Technology is Disappointing
I find most technology to be disappointing. We have been promised a transformed existence, full of powerful new experiences that were unthinkable before the time of computers in your pocket. For the most part, all we have gotten is faster versions of what we already had. I have a really great calendar app that follows me around, can be shared with my wife, sends me reminders, and is automatically color-coded. Convenient, fast, and impressive, but not necessarily transformative. I can send messages in ten different ways to those around me whenever I want. I can even send you a message when I am in the bathroom (though I’m not sure why you would want that). Again, impressive, novel, and useful, but not necessarily transformational.
Don’t judge me just yet. I do believe that there are plenty of examples of technology delivering what it promised. It’s these tools and applications that continue to keep me on the hook and eager for more. For example, there is now an app called Be My Eyes. This app allows those who are blind to connect briefly with sighted-people using the camera on their phone for help with everyday tasks. Knowing whether your milk has expired, or if you are standing on the correct side of the street to catch the bus is a luxury for those of us who can see, and this simple app allows you to use what you have for the benefit of others. Before computers and cameras in your pocket, this would have been completely unimaginable, and it brings real benefits to humans in need.
Even the ubiquitous FaceTime falls into this category in my opinion. Being able to spend time with people far away from you in a way that nearly mimics in-person time is remarkable. My children know their far away family better than they ever would have relying solely on a phone. In fact, when we do get to be together in person, it is much more like stopping by family in town, than seeing someone for the first time in months.
I started thinking about this when a friend of mine at work pointed out how much of the technology we have in education is focused on making current tasks more efficient. We have faster grading, easier to find resources, even simpler positive reinforcement tools. Yet very little could be described as transformational. A child’s life is not put on a completely different path because their teacher was able to teach you phonics by poking a smart board with a smart pen and hearing the sound the letter A makes. Fun, yes. Engaging, sure. Transformational? Doubtful. Getting poked and saying the sound an A makes is something teachers have excelled at for quite some time.
I’ve not given up all hope though. In fact, a recent experience has reminded me that when technology is used to connect people in meaningful ways (like FaceTime, or Be My Eyes), it can be life changing. My daughter and I started participating in PenguinWatch a few months ago. Each night before bed, we sit together and, as she puts it, “help count penguins to help the scientists”. Penguin Watch is a citizen science website that shows you a still image of penguins captured by one of 40 very remote cameras in Antarctica, and prompts you to record how many adults, chicks, eggs, and other critters you see. These images are then used to help scientist understand how changing weather patterns are impacting the behaviors of penguins. This in itself is impressive, but the transformational part comes through the conversations we have with real scientists. After each image, you are asked, “do you want to talk about this image?” and if you say yes, you can leave a question for a scientist to answer. From our experience, they respond consistently within a day, and with thoughtful responses. This connection has made the experience very real and captivating to Annika. She is obsessed with penguins now, and has started to ask more and more thoughtful questions.
Annika: “Why are they in little groups going up that hill?”
Scientist:“Because they choose to come out of the water in small groups since that is the most dangerous time during their fishing trips. Here are a few other pictures of them leaving the water for you to look at.”
Annika: “What are all of those tracks from?”
Scientist: “Those are tracks from the penguins sliding on their stomachs. When the ground is very bumpy, they have a hard time walking, so it is easier to slide. Here’s a video a friend of mine found showing them sliding on bumpy ground.”
Not only has she started asking questions about penguins, but it has taught her to ask scientific questions about everything. She is learning about scientific thinking, nature, and the importance of caring for creation. This is what makes this site unique. It has allowed a family in Minnesota to partner with scientists in Antarctica on meaningful work, and to talk with them as though they were over for dinner. This would have been impossible without the help of technology. I’m not holding my breath, but I have a feeling we are just beginning to see what is possible.