There was a time when I believed the digital revolution would change everything. Maybe it has. But the changes are not entirely what I thought they would be. Looking beyond my own experience, there seems to be a historically emotional cycle of sorts in society – from thrills of technological advancement to crashes of disenchantment. I think back to mankind’s first discovery of fire and imagine the curiosity and excitement joined with fear and terror around new possibilities. Fire produced warmth and prolonged nourishment through the discovery of cooked food. But it also introduced new hazards and possibilities of arson. Or, I think of the invention of the car. I live in Michigan after all. No one would imagine only a little over a century ago that it would be possible to commute on wheels across to distances in minutes, hours, or days that previously took weeks, months, or even years. And yet, this catapulting locomotive innovation has simultaneously introduced a common cause of death today.
It is easy for the excitement around the discovery of what is new to overshadow the introduced risks that accompany technological innovation. This certainly happened when new digital affordances were being introduced to me in the formative years of grade school. Suddenly, my poor handwriting was a challenge of the past. Searching through text for keywords was mesmerizingly instantaneous. Hyperlinks allowed for endless rabbit holes of learning that flowed through many diverse sources. At the same time, new habits began forming undetected. Namely, my appetite for long form text reading began to diminish. My attention span for even relatively short articles online dwindled. Further, my memory and recall of vast amounts of article bouncing was less distinct than when I was steeped in a book series. I was not fully aware of these shifts. In fact, if someone pointed them out, I may have denied the accusation.
By the time I entered college, one of my professors described me as a “gadget guy.” I took it as a compliment. I had palm pilots, digital cameras, satellite radio devices, and mobile phones all in my pockets or attached to my belt buckles. I entered the classroom fresh out of college as a high school science teacher where I continued my fascination with digital technology affordances for my profession. Still, to this day, I carry and rely on vast amounts of technology as do my children. I’m not going to lie, in many ways I love it. It wasn’t until I began my career as an instructional designer where I started to unmask a dark shadow lurking behind pixels. I read online articles by Nicholas Carr. Maybe they were making me stupid, I’m not sure. But I paid further attention to debates around psychological and cognitive concerns being raised about the ill-effects of multimedia on the human brain. Most of these readings, I found to be amusing and interesting, but I didn’t take them too seriously at first. I brushed many of the debates off as conservative fears trying only to maintain a status quo. I then read a book by Shane Hipps called Flickering Pixels, How Technology Shapes Your Faith. It was here I was introduced to thinking of Marshall McLuhan and some of his controversial statements in the 1950’s and 60’s including his predictions of the future. McLuhan’s descriptions sounded eerily like the present realities we find ourselves in. I interviewed Shane Hipps to learn more.
This was, for me, the beginning of an ongoing reckoning. I find myself daily torn between forces of innovation and nudges of ancient wisdom. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go tweet about it.