Concessions of a Technophobe

facebook_0Last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote his version of the “Gospel According to Mark.” He covered about every inch of digital optimism in a 6,000 word post. Social media will usher in nothing less than Utopia on Earth. Facebook can “bring people together,” a phrase used repeatedly in the piece. Used at full capacity, Facebook can unite communities, strengthen the democratic process, put away the dishes, clean up after our pets, and raise our children.

Reading this manifesto made me realize that my real beef is not with technology, but with the worship of technology. It’s a tool, not our salvation.

Zuckerberg laments the trend of people broadcasting their suicides on Facebook Live. His solution is digital– Artificial Intelligence could help detect warning signs. Nevermind the studies that show a correlation between Facebook use and depression.

The Gospel of Mark praises the increased ability for civic engagement, yet fails to recognize the limitations of online movements, which are more likely to foment outrage over a zoo animal than to get out the vote. Name your hashtag movement de jour. We have witnessed, over and over, the failures of leaderless online movements to secure social change. In American democracy, the only success you can attribute to social media is the campaign of Donald Trump. Thanks, Mark.

Alas,

Technology now claims territory in every facet of human experience, for better or worse. I have to grant its constructive uses.

The other day in class we were doing a project on WWI. Students could pick any topic related to the war. The task was to research and write a newspaper article. Teams would then combine articles to form a complete newspaper. One team got especially engaged in their work. An interest in war strategy found one student clicking through an interactive map of Europe. His observations led his teammate to start reading personal letters written by soldiers, trying to compare the experience fighting in the trenches to the experience serving on a boat. As they pondered and wrote, the answers to their questions could be found instantly. It created a sort of historical immersion.

A computer with an internet source is a powerful tool. I can’t deny that.

Likewise, we are able to connect at an incredible level. Our maps know where we are. We can read reviews before we buy. We can rent out our living spaces to strangers and hail a car ride with a click of a button. The opportunities embedded within these tools are profound.

It’s not hard to understand why people can look at the digital age and see Light. But it does not transform the human condition. If you forget that, just start reading ‘comments’ sections on articles.

Every technological advancement comes with a tradeoff. And each digital tool has different social effects. We cannot praise ease of communication without questioning the quality of our communication and paying attention to the effects of ubiquitous use.

Let’s not fool ourselves. Zuckerberg answers to his shareholders. He benefits if the “global community” uses his product obsessively, even if this causes damage to real communities, real democracies, real lives. His image of society is radical and misguided.

That’s why real education is so important. Tech consumption, ‘cuz it’s there, will birth a passive generation of crowd followers and people pleasers. Algorithms can never replace interpersonal connection.

Discriminate use of these awesome tools can indeed advance the human cause. Toward this end, researchers need to continue evaluating the effects of our tech habits. Educators and parents need to make purposeful, informed decisions on how to mentor in this new frontier.

The Costs and Benefits of Educational Technology

csm_online-education_7912c2a8ecAny consideration of what changes might be good for schools must start with a fundamental question: What is the point of school in the first place?

Is it to socialize our kids to work well with others? To prepare them to earn a living? To instill values? Maybe our schools want to train effective thinkers, create a habit of lifelong learning. Or teach knowledge about the world. Or help people discover their purpose in life.

The answer is probably: All of the above.

When we ask, then, how technology should be used in school, it makes sense to wonder whether a specific technology will fulfill a specific purpose better than the traditional methods.

I’m not privy to school conversations about whether to invest in new technology, but here is a rundown of the options currently touted:

  • 1:1 laptops or tablets. Every student gets a device to read and complete schoolwork.
  • Remote control quizzes, completed using smartphones or separate remotes. The tool provides immediate feedback and allows teachers to gauge progress.
  • MOOC’s or “massive open online courses,” where thousands of people can log in to hear lectures from top professors and submit coursework.
  • Online platforms that allow teachers to post material and moderate online discussions. These can be used for pure online classes or supplemented with a regular course.
  • Interactive websites, YouTube, streaming documentaries, online documents in databases.

Digital optimists see a world of opportunity in these new technologies. Instruction will be optimized for student growth and measurement. Learning will be equitable, as anyone with an internet connection, regardless of income, can access top-notch academic thought.

My objection is that there is nothing new under the sun. Technology critic Neil Postman writes in his book “End of Education” that the modern problem with education is not technical in nature, but metaphysical. The problem is not a lack of methods, but a lack of meaning.

We had already achieved equal access to the world’s intellectual database. It’s called a library. And if you were so inclined, you could walk in for free and become an expert on any topic.

Online learning content is no different, except we have videos in addition to text. It’s there if you are so inclined.

The only change is that now, if you pay for online courses and prove you learned new material, you can get a credential or diploma, legitimizing your learning to the rest of society.

In terms of instructional methods, I can’t think of any digital tool that’s significantly better than it’s low-tech equivalent.

Because when it comes to any of the goals of school mentioned above, there simply aren’t shortcuts. The cognitive investments required for reading, writing, math–whatever–don’t change when transmitted through a glowing screen. You can get fancy with demonstrating learning or giving feedback, but there was nothing wrong with the age-old methods for doing these. Socialization or emotional awareness can’t be taught online; more often the tech world serves as an escape mechanism.

New technology certainly doesn’t inspire thirst for knowledge. The same teenager who doodled in class and blew off his homework is not, all of a sudden thanks to the internet, inspired to watch lectures on the Enlightenment by a Harvard professor. Instead, he has at his fingertips the most advanced entertainment device the world has ever seen. Good luck competing with that.

Of course there are skills that students must learn for the tech world. For example, how to find good information online, and how to decipher credible sources from random crap. Most fields now expect their employees to learn new online systems or to be proficient in certain programs. Certain fields require computer programming skills, etc.

Schools can’t ignore a cultural phenomenon like the digital revolution. But in general, I think we would be better off implementing a strict cell phone ban in schools rather than injecting technology into the nooks and crannies of instruction. We should worry more about inspiring students with a convincing purpose for their education.

Rules of Disengagement

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Among the central tenants of Ignatian Spirituality is the concept of detachment. To live a spiritually healthy life, one must live a balanced life. All things ordered properly, no earthly thing worshiped as a god.

Attachments can be seductive. They seem important, and the mind can justify anything. My own attachments lately have revolved around technology and politics. Both of these forces attract enormous energy, both are growing in their cultural intensity.

So I have tried to construct some personal guidelines for staying grounded. Practice, practice, practice has been my motto. I try not to beat myself up for lapses, because that inclination can destroy progress.

Online Detachment

No simple solution exists for this dilemma. No pure philosophy against technology makes sense in the 21st century. Unless you’re living in a self-sustaining farming community, your life will require interaction with the online world. My goal is to keep the digital life from crowding out emotional, cognitive, or spiritual spaces.

1. Hang up and drive. Staying off the phone while driving is a good rule of thumb for safety sake, but the car is also a perfect opportunity for mindfulness. Concentrating on the road, feeling the weight of the pedals under the feet. Letting the mind go where it goes. A key discipline is to resist the red light boredom fix: checking email or text messages or Instagram or Twitter.

2. Blackout periods. Each day, stay off the grid for at least 30 minutes. Going to the gym? Ditch the phone. Opening a book? Turn the gadgets off. Go for a walk, free from devices. It just feels different to be unavailable, without access to the web. Don’t forget what that feels like.

3. Social media vacation. I’m currently on a hiatus from all social media. It feels different. The urgency fades after a few days. I think it’s helpful to step back and remember what routines feel like without the constant barrage of other people’s business. Another benefit is to guard against “change blindness” which is the tendency to not notice gradual changes over time. Social media platforms change constantly. When Facebook first published “newsfeed” it nearly caused a riot among users concerned with privacy, then after two weeks nobody remembered the old version. Total disconnection, even periodically, will help us notice changes in ourselves and the platforms we use.

Political Detachment

I have to be careful, here, and point out that detachment does not mean apathy. A person may feel inspired into appropriate, even radical, political action. On the other hand, someone recently took a gun and shot up a pizza place after believing a weird online conspiracy theory called “pizzagate.” Much is at stake in the world of politics these days. It can feel like the fate of humanity is hanging in the balance. And it might be. Yet no matter how grim, political reality need not disrupt our personal equilibrium.

1. Check emotions with reality. Partisanship is fueled by emotion. Democrats and Republicans hate each other. The other side is stupid. Any idea from the other side is automatically wrong. We wear these worldview filters, which are charged with intense feelings. In a world of alternative facts, both sides need to check their feelings, look first to reason and evidence, and approach reality with clear eyes.

2. Seek other points of view. Try out an open mind. I’ve been so absorbed in my distaste for the president that I find myself cathartically reading liberal screed. So I’ve started forcing myself to read conservative articles in the National Review. If I disagree or feel angry with a point, I try to notice why. The practice rounds out thinking and allows new perspectives. Holy anger can be called for at times. But without critically examining our own ideas or openly considering different views, we might develop a ‘pizzagate’ mindset without realizing it.

3. Breathe. No matter how important current events seem, the people in our lives are always more important. Even if a war breaks out or chaos erupts in the streets, our lives are shaped by our interactions with the people around us.

For Ignatius, any worldly thing and any life condition held the capacity to draw out goodness– the ultimate goodness being harmony with God. The key was interior awareness.

Maybe we can look at these disruptive times and see the chance to orient life around more eternal things.

 

The Hoops Report

nba_i_love_this_game.jpgFootball season is over. Finally. Americans are weirdly obsessed with this inferior sport.

A professional football team has 53 players on the roster. Each one of them specializes in one position, either offense of defense. Violence is paramount; hundreds of players get concussions each year. A successful football team has a line of freakishly oversized human beings whose main job is to smash into each other. Surrounded by these giants, a few players specialize in certain skills– running or catching. One important offensive player runs the show, making decisions and throwing the ball. Often times, the entire game comes down to a little soccer player kicking the ball through an upright post.

Basketball is far more graceful. Five players on the court, without pads, each of whom plays both offense and defense. Agility is paramount. It helps to be freakishly oversized, but without a versatile skill set, there’s nowhere to hide. A professional team averages 100 possessions per game, scoring two points every other time down the court.

Editor’s note: I wrote the above paragraphs before watching Super Bowl 51, one of the most dramatic sporting events of all time. In my defense, NFL overtime rules are really dumb. The losing team never even got to play offense in overtime. An Arizona Cardinals game this year ended in a tie. A TIE! Ridiculous. 

To each their own. But I’ll take hoops over pigskin every day.

Unfortunately, so far this season I’ve only watched a few NBA games and bits and pieces of some college games. A sacrifice of living without a television set.

Another downer: my hometown Phoenix Suns have settled on a strategy of perpetual tanking. Each managerial decision seems to make things worse. The emotional pain intensified watching Isaiah Thomas, a player the Suns let go two years ago, rocket into superstardom. A bonafide MVP candidate this season, Thomas and his Celtics are contending for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

So my main interest now is rooting against LeBron James. That sounds petty. LeBron is the greatest player of his generation, arguably a top five all-time player. I just can’t stand how he acts like God’s gift to humanity.

Michael Jordan was the best of his generation, the best to ever play. Everyone knew it. He knew it. And he acted like it. But he carried himself with a confident style that was cool, not conceited. He expected to make highlight plays. His celebrations were determined fist pumps and shoulder shrugs. He barked at the refs and intimidated his opponents.

LeBron takes a highlight play and turns it into a touchdown dance. He turns to the crowd with a peacock expression that says, Oh my gosh, did I just do that? How am I this good?  He whines to the refs and flops, weakly exaggerating contact like a soccer player to get foul calls. In these last few weeks, his team has struggled. In true entitled form he took to the airways to complain about team management, and how they should be signing better players.

Despite his whining, LeBron’s Cavaliers will probably make the NBA Finals again, most likely facing the Golden State Warriors for the third straight year.

The Warriors play basketball as it’s meant to be played. Poetry in motion. Their players are always moving, passing, pushing the tempo. The ball finds the open man, the hot hand. Their superstars, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, play with swagger yet strike humble personal tones. Draymond Green, love him or hate him, brings an edgy toughness to the squad.

Some say the league is too top heavy. Two super teams, with everyone else eating scraps. But the talent pool is deep, and there are other serious challengers. The San Antonio Spurs are perennial contenders, headed by Coach Gregg Popovich, one of the most successful coaches in history, who has lately taken a political stance by using interviews to excoriate Donald Trump. In the East, the Celtics brag not only Isaiah Thomas, but coaching guru Brad Stevens, who was the college basketball mastermind who led a mid-sized school to multiple runs at the championship.

Springtime is hoops time.

First in the spotlight, college basketball culminates with March Madness, a 64-team single elimination tournament which costs the American economy billions of dollars in lost productivity due to employees watching games and checking their brackets.

Then it’s all NBA. Teams will be jockeying for playoff position these next few months. The champs are crowned in June.

Will the Warriors avenge last year’s loss? Will Kevin Durant win his first ring? Will LeBron James make the Finals for the 7th straight year? Will Gregg Popovich win his 6th title, earning an invitation to visit the White House?

Can’t wait to find out.

A Buffoon or a Tyrant?

trump-hard-hat-coalMy biggest preoccupation since November 8 has been wondering whether Donald Trump is competent enough to be a tyrant.

The Founders took great pains to king-proof our government. Having just fought a war for independence from a king, they thought of every conceivable path from self-government to autocracy, and designed mechanisms to prevent it.

The Constitution includes dual protections against tyranny. The first safeguard exists to prevent the people from rashly electing a demagogue who stirs their passions. The second safeguard is the balance and separation of powers.

The first safeguard already failed. The Republican nominating convention could have stopped Trump, but didn’t. The electoral college could have stopped him, but didn’t.

Now we wait and see if our leaders will utilize the second safeguard. They don’t inspire confidence.

Before the election, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan literally would not be seen in public with Donald Trump. But he still voted for him.

In the first move of his presidency, Trump lied obsessively for three days about the size of the crowd at his inauguration. His loyal apologists hit the TV shows to contradict what everyone could see with their own eyes.

In a second move, thanks to his delusional obsessiveness over losing the popular vote, Trump promised to investigate voter fraud, falsely claiming that millions of people in urban areas voted illegally. Sensible Republicans were forced to admit that voter fraud is not, actually, a real problem.

Last weekend, sparking the second round of worldwide protests in two weeks, Trump sneak ordered a ban of refugees and immigrants from specific Muslim countries. His loyalists hemmed and hawed in its defense. Nevermind logic, damnit, we feel tough now! Sensible Republican leaders rightly criticized the ban for being impulsive, horribly mismanaged, and counterproductive to the goal of keeping the country safe.

Trump then insulted Australia, a close ally, over a refugee agreement signed under the previous administration. Congress scrambled to reassure Australia that everything is OK.

Talk is cheap. Republican lawmakers can easily save face like they did during the campaign– criticizing Trump’s words and actions when they violate fundamental American principles. But will they ever put their votes where their mouth is?

One option is to keep enabling Trump’s reckless incompetence. American credibility will corrode with each passing week. Allies and enemies will lose patience. The proverbial shit will hit the fan, sooner or later.

Another option is to rid the body of the poison. Block everything. Isolate the damage. Jump at the first opportunity for impeachment.

The Founders saw impeachment as the ultimate check on power, the appropriate response for a leader who demonstrated gross incompetence or abuse of power. James Madison argued that impeachment was necessary to protect the community against the “incapacity, negligence, or perfidy” of a president. Benjamin Franklin saw grounds for impeachment when a president “rendered himself obnoxious.”

In the crafting of the Constitution, the language for impeachment first included only “Bribery and Treason.” Briefly added to the list was “maladministration,” but this word was thought too vague. They eventually settled on adding “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The phrase was common parlance to describe not only specific violations of law, but betrayals of public trust and actions injurious to society.

A simple majority vote by the House of Representatives starts the impeachment process. The Senate can then conduct a trial, followed by a two-thirds vote needed to remove the president from office.

Might it be bad for democracy to thwart an elected president?

I don’t think so. Trump is an aberration. This is not “obstruction” in the sense of using political motivation to prevent the president from implementing policy. Nobody would be protesting in the streets if Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, or even Ted Cruz, had been elected. Trump is unfit for office by temperament, lack of knowledge and experience, conflicts of interest, etc. This becomes more obvious by the day.

Yes, the voters elected Trump. But the voters were rash. Passions captured by a fire breathing made-for-TV demagogue.

The Founding Fathers anticipated this error and provided tools for the error to be corrected. We have a filtering mechanism for would-be country wreckers.

We just need leaders with the fortitude to use it.