Saturday, April 10, 2010

The "Curse" of free and instant communication

We'll get to the relevance of my discourse to teaching sooner or later. Bear with me.

We're living under "the curse of easy and free instant communication". When I was in England for three years researching my dissertation in the late 70s, the only practical means of communication (for a graduate student, anyway) was letters--snail mail. Phone calls were very expensive. Email, instant messages, Facebook, Skype, were unheard of (though for a few people on the Internet at the time, there was email--no Web though). Everyone was accustomed to these limitations. And so it wasn't a big deal if you didn't hear from someone close to you for months, when in distant climes.

But instant communication has changed how we live. So when my oldest friend's 18-year-old daughter came here from Germany along with her dad in September on the way to college 2,400 miles away (sigh), we were already better friends, and now as adults, than when they had left when she was not-yet-14. I'd corresponded with her through Facebook for nearly a year and talked with her (and seen her sometimes) on Skype. When she went off to college, we kept it up, so I had closer communication with her than anyone (other than her dad) who wasn't in Washington. Of course, there's cell phones as well within the country, but last year she used a pay-as-you-go and so I didn't call, now we both have the same company's phones and calling costs nothing. This would have been impossible 30 or 40 years ago, or even 20 years ago.

But the reverse of this is "the curse": if you've been communicating with someone several times a week, and then that person gradually stops, you can only think "well, I'm not worth the time it takes to answer the phone, or to type a few keys in Facebook. That person must not care for me worth a hoot any more." If it literally takes 30 seconds or less to communicate with someone, when you don't hear from someone it is likely to hurt your feelings. If someone goes from Germany to America, and then cuts off friends in Germany, what are the friends going to think when communication is easy and instant and free? And so forth.

Maybe it depends on how long you've been friends. I've known brothers and sisters who've been out of touch for more than a year, even a daughter who was out of touch with her mother for six months, and the relationships have since succeeded. If you're friends long enough, and are separated geographically, there are ebbs and flows.

Text messaging seems to epitomize this. In a sense, to me millennials seem to be terribly insecure, constantly wanting to stay in touch with friends and family, and now they do it through texts. But I'm assured by the few people I've talked with at length about text messaging, that they feel no need to constantly stay in touch, no insecurity.

Another reason for texting seems to be to find out things you can find out, but which you have no need to know. One of my student's friends, Alex, often comes into my class to use a computer and sometimes, even, to participate in the class discussions. One day he wasn't there, so in idle curiosity I asked Justin where Alex was, thinking he might know off the top of his head. "I don't know, but I can check" he said as he reached for his phone (which was on the desk next to him, not in his pocket. . .). I said no, there's no need, it makes no difference; but now he had the bit in his teeth, and just had to text Alex "where are you" ("home" was the answer). Somehow this epitomizes to me another aspect of texting and millennials, the great need to know something even though that something doesn't change your behavior, is in fact irrelevant.

We see this in the mania for knowing the news "up to the minute", even though intelligent people usually realize that "up-to-the-minute" news is often false news. [see my blog post about Skepticism for examples:] So many people want "up to the minute" even though it makes absolutely no difference in what they do or how they behave. I call it yet another "Triumph of Capitalism" (or maybe more accurately, of Marketing).

Out of 39 game design students (Fayetteville, NC), mostly high school seniors, some younger, some college age, 12 send and receive more than a thousand texts a month, and another 7 send and receive more than 5,000 a month! Half of them do more than a thousand a month, more than 30 a day! The distraction is Immense. I'm teaching game design, which is all about thinking, and especially about thinking critically; monitoring their cell phone constantly is detrimental to what I'm trying to get them to do.

So the practical question and point of all this is, what do I do about it? Ban cell phone use? I already have classroom management software (Genevalogic Vision) that can block Internet access (or allow access only to certain sites) and that can lock up the computers, and I use it sometimes. I know there are cell phone neutralizers, but they may be illegal in some places, and of course they cost money. I could just tell students, when I see them using a cell phone I'll confiscate it. At present I confiscate (until the end of class) only in egregious cases.

As with many other maturity issues, the high school folks are much worse than the college-aged students.
"Always do right--this will gratify some and astonish the rest."Mark Twain
"A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." Antoine de Saint-Exup'ery

"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." Albert Einstein

"Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler." Albert Einstein

"The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal." -- Aristotle