Post II: 2020 pandemic, the view from an island

Post II: Technology and a pandemic: the view from Roanoke island

June 14, 2020 – Endemic Realities, education in the day of COVID and at the end, a story of lost air pods:

If the economics and inequities of 2020 do not interfere (and they always are present), our pandemic world will be stitched together by a tiny thread: technology and a two-headed Janusian beast. Janusian thinking is the ability to imagine two opposites or contradictory ideas, concepts, or images existing simultaneously. 

Back in the day, when personal computers were first introduced to uninitiated, mainstream consumers, I was a relatively new employee of a soon to be billion-dollar manufacturer in Silicon Valley: Tandem Computers.  Prior to Tandem, I had been a vocal performer in San Francisco and a professor of music at a small university in a nearby San Francisco suburb. Emotion along with intelligence was the norm in my music world. Suddenly, making a transition to the computer industry l lived in a world where cognition was ranked primary and emotion seen as a pariah. The change was shocking.

In the world of computers, interaction with others was mediated and filtered through some electronic device. Tandem Computers in 1989 developed a company-wide three-tiered intranet mail system: 1st class – between individuals who knew each other—a technical question and answer board; 2nd class – a technical question and answer board read by larger groups; and 3rd class mail – a type of Craig’s List, if you will—a bulletin board with for-sale items, car repairers, and recipes.  In the SF Bay Area, sail boats were a highly prized purchase on 3rd class mail.

Using this system for work, I ‘emailed’ internal colleagues across the world—people I had never met face to face. It was my first experience of isolation. Today we live in a world of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Viber. Then I neither saw nor heard colleagues in my interactions. I saw only a text screen. Is it strange that I experienced this world as one of silence and primarily void of sensation? No. For neither moving a mouse nor looking at a screen nor typing on a keyboard to someone across the world, someone I have never seen or met, provides sensation—for me. Playing an instrument or singing a Baroque aria is tactile—an experience unlike most others.

Tandem employees eagerly adopted the ‘intuitive’ Apple Macintosh products and adapted them into our daily lives, glorifying and romanticizing technology through the brilliant beliefs and rhapsodic language of Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple. ‘Create a computer so easy to use that the world cannot refuse it.’ In the fierceness of their mission and their aura of youthful excitement, we overlooked the linkages between the cult-like attitudes of early software programmers and our use of the technology.

Because this adaptation was spread across many decades, the isolation it created was not felt or perhaps not recognized.  New generations of children were born into the use of readily available consumer technology, and because their adoption occurred at younger and younger ages, they did not notice social isolation. Like the youthful programmers of Silicon Valley, they prefer it. Many products flooded the consumer market along with development of the internet. So silent the usage, we now teach our children online in a virus plagued world, a world where technology has embedded its tentacles—good and bad. (Salgado 1997, When A Toy Comes Alive)

The young Apple software developers, often outcasts in high school or college dropouts,  preferred individual play, not teams working together. They reveled in the garage mythology surrounding computers. Sitting in darkened offices staring at green monitors, consuming caffeine-laden beverages and junk food for fuel, they built their personal preference—often antisocial distancing—into the electronic products which today feel like an extension of our hand or our ear. Our lives are accustomed to interaction through an electronic medium. Social isolation is built into products silently waiting for a pandemic.

Janusian Thinking

Our education system, pre-K through university, has perhaps been saved from the rapid and unexpected COVID-19 by our preference for and our fascination with technology. Unless economics and inequality in opportunity or access cripple the system, technology (online learning) will have benefited many, while simultaneously abandoning the economically challenged in their quest for education. Costly internet access has been the major hurdle for most.

Yet, rarely explored is the impact upon human development at the individual as well as the societal level. In 1984 MIT professor Sherry Turkle in her seminal book, The Second Self, shows us the ease with which young minds see the machine (computer) as an extension of themselves, a machine with a mind and a soul. I would argue that dependence goes far beyond ‘young minds.’

In early June, a professor at a large university in nearby Virginia shared this experience of how deeply reliant upon technology we have become.

“On a Saturday afternoon, there was a rather loud knock upon our door. We are almost six months into a quarantine and only people delivering groceries or take-out have knocked on that door. All have worn masks and left our orders on the front porch.

A couple with their approximately 11-year-old son stood on the porch, mask-less and continuing to knock until one of us could come out of the kitchen at the back of the house. We had not ordered a delivery, so the knock was a surprise and felt as though an emergency.

I asked them to move back from the door to the six feet social distancing before I fully opened the front door. Once the door was opened, the female of the couple stated that their son’s Apple air pods were in our house. Keep in mind, I did not recognize the couple nor their son. ‘I don’t know your son and he has never been in our house,’ I responded with a touch of impatience.

The mother then explained that the locator app[lication] on her phone led them to our house, so the air pods must be in our house. Yes, she agreed that their son had never been to our house and secondly, while neither parent recognized me, she was certain that the air pods were in our house because the Locator App must be correct.”

My professor friend saw in action our embedded beliefs about technology shared by that mother. Common sense told her what was in front of her eyes. Yet, her 11-year-old son, the unfamiliar house, and a woman she had never seen before were incorrect, not believable. What we see on our screens, we believe.  Ludicrous? Yes. Reality in 2020? Yes. In this pandemic, our children are reduced to screen learning, social isolation, and the loss of others. Will they ultimately only believe what they see on their screens?

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