September 2008


Last Friday my kindergartener came home with a flyer from the librarian, announcing that Monday would be the kickoff day of their Internet Safety Unit, and all children were asked to wear red to mark the occasion. On Monday I dutifully laid out a T-shirt with red on it (alas, our clothes selection is not so vast as allow me to instantly pull out a red shirt – luckily what was clean happened to have a smidge of red) and sent him on his way. That afternoon he excitedly got off the bus and told me all about the “bad guys” on the computer, like Meet Me Mack, who might ask him to meet him somewhere, Potty Mouth Pete, who might use bad words or show him scary or uncomfortable things, or Tell Me Tommy, who might ask personal questions about him or his family. If he saw any of these “bad guys” on the computer, he was supposed to turn off the computer and tell an adult immediately. He showed me a bright red flyer that outlined all of this, with his scrawled name at the bottom, pledging to follow these guidelines. My first thought was, if I ever caught my son on the computer without permission and unsupervised, he would be in so much trouble. My second thought was, they’re teaching this in kindergarten? Really? He can’t even read yet (although I’m well aware that some kindergarteners can). My third thought was, well, I guess we’ve come to the point where we teach about virtual stranger danger before real stranger danger (which comes in January). Is it really more likely for five-year-olds to encounter a dangerous person through the computer instead of face-to-face?

The next night, at Back to School night, I saw that they have computers in their classroom – although I don’t yet know how they’ll be using them. Again, I thought, really? In kindergarten? Do they have computer literacy SOLs for five-year-olds now? It started me thinking about how we really don’t view computers as a tool at all anymore – they encompass their own world and their own culture, to which we must get accustomed. Get kids using computers early, so they can intuitively understand them better. The assumption is that even little kids may be wandering around in this virtual world unsupervised, so we’d better teach them how to wander safely. But do we really want them to intuitively meld to computers? What does that really prepare them for? What does that help them do? What are computers really for, anyway – are they a means to an end, or a new world and culture to master and live in as fully as possible? This feels far more like cultural training than teaching them to use a tool.

And maybe it is most akin to learning a second language – the earlier the better, and in addition to learning the words and syntax, you do need to learn the cultural assumptions and boundaries and customs as well, if you ever want to to communicate effectively. But we all need a native tongue, a home where we’re rooted. Does such early computer literacy uproot our kids from the real? Are we erasing capacities in them to enjoy and value the physical when we teach them “virtual” too early? Will their native tongue no longer be a physical one?

I don’t know the risk involved, honestly. I wanted to put my kids in public school because I wanted them to have the capacity to know and love the world and the people in it – but yet be rooted enough in their own identity to resist what they knew was not true and not real. But at age five, my son isn’t rooted enough yet. And this issue of early computer literacy is so far from black and white – it just couldn’t get more gray. I just have this sneaking suspicion that it may be nudging our kids further down the slippery slope of technopoly – where the Internet has become a world with its own set of values, its own language, and its own customs, instead of a tool created and controlled by humans to communicate and exchange information more quickly and vividly. In the latter, we master the Internet and use it when appropriate – and DON’T use it when it’s not needed. In the former, the Internet masters us – we must learn as early and quickly as possible how to adjust to its rules and demands and values. Have the public schools already crossed that line that says more and more dependence on virtual communication is inevitable, so we’d better start teaching kids early so their synapses can meld with the computer’s? All the more efficient! Or are they still hovering at that line, like some of us are, trying with all of our might to pinpoint the exact point where we cross over from master to servant? And if given the choice, would they still choose to be master? Would we?

I read an article in our local newspaper recently that highlighted the friction between the social networking proselytizers and the social networking resistance. The reporter noted that social networking sites like MySpace, LinkedIn, and Facebook seemed to be the last frontier of cyberspace for most baby boomers, and now, finally, they were beginning to fully explore and set up camp. Even though their children and grandchildren had not only set up camp in this part of cyberspace, but had built lavish houses complete with green lawns and white picket fences, they found there was still plenty of room for them. There has been some resistance to social networking sites because of the fears such sites will replace real relationships, but a representative of one of these sites noted that most people don’t have time for face-to-face relationships anyway, and didn’t have them to begin with. Social networking sites have given very busy people the chance to connect with others who have similar interests and backgrounds around the world, crossing thousands of miles at the click of a button, giving them at least some semblance of social interaction where previously there was little to none. In other words, the pace of life we have established for ourselves has made face-to-face relationships obsolete, and virtual technology will become the only way to maintain relationships. It has created a new context for a new kind of relationship that makes space and place irrelevant, a kind of relationship that is inevitable if you want to fully live in the world and keep up with the pulse of progress.

It’s easy to understand why the resistance gets nervous if you take this line of thought to the next step. Hop on this train of social networking now – otherwise you’ll be left alone and friendless, because soon all your friends and family will be socializing on the computer, and if you’re not there, they won’t have the time to make a phone call or stop by to say hello. Do we really understand the implications of making geography irrelevant? Those schooled in ethics and religion (another archaic body of knowledge that isn’t terribly relevant anymore either) will recognize the tendency toward gnosticism – the belief that the physical is bad and only pure spirit is good. “Proselytizing” is indeed the appropriate word for those who promote social networking as inevitable or an uncomplicated good, because assuming virtual relationships are an adequate stand-in for physical relationships leads down the slippery slope of a clear belief system – our physical bodies are primarily  OBSTACLES to our being most efficient and most successful in the world. It is not a far fall from “obstacle” to “burden” to “evil.”

But on behalf of the proselytizers (most of whom have no ill intent at all – technology/progress has become their god, and they are merely its servant), this new world of virtual relationships surely isn’t detrimental in and of itself, and surely is a relief to those who truly have been too busy for friendship. In a larger context, new frontiers are irresistible to each new generation of Americans – even though each new generation is convinced that they are utterly different than their parents and see things completely differently, history has shown us that the new generation has always been propelled toward the new frontier, just in a different context. In the 17th and 18th century, it was the New World itself. Then it was westward expansion. Then it was space exploration. Simultaneously it was atomic exploration – a world that unfolded more and more with each new discovery. And now, it is cyber-exploration. People are creating new worlds in this new frontier, like Second Life and the myriad virtual gaming worlds out there, at least partially in pursuit of this impulse to explore and discover.

I would never disparage that impulse to discover. And I do believe this new frontier differs markedly from the others in that it is not tangible. But the real problem is that from the beginning, this impulse towards exploration, especially in its American expression, is entangled in the clearly UNHELPFUL impulse towards impatience. A fundamental impatience has characterized our impulse towards exploration, in that we are always trying to do things faster and “overcome” the limitations of the natural processes of nature, which simply take time. This is gnosticism – it didn’t arrive with the internet, although the internet certainly is a clear example. That impulse has been there all along. And all of us, right at this moment, are forced to make a value judgment, even if we believe social networking is benign and largely neutral – do we believe having a physical body and living in a precise time and place is primarily bad, or primarily good? Will we channel our energies towards overcoming this reality, or become comfortable in our own skin?

If technology is simply a tool, we can assess how it is helpful or unhelpful in certain contexts. But we must also assess the character of those who wield it. If we as technology-wielders are fundamentally impatient – with ourselves and with others – this inner characteristic wars directly with our reality as physical beings in a precise time and place. We live in a constant battle between needing to do things as quickly as possible and living in a body that takes eighteen years to mature, living in world where a seed takes months to bear fruit, and living in a universe where good work sometimes takes decades or generations to bear fruit or even be visible. I happen to believe that our physicalness was part of what was created good in us. But all of us will have to make our own decision about that, and soon. Someday soon there will be a crossroads where you will be forced to choose, if we haven’t reached that crossroads already.