One size fits one; mindful device-choosing

My dad called the other day with a question about smartphones.  After I told him what I know about the functions he was curious about, he sighed and said “Do you think it’s really a step forward, all this technology?”

I think and talk about this often with parents. The topic is huge, and endlessly complex.  But I’ve found that there’s a good place to start with the question my dad posed: It depends on who’s using it.

Here’s what I mean:

My brother runs two small businesses from his smartphone.  He has never in his life been comfortable sitting still for more than a few minutes at a time, so he may not have survived as an entrepreneur without technology that allows him to manage his work when he’s on the move.  In my opinion, that would have been a loss, both for him and for other people.  He’s a farmer and a pizza chef – his work means food, enjoyment, and community for many people.

And then there’s this.  An acquaintance of mine works as a mental health counselor.  Until recently she spent much of her time outside her job writing stunning prose and poetry.  A few months ago, she noticed that she wasn’t writing much. She realized that the time she would otherwise have spent writing was getting eaten up by the various entertainments and other consumptions available on her new smartphone.

My brother’s phone helps make his fullest participation and contribution possible.  My friend’s phone has apparently been undermining hers. (And I’ve seen similar scenarios of both types arise with children and electronic devices.)

I read recently about how the journalist John McPhee first used computers to support his writing.  After decades of organizing his stories manually, using slips of paper and scissors, he became curious (in the early 1980s) about whether or not new technologies might be able to support his process, perhaps improve his efficiency with assembling thoughts and ideas.  He met with Howard Straus, an information technology expert at Princeton where McPhee teaches.  What Straus said first to McPhee was “Tell me what you do.” He then (for many years) adapted software to support the complex organizational process that McPhee undergoes when assembling a story.  McPhee writes of Straus “Howard thought the computer should be adapted to the individual and not the other way around.  One size fits one.”

We don’t all have Howard Strauses on hand to tailor technology to support what we’re up to and what kids are up to, to this extent.  But we can approach it the way Straus did with McPhee and his writing. He didn’t rush at him with all the new possibilities, whether or not they could support or forward McPhee’s work.  He studied the actual person in front of him and then considered what might be possible and what computer technology could provide in support.

We can ask ourselves (and each other, and our kids) what it is that each of us is already up to, what we’d like to achieve, and then make choices about engaging with technology that are in keeping with the answers to those questions. It’s only a beginning; there’s lots more to manage and navigate, but it’s a place to start.

Technology horn-locking

My father is anti-text message.  Like many well-meaning antagonists, he doesn’t let the fact that he’s never engaged in the practice stop him from delivering censure.  “Are you texting?” he’ll snarl if he catches me typing on my phone. “These kids and their texting.  They don’t know how to have a conversation anymore.”

The first few times I heard this from him I’d say things like “Yes, I am.  For me it’s a convenient and minimally disruptive way of communicating quick details that don’t require the trappings of a full conversation. And I’m not sure you actually know whether or not kids know how to have conversations anymore. Remember how there was a time when your parents probably would have said ‘Why use the phone when you can get on your bike and go ask her in person?'”

“What’s wrong with the phone?” he’d exclaim. We’d proceed along those lines until I changed the subject or he said “Well, everyone’s entitled to his or her opinion.”

I think there’s an extent to which we accept as tradition this locking of horns between generations, particularly with respect to the relative merits or lack thereof of technologies.  There will always be things that are new, and the newer people will take to them more readily than the older people, who may never take to them at all.  The new and the old will disagree, and that is that. Everyone will be entitled to his or her opinion (or at least everyone will have one).

The loss in this resignation is that it forces us apart in ways that it maybe doesn’t have to, and costs us the expansion available in understanding something even if we choose not to adopt it for ourselves. We believe we’re protecting something important (the way things have been) and protecting young people from something (the way things might be becoming) when we stick to what’s familiar and comfortable, insisting that kids also stick to what’s familiar and comfortable for us.  In so doing we show them that we don’t understand where they might be coming from, how things might look to them, and that we’re not really that willing to try.  In the end, we’ve undermined our own intentions. What we set out to do is make anything possible for kids, to be their mentors and guides, and instead we demonstrate that in a quickly shifting world, we’re not available for the reality of the task.

I’m obviously dealing with my father on this in the other direction, and for us the stakes aren’t very high.  We’re already found our way through the transition from child and adult to adult and adult, and it’s that transition during which the handling of this sort of impasse can set an important tone.

But it still couldn’t hurt to make my own attempt to bend our exchanges in a different direction.  Next time he gets after me about the messaging, maybe I’ll try something like this: “I know this is weird for you, Dad.  Wanna know why I find it useful?”

Or who knows, maybe one of these times his curiosity will take over and he’ll say “Now, explain to me why you’d say whatever you’re saying in a text message rather than making a call.”

Again with the technology

Here’s the other thing about reserving judgment when it comes to kids’ technology use: it makes them more available for input about it.  If all they hear is “Put that thing down,” or “All you ever do is stare at that thing,” or “Only ___ minutes and then you’re done,” the dynamic is limited to compliance and resistance.  They can either obey us or fight us (and most likely get devious about sneaking time when we’ve told them the screens are off limits, regardless of whether they choose obey or fight).

If instead the language sounds more like this: “I’d like to talk with you about your iPod.  I don’t always understand how important some things are to you because we didn’t have them when I was a kid.  I know it’s easy for adults to just tell kids what to do without thinking about it. I’m trying not to do that with you.  But there are some things that I’m concerned about that I’d like for us to talk about.”

That kind of language is an opening for conversation and interaction, one that makes it possible to move out of the compliance vs. resistance zone.  It doesn’t mean the child will throw down her iPod and tell you she’s been dying for you to bring it up and from now on she’ll only use it on alternate Tuesdays. It’s just a first step.  The longer we’ve been stuck in a comply or resist dynamic with a child, or the more pronounced the dynamic is, the longer the journey out.  But that first step goes a long way.  It’s that step that makes it possible for things to begin to shift.  And especially if we want kids to figure out what kind of a role they want technology to play in their lives once they’re no longer in our care and charge, we’ll be wise to take it on.

Kids and their technology

We think that the way we’re used to doing things must be the way things should be done.  We don’t tend to think “Is it possible that there might be some benefit or use to what kids are doing that we never did?”

I’m reading Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.  It’s about how technology makes use of human talent and generosity in ways that haven’t been possible in the past.  It’s a pretty significant departure from the technology-is-ruining-us, especially-the-kids rhetoric.  Here’s an interesting passage, which reminded me of the piece I linked to a few weeks ago about how kids are reading more than before, even while we agonize about the screen time:

“…young populations with access to fast, interactive media are shifting their behavior away from media that presupposes pure consumption.  Even when they watch video online, seemingly pure analog to TV, they have opportunities to comment on the material, to share it with their friends, to label, rate, or rank it, and of course, to discuss it with other viewers around the world… Even when they are engaged in watching TV, in other words, many members of the networked population are engaged with one another, and this engagement correlates with behaviors other than passive consumption.”

And a few pages later:

“It’s also easy to assume that the world as it currently exists represents some sort of ideal expression of society, and that all deviations from this sacred tradition are both shocking and bad.”

It’s this assumption that has us tend to jump to conclusions about kids’ technology use.  We think that the way we’re used to doing things must be the way things should be done.  We don’t tend to think “Is it possible that there might be some benefit or use to what kids are doing that we never did?”  Shirky’s suggesting that we look a little more closely.  This is not to say that just by virtue of being looked at more closely what kids are up to with their technology will seem more worthwhile.  It’s only to say that we don’t have the foggiest notion what kids do and don’t get out of what they’re doing.  It isn’t necessarily bad for them just because we didn’t have it when we were young.  And as Shirky suggests, it’s possible that it’s leading us to a place of even more social engagement, connection, and potential contribution than was possible when we were growing up.  Maybe more than has ever been possible.

If you’re interested in more on this topic, I highly recommend the book.  It’s unusual in that the thinking is dense, deep, innovative, but the writing makes it very accessible. You can also get a taste for the content from Shirky’s TED talk on the topic.