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Digital Pacifiers

There are certainly benefits to the new digital technologies — cell phones, tablets, eReaders and a host of other devices.  But this post looks at the shadow side of these developments. On any subway, bus, or sidewalk in New York you see a significant portion of people (more weighted toward the young) using one or more of these devices.  I see them longingly scanning their screens, most oblivious to their surroundings, and I want to shout, “The answers are not there.”

Increasingly, I see these devices as “digital pacifiers” for the masses.  While we are all “connecting” with the net, being entertained with music, social networking, or even doing homework online, our ability to look inward and outward diminishes. Young people walk the street donning their headphones, often oblivious to their immediate environment and people around them. The phenomenon of “driving while texting” says it all in terms of being disconnected. For a digital medium that supposedly allows for making connections with others, we have lost the connection with the present, and to others in our immediate environment. We’ve created a “splendid isolation” in our own digital cocoons.

I came across an article in one of my hiking magazines decrying that today’s young are not venturing out in nature as much as previous generations. (see note 1). Tethered to their digital devices, it is not had to ascertain why.  In fact, “nature deficit disorder” is the term used by a therapist to describe this problem in young people. By losing contact and appreciation for the natural world, we lose an essential part of our existence and connection with a critical aspect of our being.

I have not made a survey regarding the content of digital media, but I suspect it is similar in many ways to the MTV U that I am forced to watch when I work out at the gym in Lehman College. The “content” runs the gamut from superficial videos that flash new  images every two seconds, to commercials to “Be Army Strong” or ones touting the latest inane reality show or acne skin cream. A constant diet of this can only turn one’s mind into mush, reduce one’s attention span to that of a gnat, and contribute to a self-absorbed narcissism. Our cultural landscape, as many have noted, has become more coarse, dumbed-down, and superficial.

As college teachers, we compete for the “hearts and minds” of youngsters exposed to these digital environments, and we are clearly losing the battle. Professors report students having shortened attention spans, being more distracted, and needing to be entertained rather than taught. The digital landscape seems to promote a passivity in students that discourages them from actively taking part in their learning process. Learning can be fun, but not necessarily so, but it does take effort and time on task. Failing such active engagement, students may become passive in their learning process like watching a movie, albeit less interesting than those in theaters or being streamed to their devices.

Ironically, one way colleges have addressed the digital natives is to infuse technology into their courses.  As Perensky foretold it over a decade ago, students must “power down” their devices when they enter classrooms which are instructed by digital immigrants. He and others call for technologies to engage students in their learning process as had been done in the past decade, and accelerated by online learning. I don’t doubt the value in many of these technologies for learning, as I use them in my own courses. However, our embrace of the digital has come at a cost that I think needs to be acknowledged. The human connection, the natural environment, the time to be reflective and alone have all drowned under a digital tsunami.

Our distractions, be they digital or otherwise, take us away from being present. The prospect of spending time off the grid is frightening to many, like withdrawal from a drug. Like meatless Fridays suggested by certain groups, I would propose technology-free Tuesdays to give one respite from the digital deluge. Try vacationing a week without emails, entertainment, or even news.  I am reminded of the exhortations of Howard Beale– that crazy anchorman in the movie “Network,”  who urged his audience to turn off their televisions –in his mad, insightful rant (see link below).  I would agree, and update his advice to include all digital pacifiers. Turn them off, in order that we may regain all that we’ve lost in the process.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MTN3s2iVKKI

References:

Louv, Richard. (2011) The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder. Algonquin Books. 303pp.

Perensky, Mark, On the Horizon (MCB University Press, Vol. 9 No. 5, October 2001), retrieved from: http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20-%20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf

Network (movie): Wikipedia reference:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Network_(film)

Note 1: (From AMC Outdoors, July/August 2013, page 6)

“As our society struggles with the disturbing side effects of the digital age, which include a drop in physical activity and dissociation from the natural world by so many, especially the young, we need to support a new call to outdoor citizenship.”

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