The Unexamined Digital Life is Not Worth Blogging

When I turned twelve, I moved to the farm. Prior to that, my life was pretty suburban. I loved hamburgers, but I didn’t have a clue about their origin (well, I knew it was cow). I enjoyed milk, but I’d never even seen a dairy cow. And while my friends and I may have joked about “Rocky Mountain Oysters”, I certainly had not helped harvest them.

So, my new life on the farm was rich with new a new appreciation of such things. In the first year, I gained direct experience castrating pigs at six in the morning. I shoveled manure, dug lots of post holes, fed the cows, bailed hay, and de-tasseled corn. I even gained my first experience hunting. I returned home with my first wild game, a squirrel, and my step-dad explained, “If you kill it, you clean it.” We ate squirrel, a rabbit or two, duck, as well as beef from a cow that we raised.

There is something powerful about being so close to the source, direct physical experience. What happens in a world when more and more of our experiences are funneled through layer upon layer of media? How does this impact our thoughts, actions, relationships, perceptions of self, understanding of reality, motives, and ethics? I don’t assume that the answers to these questions are negative, but I do suggest that they are questions worth asking, especially as we find ourselves spending more of our lives in a digital world.

The more we become immersed in the digital world, the more difficult it becomes for us to reflect on such questions. It is like asking a person who grew up in the arctic to tell us about life in the desert. I cut my teeth on these question with Sherry Turkle’s early works, Life on the Screen and the Second Self. In those texts, she reflected on the nature of life in these new contexts. Then, in the mid-1990s, there was a new academic journal appeared called the Journal of Online Interpersonal Communication (now out-of-print). It was full of articles that reflected on the changing nature of communication amid growing technologies like email, chat rooms, listservs, and discussion boards. A bit later, with the emergence of cell phone, several authors wrote thoughtful texts about the nature of communication amid cell phones and texting. Sherry Turkle, one of my favorite authors about psycho-social nature of life in a technological world, wrote a fascinating book about the relationship people have with there cell phones, treating them more live living beings than technologies. A couple of years later, after two decades of writing about life in a digital world, Turkle published Alone Together where she expressed concern about how our relationship with technology is changing us. Following are some of my favorite quotes. They are favorites because, even if I disagree with portions, they invite me to think more deeply about the nature of life in a digital world.

“These days, insecure in our relationships and anxious about intimacy, we look to technology for ways to be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time. This can happen when one is finding one’s way through a blizzard of text messages; it can happen when interacting with a robot. I feel witness for a third time to a turning point in our expectations of technology and ourselves. We bend to the inanimate with new solicitude. We fear the risks and disappointments of relationships with our fellow humans. We expect more from technology and less from each other.” (in the Author’s Note – Turning Points)

“People talk about Web access on their BlackBerries as “the place for hope” in life, the place where loneliness can be defeated. A woman in her late sixties describes her new iPhone: ‘It’s like having a little Times Square in my pocketbook. All lights. All the people I could meet.’ People are lonely. The network is seductive. But if we are always on, we may deny ourselves the rewards of solitude.” – p.3

“Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities. And as it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed. We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other. We’d rather text than talk.” – p. 1

“The Robotic Moment” – Turke refers to this as the instance when we are willing to consider robots as candidates to replace human beings in various parts of their lives. She wrote,

“Experiences such as these—with the idea of aliveness on a “need-to-know” basis, with the proposal and defense of marriage to robots, with a young woman dreaming of a robot lover, and with Miriam and her Paro—have caused me to think of our time as the ‘robotic moment.’ This does not mean that companionate robots are common among us; it refers to our state of emotional—and I would say philosophical—readiness. I find people willing to seriously consider robots not only as pets but as potential friends, confidants, and even romantic partners. We don’t seem to care what these artificial intelligences “know” or “understand” of the human moments we might “share” with them. At the robotic moment, the performance of connection seems connection enough. We are poised to attach to the inanimate without prejudice. The phrase ‘technological promiscuity’ comes to mind.” -pp.9-10

“Texting offers just the right amount of access, just the right amount of control. She is a modern Goldilocks: for her, texting puts people not too close, not too far, but at just the right distance. The world is now full of modern Goldilockses, people who take comfort in being in touch with a lot of people whom they also keep at bay.” -p. 15

“We know that once computers connected us to each other, once we became tethered to the network, we really didn’t need to keep computers busy. They keep us busy. It is as though we have become their killer app. As a friend of mine put it in a moment of pique, ‘We don’t do our e-mail; our e-mail does us.’ We talk about ‘spending’ hours on e-mail, but we, too, are being spent. Niels Bohr suggests that the opposite of a ‘deep truth’ is a truth no less profound. As we contemplate online life, it helps to keep this in mind.” – p.279

“The narrative of Alone Together describes an arc: we expect more from technology and less from each other. This puts us at the still center of a perfect storm. Overwhelmed, we have been drawn to connections that seem low risk and always at hand: Facebook friends, avatars, IRC chat partners. If convenience and control continue to be our priorities, we shall be tempted by sociable robots, where, like gamblers at their slot machines, we are promised excitement programmed in, just enough to keep us in the game. At the robotic moment, we have to be concerned that the simplification and reduction of relationship is no longer something we complain about. It may become what we expect, even desire.” – p. 295

Socrates is quoted as saying that, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Turkle helps us apply this quote to our digital lives. She represents one of many authors who invite us to engage in the examined digital life, to not simply follow where technology leads or become what technology asks of us. Such authors help us to ask questions about what it means to be human, to be in relationship, to live with meaning and purpose.

When I first started presenting about technology and education, my presentations were about the adverse impact of technology. Now I write and speak about the affordances, but I do not do so without recognizing what Neil Postman calls the “Faustian bargain.” There are things gained and things lost, and discerning between the two is not easy. In fact it is increasingly difficult as we experience lives that have less contrast between life online and the unplugged existence. We find it harder to imagine life without cell phones the longer we live with them, and the same is true about the main connections with people and technologies in the online world.

These technologies are not going away, but I continue to believe that there is value in approach them with our eyes open. As much as my writing verges on technological determinism, I believe that we have the capacity to make decisions about how we live in this increasingly technological world, doing so in a way that affirms our deepest beliefs and convictions, and not simply allowing the technology to shape our core values. I often argue that it is an error to call the Amish anti-technology. They are not. They embrace many technologies in their lives. It is just that they are pro-community. As such, they sift emerging technologies through that value and others. They embrace the technologies that affirm their values and vision for a good life, and they strive to resist the others. I continue to see wisdom in such an approach to life in our increasingly digital world. What values do you use to help shape your life and practices in our technological society?

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.