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Brenda's Blog: Trade-Offs

05/15/09

Technology Trade-Offs

"What happens to us when we become infatuated with and then seduced by them [new technologies]? Do they free us or imprison us? Do they improve or degrade democracy? Do they make our leaders more accountable or less so? Our system more transparent or less so? Do they make us better citizens or better consumers? Are the trade-offs worth it? If theyre not worth it, yet we still cant stop ourselves from embracing the next new thing because thats just how were wired, then what strategies can we devise to maintain control? Dignity? Meaning?"
~ Andrew Postman 2005


About the Author

Brenda Dyck is a sessional instructor at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Alberta (Canada). In addition to teaching preservice teachers, Brenda is the moderator of MiddleTalk, a listserve sponsored by the National Middle School Association (NMSA). Her "HotLinks" column is a regular feature in NMSA's magazine, Middle Ground. Brenda also is a teacher-editor for MidLink magazine.

Last week, I was sitting in a doctors office with my 94-year-old mother. It had been a long walk from the car, with her inching along slowly with a cane in one hand and my daughter supporting her other arm (while I parked the car). When we finally got my mother settled in the waiting room, she sighed, leaned over to me and whispered, Its such a different world -- so different." I know its different for me too, mom," I answered, realizing that we were talking about two different things.

For her, the differences have to do with the night-and-day differences that have occurred in her 94 years; the speed of everything around her; and totally unfamiliar ways of doing things -- ways that must make her feel as though shes living on another planet. For me, the differences relate more to changes that have taken place in less than five years; changes connected to how technologies have reshaped the world I live in, making things possible that were unfathomable even two years ago. I have to be honest though -- like my mother, Im sometimes lonesome for a world that no longer exists.

The Digital Age often has been criticized for pulling people away from one another; for isolating them as they sit in front of computer screens playing games; or for making them content to connect with people through e-mail, Facebook, or Skype, rather than seeking face-to-face encounters. A recent Stanford study supports that point of view by revealing that frequent Internet users (31 percent of Americans) spend an average of 70 fewer minutes per day interacting with family than do those who use the Internet less frequently (or not at all).

Although the concerns might be well founded, theres no doubt that technology also has facilitated some of the most unbelievable collaborative ventures imaginable among people from the far corners of the world. In The Flight of the Creative Class, Richard Florida points out one of the great paradoxes of the creative age -- that although it relies on the entrepreneurial spark of individuals to ignite its flames, its heat and light will last only if they are tended by the broader society."

Over the past year, Ive found evidence of that occurring -- people using the wonders of emerging technologies to come together to do what they cannot accomplish on their own. In pockets of space all over the world, ordinary people like you and me are experimenting with how emerging technologies can support a new kind of creativity, one that flourishes because of differences, not in spite of them.

Over the past year, the digital world has been witness to many inspiring examples of this technology-infused coming together to create and collaborate. Below are two of my favorites.

PANGEA DAY-- USING FILM TO CHANGE YOUR WORLD

On May 10, 2008, the world stood together hand-in-hand as a testimony to humanity. It wasnt for the cause of peace or religion, but to watch the silver screen. Pangea Day brought people together from all over the world to watch films made by the world, for the world, and then broadcast around the globe at the same time. The 24 short films were selected from an international competition made up of more than 2,500 submissions from more than 100 countries. Shown simultaneously through satellite in Cairo, Kigali, London, Los Angeles, Mumbai, and Rio de Janeiro, in seven languages, these personal stories allowed us to see a glimpse of the world through another persons eyes."
~ John Pettersen Dyck

Last spring, my eighteen-year-old son penned the above description of Pangea Day for a valedictorian speech he was writing. Seeking to inspire his classmates with the spirit of that amazing event, John challenged his graduating class to imagine what it would be like to have people across the world gather virtually to view someone elses world through the eyes of the movie maker. As a full-fledged member of the Digital Generation, John completely understood the power of multimedia to share an important message. The thinking behind Pangea Day made perfect sense to him.

Pangea Day was birthed in the mind of filmmaker Jehane Noujaim, winner of the prestigious TED award for 2007. Fueled by the nagging questions, Can a five minute film change the world? Change me? Change you?," and supported by the $100,000 TED award prize, Noujaim set off on a pursuit that resulted in the creation of a four-hour film festival called Pangea Day. The results of his idea were unforgettable. For four hours, people across the world watched twenty-five minute films that brought to life Jehane Noujaims belief in the power of film to bring the world a little closer together."

YOUTUBE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA- PLAY YOUR PART

Technology has a way of breaking down barriers and merging the old with the new. That was ever so apparent on April 14, 2009, when 100 musicians from around the world came together to perform at Carnegie Hall. Musicians performing together in an orchestra is pretty much an everyday occurrence -- that is unless the performers auditions and practice sessions take place solely online. CNN called that symphonic affair a collision" between YouTube and Carnegie Hall.

"We hope this is game-changing in the sense it redefines audition space; it brings people closer together and lets them collaborate, transcending geographical and linguistic boundaries."
~ Ed Sanders, YouTube Orchestra marketing manager

The event was launched last fall, when this announcement was posted on YouTube: Join us as we create the worlds first collaborative online orchestra! Download the sheet music, grab your instrument, rehearse your part, and send us your submissions, so we know who you are; so we can find you and consider you to perform with us in Carnegie Hall!"

After viewing almost 3,000 posted auditions, 200 finalists were chosen by a panel of professional musicians, and voted on by YouTube viewers on February 14-22, 2009. In the end, ninety-six musicians (ages 15-55), from 30 countries were chosen to perform at Carnegie Hall on April 14th. Led by San Francisco Symphony Orchestra music director Michael Tilson Thomas, the YouTube Orchestra played a vast array of music, including Bach, Mozart, Wagner, John Cage, and the Internet Symphony No 1 Eroica," a special piece written by Chinese composer Tan Dun.

Tilson described that unique global symphonic affair as somewhere between a classical music summit conference and a scout jamboree with an element of speed-dating thrown in!"

TECHNOLOGY TRADE-OFF

In the same way that blogging has given the common person a public voice, and YouTube has given the novice moviemaker a platform to present from, the YouTube Symphony event opened the door of the prestigious Carnegie Hall to musicians who in pre-Internet days, would never have had the chance to perform there. I cant help but notice how emerging technologies frequently level the playing field by inviting the commoner into places previously reserved for experts and stars.

When Im considering the gains and losses that accompany the use of technology, I usually refer back to what the late media theorist Neil Postman said seventeen years ago. In a time before Pangea Day and events like the YouTube Symphonic Orchestra, Postman warned that Every culture must negotiate with technology, whether it does so intelligently or not. A bargain is struck in which technology giveth and technology taketh away."

And then I wonder what Neil would have to say about that today