I read Present Shock by David Rushkoff a few weeks ago and I haven’t been able to look at the world the same way since. The basic thesis of the book is that the rate of change in our technology-saturated world is accelerating at such a clip that our relationship to time itself is changing.
That makes my head hurt. But I think I like it.
Rushkoff’s ideas are big — but also persuasive. He coins phrases like “digiphrenia” (our response to the increasingly blurry line between past and present, when everything is archived and nothing is forgotten), “overwinding” (the failure of trying to compress things that in fact take time into shorter and shorter scales), and “fractalnoia” (in a time when pattern recognition is threatening the dominance of narrative forms in our ability to make meaning of the world around us, fractalnoia creeps in when we see patterns that are not actually there). He constructs his understanding of the world one brick at a time, and whether or not you can agree with each one of his assertions, it is undeniable that technology is not just changing the way we work and connect with each other, but also the way we think about and interact with time.
These themes beat me over the head last week when a student told me that he really loves reading but prefers to watch TV shows on his computer: although the storytelling isn’t always as good, at least he can multitask while watching a show.
So what do we teach?
I read lots of articles about teaching new literacies and proficiencies to students who are growing up in a today’s culture of technology. But Rushkoff’s way of isolating time as its own piece of the puzzle has cast the conversation in a new light for me. What I previously saw as one big culture-shift — technology — I now see as three: our relationships to technology, information, and time. And now I feel more comfortable affirming that students deserve to be empowered to make intentional choices about their own relationships with these three; to have the agency to conduct the orchestra and not just listen to the music.
Devices with screens and internet access are ubiquitous and will only become more commonplace in the future. When it comes to technology, agency means helping students become more than just consumers of the technology they use every day. It means helping them create, control, and repurpose tools to make technology work for them — and not the other way around. It would be a disservice to our students to allow them to be victims of technology.
When the sum total of all human knowledge is accessible in each student’s pocket, it’s hard to justify a luddite approach to education. The Waldorf School in Silicon Valley got a lot of attention for the many families who work in the tech world and choose to send their children to a computer-less, screen-less school. But as a philosophical approach on one extreme end of the spectrum, it begs the question: how can it be responsible to disconnect learners from the global network of information? Agency means learning how to stay afloat in the stormy seas of information and misinformation — navigational skills that are undeniably useful in the world we now inhabit yet somehow even news organizations sometimes seem to lack them.
Here is where Rushkoff’s perspective helped everything click together for me. Yes, students deserve to have more agency when it comes to their interactions with technology and the world’s information — but they do not need to come at the expense of the student’s relationship with time. Having access and agency does not mean plugging a direct line from the internet to each student’s aorta; but instead it can come paired with a lesson about the fact that we are not the machines we use.
So let’s begin here.
Just because I am notified of new emails as they come in does not mean that I need to reply to them as they come in. Just because I collaborate with a network that spans the globe does not mean that I need to exist in all time zones at once. Just because my computer makes a billion tiny decisions every second does not mean that I need to match that pace. We are surrounded by technology and information that is always on, always connected, and always updating. Students deserve to learn how to master them without making their lives imitate them.
Agency in this respect means that students can understand the immediate power of a well designed infographic but they can also engage in the long-form narrative. It means that students can live in the moment without removing themselves from that moment to timestamp it, tweet it, and share it with the world. The teachable opportunity as Rushkoff offers it up: “Whatever is buzzing on the iPhone just isn’t as valuable as the eye contact you are making right now.” I hear echoes of be here now, and I know that is a lesson worth teaching.