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May 25, 2011

New technology - New Language

A response to Bill Keller's concerns about communications technology.

Anyone who has received a message which reads "Tnx. CUL8r" or been rebuked for yelling in an email written in capital letters knows that new communication technologies are more than a simple medium of communication: they are a new language altogether. And, as Bill Keller points out, this new language brings with it a new culture, with its own mix of skills and rules for engagement. While Keller rues the loss of familiar skills (some long since diminished), his half-glass empty response fails to embrace new and demanding challenges to which this new language will be required to respond (and for which we will require some new language!)

For those who grew up in earlier eras and now thrive on skills which were the bread and butter of their time, the diminution of emphasis on selective skills is often lamented. But good analysis tells us that today's children will be working in ten years in occupations which are not even thought of as yet. And they will be facing challenges of which we presently have but a hint.

Developments in technology and in science have laid many challenges at our feet over the last twenty years with which we are still grappling. DNA, Assisted Reproductive Technologies, cloning, stem cells, and genetic engineering are just a handful of the technologies which have birthed a new language and a new set of moral, ethical and cultural issues which previous generations could barely imagine. Throw into the mix the potential of cybernetics, nanotechnology, transgenics and artificial intelligence, the fundamental question of what it is to be human is laid bare before us alongside the challenging ethical and social challenges, echoing Keller's final (and perhaps most important) concern. The ability to gather information and synthesise insights of disparate and rapidly-evolving fields will be a far more valuable skill than the capacity to recite entire texts.

It is easy - and almost traditional - to deride the younger generation for their apparent shallowness. Blaming short attention spans associated with digital technology may be an easy target, but we do well to remember that the exponential rate of growth in available knowledge - generating more information in the past 18 months than has previously been available in the entire history of humanity - demands that new thinking require quick assessment and assimilation/rejection. We should also ask ourselves whether is it realistic to expect teenagers to gather the sufficient combination of information, experience and worldview to fully comprehend and shape the environment in which the world now finds itself. Sixty-five years on from Hiroshima and we still haven't resolved the nuclear question, yet we are prepared to deride a generation's learning in relation to technology which is less than a decade old. Are we being fair?

Assuredly social media has changed the rules of engagement. No longer do we meet people face-to-face as often, or for as many reasons as previous generations did. On the other hand, social media enables interaction with a larger and potentially more culturally-diverse group of people than when we were limited to neighbourhood engagement. Granted, much of what transpires as "updates" is meaningless dross and faux camaraderie, but in this year alone we have seen significant social change - the so-called "Arab Spring" - largely facilitated by this very media.

But Keller has hit on an important point, every step of progress is accompanied by a sense of loss, whether it be loss of ability to recall large reams of data, loss of community as we once knew it or, more simply, a loss of innocence. The challenge for educators and community leaders is to evaluate the trade-off, and provide support for values and infrastructure which needs to be retained or reshaped. We cannot turn back the clock, or seek to close off access to such technology. Education, society, and its laws is forever chasing technology into the future.

We need to be clear about what we expect from different forms of media. I do not complain when a comic book contains no deep political or social analysis, nor when I fail to gain a laugh from a serious work on psychology or technology. Keller's expectations of Twitter are - in part - a case of unrealistic expectations. In noting that serious responses to his tweet "TwitterMakesYouStupid. Discuss" utilised a different media to respond, Keller highlights the limitations of Twitter, rather than the stupidity of its subscribers, or the impact of using it. Were it the only form of communication available for serious discourse, we might have cause for concern. In a similar way, its penchant for being a distraction is something to be noted. It is a mark of maturity that we learn as users to control the technology, and not be at its constant beck and call. Early indications of the impact on brain structure and function, while a pointer to change, still presents us with uncertain implications, in the same way that its social impact is still seeking understanding.

It is an easy thing to fear that which we do not know - and we do not know where this revolution in social media will take us - but that has never stood in the way of exploring new ways of being, and new ideas for development in the past. We feel and think our way into a future which is only partially able to be predicted, and for which the consequences of present actions are never fully clear. But as long as the questions are able to be raised - in whatever form of media available to us - the prospects are improved.

And of course, without SMS, how would I ever know what brand of cereal I was meant to buy!? Many an opportunity for marital disharmony has been averted... but perhaps this only serves to prove Keller's point about memory.

Posted by gary at May 25, 2011 02:45 PM

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