Thursday, August 26, 2010

Move Over, Gutenberg by Shannon Falkner

Today I'm thinking about technology; I'm considering the ways in which technology both links and divides us. I'm not thinking specifically about social networking sites (though I am sure that many a psych Ph.D. dissertation has been written on just that topic in recent years), but instead I'm thinking simply of access to (or lack of access to) information and what that access or lack thereof means for human society.

This afternoon, my sister and I met her husband in mid-town Manhattan for lunch and then decided to enjoy some ridiculously delicious cupcakes in Bryant Park. As we sat at a table chatting and enjoying our indulgence, a gaggle of teenagers paraded by us, cell phone cameras a-flashing in the direction of one teenager in particular who seemed to be being crushed by his throngs of adoring fans. My sister's husband asked one star-struck fan who she and her crowd were following, and she responded (with obvious annoyance at our lack of celebrity knowledge) that they were following Timothy Delaghetto -- just like that, all one word. Hmmm, we thought. Are we in the presence of some wildly famous person that we are too uncool to know about? Immediately, my sister's husband used his Blackberry to google this Timothy Delaghetto, and we discovered that he is an up-and-coming "Asian hip hop artist." Ok then.

While it would be difficult to argue that having instantaneous access to this sort of basically useless information is going to give us some kind of leg up on the rest of human society, I think that having access to information of any sort does, at the very least, separate people into categories: those who can be in the know and those who can't. I am wholly convinced that 90% of the apps available on the iphone basically give useless information -- where the nearest Starbucks is located, the title of the song currently playing on the radio (Shezam!), who the best-selling Asian hip hop artist is (ok, I don't know if they have an app for that, but I'm willing to bet it's out there or soon-to be, judging by the apparent popularity of Mr. Delaghetto). However, it's that 10% of useful information that iphone/Blackberry/Droid users can access immediately that does give them that leg up, such as when the next train leaves Port Authority or which way is west -- I needed both of those pieces of info today, and, as I am smartphone-less, I was forced to do the old-fashioned thing and Figure It Out. So, one way that technology separates us now is into People Who Can Find Out Faster and Easier and People Who Can Find Out Still Within a Reasonable Stretch of Time and With Only Slightly More Effort -- not such an enormous difference, in my view.

But, while smartphones may still be luxuries that not every human must have to survive, I think that internet access at some point in the day is a mandatory requirement for full and successful participation in our society today. After our cupcakes in the park, my sister and I headed over to the mid-town branch of the New York Public Library this afternoon (the place where Carrie and Big were supposed to wed in the first Sex and the City movie! Ahem....I mean, the place where one can find access to 15 million books and visual media and witness stunning architectural design and feel intellectual power pulsing through the air). Here, we got to see one of the 48 surviving Gutenberg Bibles, which was on display with a plaque noting that scholars generally agree that Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in 1440 was "the greatest achievement of the second millenium." If the printing press was revolutionary because it allowed wider access to information, how do we even begin to understand the impact of the worldwide web?

I just finished reading Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, her account of an undercover assignment as a low-wage worker in America's restaurants, hotels, and Big Box stores. She paints a moving portrait of what it means to live hand-to-mouth and work 70+ hours per week, but because she did her investigative reporting in the late 90s before internet access was a staple in every middle-class household, her book doesn't touch on what it means to be without internet access. I'd love to see an revised edition in which she comments on this huge difference that separates 1998 from 2010. The other day, as my husband spent hours comparing NJ car insurance quotes online, and I spent hours researching my choices for a primary care doctor, I wondered how on earth someone would one go about finding affordable car insurance or setting up one's healthcare plan without the internet? I realize that the telephone still works for these tasks, but the hours on hold alone would be enough to drive even the most bargain-conscious shopper or the most health-conscious individual to just sign up with one of the first two or three organizations found. So, technology also divides us into Those Who Have Options and Those Who Take What They Can Get With the Time They Have to Get It.

I think the coolest thing about the New York Public Library is that any library card-holder can borrow a laptop for several hours at a time and get free internet access within the library. While borrowing a laptop to use within the confines of the library is not as convenient as owning one and having internet access in the home, at least it's a start. It's a recognition by a well-respected public institution that the division between Those Who Have Options and Those Who Take What They Can Get With the Time They Have to Get It is one that is just too big to accept if we want to continue to call ourselves a democratic society. There are certainly civil rights issues at stake within the issues surrounding access to technology, and I can only hope that more schools, city halls, courthouses, and other tax-payer funded institutions follow the Library's lead.

I'm going to end this post by recounting, to the best of my ability, one side of a conversation that I overheard on the bus today, which amused me greatly, but also made me a little sad. I sat behind a guy of about my age, obviously coming home from a long day of work who was talking on his cell phone:

Guy: Yeah, Ma. I'm here.

Guy: Alright, it's on? Good. Ok. Now click on Firefox.

Guy: It looks like...a fire fox. Like a fox on fire.

Guy: No. It's orange. Maybe blue too.

Guy: Yes. That's it. Now click on it.

Guy: Are you double clicking?

Guy: Like, click-click -- real fast. With your index finger.

Guy: No -- the other one. The index finger that's on the mouse. Click-click.

Guy: Try it again.

Guy: Ok. Now click on the link on the homepage. It's in blue.  It has a lot of funny letters and numbers at the a long line of funny letters and numbers.

Guy: You gotta work with me, Ma. Tell me what you see.

Guy: I'm not getting mad. I'm not...

Guy: (exhales deeply) My voice isn't annoyed, Ma.

Guy: No, it's not. I'm just....Don't get frustrated now, Ma. Why do you sound all frantic?

Guy: I'm not! I'm being completely calm,Ma!

Guy: Ok. Try it again.

Guy: Ma, listen to me. It might take a minute. It has to download.

Guy: What, 'download'? It's like retrieving information from another site.

Guy:  A site is a webpage. Like one page of the worldwide web. The Internet.

Guy: Well, not exactly like a book. But maybe kind of. Anyway, you don't need to know that now, Ma. Did it download?

Guy: Christ.

Guy: I'm not mad, Ma. I'm not mad. It's just that these are like the basics. Like stuff everyone knows.

Guy: I know! That's why I'm helping you!

Guy: Hello? Ma? Hello?

Guy: Damnit.(hangs up)

So, technology also divides us into Those Who Know How and Those Who Need to Know How. Unfortunately, this divide seems to fall along age lines, which is sad. This guy and his mom could be sending each other funny forwards or Youtube videos, sharing pictures and music, and generally connecting in more ways, but they aren't. Instead, they're fighting. Maybe I should have told him that the New York Public Library also offers free weekly technology-related courses, such as "Email I" and "The Internet I: The Basics!"

Teachers, like me, are constantly bombarded with pressure to "use technology in the classroom," and we are given so many instructions as to how and when we should use various sorts of technology with our students. The one question that never seems to be addressed, though, is why. I think there's sort of this circuitous logic at work that people are afraid to question: we should use technology because people use technology. For most people, though, this argument is not terribly compelling. Talk to us, however, about equal access, civil rights, generation gaps, and saving time, and we'll be all ears.


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