It’s Sunday evening. I’m in Washington D.C. attending the 2015 Leading Change Summit – bringing innovators together who work to promote equity for digital access. I’m here because I’m well aware that roughly one-third of my adult ELL students don’t have an email account much less internet access. I’m here because research indicates that parents of ELL students not only face a language barrier regarding information and engagement with schools about their children, but that parents in these households are often least likely to have the digital literacy skills needed to communicate with schools who make very few personal phone calls or no longer send student information home on paper. I’ve been looking forward to this summit for months, but now that I’m here I’m conflicted.
During the morning workshop several other participants and I were asked to create a post-it note for each way we’d used a device since arriving in D.C. It didn’t take me long to amass about a dozen examples including:
- accessing my boarding pass
- doing a morning weather check
- sourcing walking directions
- texting a “Hey, I arrived safely.” message to my daughter.
Comparatively speaking I know I use my devices far less than many of my counterparts. I gave up TV more than 10 years ago (I don’t even live-stream), and I haven’t regretted it. As digital consumption has become a pervasive pastime in society, I’ve monitored my usage. I even intentionally abstain from digital engagement for extended periods of time (yes, that includes emailing and texting), and means I retreat and detox for days sometimes a week at a time. I ended my FB nearly a year ago. I have a Twitter account but in 6 years I’ve tweeted 51 times. I “follow” the Twitter feed of my daughter, one friend, and this summit (because it seems the polite thing to do since I’m here).
So I was mildly surprised to discover that I may be kidding myself about whether I’ve been successful at avoiding digitrophy. (My word – yes, my very own made-up word…meaning atrophy of my brain’s capacity to think for myself and atrophy of my heart’s capacity to have an appropriate emotional response as the result of an over-reliance on digital engagement. i.e. FaceBook, Twitter, email, texting, etc, etc, etc.)
To get more to the point of why I’m conflicted…teaching English as a life skill has sensitized me to the reality that when I insist that a person communicate with me only in English, ultimately I’m asking them to do more than speak English to get a better job, or to conduct a transaction, or even express their knowledge. By insisting that they communicate with me in English I’m insisting that my way is the only way to get their needs met, fulfill their dreams, and express their creativity (at least in words – written or spoken). Language is cultural, language is personal…very personal. Some ideas or feelings don’t translate. There simply is no direct translation when we are attempting to communicate something that is highly personal. I think that human interaction works in similar fashion. So my concern is what will happen when the digital landscape becomes the only way to express our needs and have them met?
I’m well aware that basic skills in literacy and basic math skills are needed to survive. For many years being unable to read the Help Wanted section of the newspaper limited a person’s job search, just as poor spelling limited someone’s ability to complete an employment application. Now we conduct our job searches and complete our employment histories online, adding another layer of complexity to the process. I concede that society has created the need for everyone to obtain basic digital skills much the way everyone was once required to utilize print and paper-pen.
My greater concern is whether in the transition to becoming digitally driven, we are giving up what seems to most distinguish us from other creatures – intuition, emotions, awareness. And most of all, being fully present to someone’s needs.
The U.S. has a long, sad tradition of forcing people to assimilate to lifestyles that ultimately foster consumption without those individuals realizing the consequences of what they are being asked to give up or change about themselves. Of course I want my adult students and their children to have equitable access to education, to employment, and to public services. I want my students to have choices. That includes a choice of whether they have a preference for engaging human-to-human or human-through-digital – especially when it comes to matters concerning their children and their needs.
I’m in my hotel room this evening reflecting on the certainty with which many individuals are convinced that all inequities will be eradicated in a digital world. I find myself asking, is there a point where we may realize that we’ve sacrificed human interaction for virtual convenience?
I have no doubt that folks attending this summit are leading change. I have no doubt that they are passionate and committed to digital inclusion and digital equity. Let me be clear that my doubts are not a commentary on their intentions, but are purely a reflection of my inner turmoil. The following quote expresses my concern far more eloquently:
“I have heard a great deal of complaint against material progress from Westerners, and yet, paradoxically, it has been the very pride of the Western world. I see nothing wrong with material progress per se, provided people are always given precedence. It is my firm belief that in order to solve human problems in all their dimensions, we must combine and harmonize economic development with spiritual growth.
However, we must know its limitations. Although materialistic knowledge in the form of science and technology has contributed enormously to human welfare, it is not capable of creating lasting happiness. In America, for example, where technological development is perhaps more advanced than in any other country, there is still a great deal of mental suffering. This is because materialistic knowledge can only provide a type of happiness that is dependent upon physical conditions. It cannot provide happiness that springs from inner development independent of external factors.
For renewal of human values and attainment of lasting happiness, we need to look to the common humanitarian heritage of all nations the world over. May this essay serve as an urgent reminder lest we forget the human values that unite us all as a single family on this planet.” – His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
Thanks for reading!