely due to being an optimist in the first place, but it’s also because I believe pretty strongly in trying to walk in someone else’s shoes…and the modern world has created a whole slew of ways in which one can do that.

This modern world is a small drop of water in the very full bucket that is the long history of human life on planet Earth, yet this last drop is so radically different. At no other time did people spend so much time thinking about themselves. At no other time were they so free to be unproductive. At no other time were they so comfortable.

Where we go, and what this radical last 30 years will mean for our future, are tough to predict. The big thing I reflect upon is that we people are the creators of the technology. We designed it, and we use it. Twitter doesn’t tweet for itself. It’s a big message board that people fill up. TV programs are written, performed, and consumed by people. At its core, technology is actually very realistically limited by us, and our usage. My hope in humanity is that we will know when enough is enough. We will know, in our intrinsic curiosity and desire for authentic fellowship with others and nature, that we shouldn’t devolve into the lethargy that Wall-E predicts. I will never tweet to my wife to pass the salt as we sit at the diner table with our faces buried in our laptops. Instead, we’ll always have our dinners together, and always value communicating face-to-face.

This is what I hope. What I’m siked about is that last week, my students made a video response to “Shift Happens.” I’ll be posting them on youtube in a week, so it’ll be cool to see what they think too.

In the meantime though, my personal goal is to do what I want humanity to do, which is to keep this all in moderation. I am aware that getting an iPhone has made that hard to do. Technology has made information so much quicker and easier to get, which is great a lot of the times, but dangerously addictive at others. I check my email about 20 times a day now with my iPhone, when I used to do it like 5 times a day, which was even then a lot. I’m not planning on throwing my iPhone out, but maybe I don’t need to be so glued to it all the time. For tens of thousands of years, humans were able to wait for things. If I can’t control my impatience, who am I to expect that 6.7 billion others should control theirs.

So for now, I’m going to reflect after my 100th post on the message behind my blog’s title: Hurry, hurry, has no blessings.

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