Understanding Identity in our Technological World

Hello from my corner of the Little Bakery,

It is Wednesday, but it seems like it should be Friday. I have spent more time working: prepping, grading, Zooming, interpreting, studying and believing in myself, yes believing I want to do the best work I have ever done with my classes, be a class I have taught before, whether it be a class that has one student or many, a class that I was assigned or I inherited. There is so much to do, but there is more I wish I knew how to do. I am never content with the work I have done. Is that a good thing? I am honestly not sure. What I know is I want to improve each and every day at what I do.

Teaching, professing, is such an amazing thing to be blessed to do. Every day I am offered possibilities to make some small difference in the life of someone who has bought into the idea that a college degrees a reasonable thing to pursue. Even that reality has changed so much since I graduated in the first class of West High School in Sioux City, IA. I grew up in a seriously blue-collar area of my town of 100,000 people. Most of the people in my section of town did not attend college for two reasons: it was expensive, and they did not have the money, and second, college was not considered essential or required. If my figures are still accurate, 40% of my students are first-gen students. They come to college both excited and fearful. They hope with all their strength that they will one day walk across that stage to receive a diploma, serving up a dream they one day only imagined. They fear and tremble with much more trepidation then they perhaps even realize, wondering if they are prepared, but not wanting to go home saying they did not make it. And yet, the world of academy is changing rapidly. That change is necessary, but it too is alarming.

I have noted for my students the consequence of technology, and what my mentor, Dr. Daniel Riordan, called the rhetoric of technology. He was an incredible mentor to me, helping me navigate a difficult time in my own career as well as supporting me after I left Wisconsin. What I realize is he became another academic advisor of sorts, and I have embarrassed his curiosity and zeal for trying new things. His philosophy was simple: “Be curious! What you learn is yours forever” (Olson Funeral Home). Technology offers opportunities to learn in ways we seldom fathom. When I relate my experience of buying my first computer (A Tandy whose memory topped out at 640K) and what it would cost in today’s dollars (between 5 and 6K) and that it was on 1987, they are stunned by what little I received as well as how much it would cost. And the reason I asked to borrow money from a Great Aunt and Uncle was also surprising to them. I already felt like I could not compete with my classmates who were technologically ahead of me. That poor Riverside boy did not have extra money, and even though he was married, we barely had enough money to live. I think Susan made 5-6 dollars an hour. That computer made my senior year in seminary much more manageable. And more importantly, it pushed me into the technological world that was barely beginning, and it changed how I understood my abilities as a student. It changed my identity.

From graduate school, as I moved into parish ministry, our church was trying to understand how to create a computer-based office, and how would we get information from one terminal to the other. Networking?? Oh my . . . by the time I would return to do a second masters and soon a PhD, the computer lab in the Walker Building on the MTU campus had a Mac side and a PC side. It was called CCLI. I learned so much about technology in that lab. A summer of Computers in Writing Intensive Classrooms (CIWIC) with Drs. Cyndi Selfe and Gail Hawisher would change my relationship and understanding of technology in a way that was mind and life altering. Those changes would be fundamental and be important in my obtaining a tenure track position with my first application. Nothing I expected to happen. Technology has created more than a profound change in daily life; it has created an identity for its users. However, one must ask about the accuracy of the identity created, and at what cost? While my late 20th and early 21st century technology usage was role changing perhaps, I am not sure I allowed to to change who I understood myself to be. Social media would establish another layer of usage, but again, I am pretty sure I did not wish or attempt to change the image or the person I believed myself to be.

Perhaps that is because I did not have to navigate my world online as the prepubescent, undersized, and frightened junior high school (now middle school) person I was. We managed things face-2-face with those around us. I did not have to worry that what happened in school would be broadcast far and wide. I was rocked to my core as I read about and watched the video of a 14-year-old girl pummeled in her school halls, and subsequently committed suicide. Certainly, there are many pieces unknown; undoubtedly, the number of levels this story is tragic or wrong are legion. I have since listened to the clips of a school board meeting where parents and students seem to indicate this sort of behavior is commonplace at this New Jersey district. I think there is more of a connection between our technology-laden existence and this tragedy than we are willing to consider. Let me offer a couple of observations. When you text someone in the house rather than call out to them or even walk up the stairs to speak with them: stop it. When you are in the same hall, the same house, the same building (within a bit of reason), go to the person rather than text, snap, or TikTok them. The importance of communicating face-2-face seems to continually lose its value, but that is an incredible mistake. As I tell my students, we are more connected now than ever before and simultaneously more isolated, and the past three years have only complicated that reality. From quarantines and isolation, from closed schools and businesses, my students admit they do not know how to interact with each other, even in class. They lament the fear they feel when required to be in a class or a social situation. Even as I write this, my brain is filled with ideas and concerns.

Those who know me well know that I am not against technology, and for the most part, I embrace it; but what have we created and what are the consequences? It is not by accident that two of my blogs lately have posted on technology. I am wise enough to know that it is not going backwards. As I write this a few days later after its inception, banks have failed, questions about how we manage our lives, things like AI and Chat GPT are on the minds of students and professors alike. Daily I read something about the consequences and concerns of this newest technology that will affect the masses. For those unaware, Chat GPT is an open source AI software (more than software I believe) that creates “a language model [and is] developed by OpenAI, [which is capable of] . . . respond[ing] to text-based queries and generat[ing] natural language . . . ” (chatgpt.org, 13March23). The concern about this ability is palpable. And yet, we should be afraid of it . . . fear generates anger, and anger generates rejection. We cannot merely reject technology because we are not sure what it will do. We cannot unplug from the world we have created. That is the verity of where we are, but is there a way we can manage it more thoughtfully? Too often it seems we have shiny object syndrome (and that is an SOS), chasing after whatever comes believe it is some panacea. I do believe what we have accomplished in the area of education has been primarily positive; however, I am willing to admit there have been unexpected consequences that have created pain, often straining the ability to achieve the outcomes that serve both student and professor most efficiently. For the most part, that efficiency, that effectiveness, is hampered by our willingness to no longer communicate effectively. When I ask students to come and see me during office hours, too often that invitation is interpreted as merely that, an invitation, something they can RSVP to or ignore. I do not believe they are impertinent; and, conversely, I believe most of them are good people, but they do not know how to be a student. That is an incredible statement, particularly in this country where being a student is what they do for 14 of the first 18 years of their lives. In my conversations with colleagues, it is apparent that my view is not unique to me. There is a great deal that makes us social animals, and the importance of our ability to socialize has been severely hampered by the limitations placed on us by COVID.

Before you think I am against all of those restrictions, I am not. On the other hand, it is possible we made mistakes individually, as a country, or as a globe . . . there is no doubt that is the case, but we did not know what to do. As I think about our world three years ago, we were stunned by what occurred in a very short period of time. We were stunned by the idea of being isolated, masked, locked-down, afraid to go anywhere. And yet, our government did what they believed best. The number of articles I have read in the last two weeks about consequence all have something in common. We perhaps went too far . . . we perhaps still needed to do much of what we did, but perhaps for not as long . . . we still do not have it all figured out. The world is different as a result. Technology and its effect on our life is much more profound than we might have anticipated. There is so much more we will continue to realize as we analyze what the global response to COVID was. It is my hope that we learn for the next time. There will be a next time; I believe this with all my heart and head.

In the meantime, I wonder what we will be as a society. I wonder how we will continue to integrate technology or it will begin to integrate us, perhaps. I wonder who we will understand the world to be as we are affected by the technology we use and develop. Perhaps the Styx song from 1983, Mr. Roboto. The song caused significant controversy when it was released, and its intention was the topic of a great deal of conversation. Perhaps it was more prophetic than we want to realize.

Thank you for reading, and I hope all is well.

Dr. Martin

Published by thewritingprofessor55

As I move toward the end of a teaching career in the academy, I find myself questioning the value and worth of so many things in our changing world. My blog is the place I am able to ponder, question, and share my thoughts about a variety of topics. It is the place I make sense of our sometimes senseless world. I believe in a caring and compassionate creator, but struggle to know how to be faithful to the same. I hope you find what is shared here something that might resonate with you and give you hope.

2 thoughts on “Understanding Identity in our Technological World

  1. Very interesting post. I do think the evolution of technology combined with the lockdown of COVID has had some adverse affects, especially on the younger generation. Growing up in this more technological age, it is easy to think that this is the way that it always was and this is the way that it is supposed to be. Back when I was a kid, the Iphone was not even a thing yet and computers were still fairly slow and clunky. It wasn’t until I got older that these pieces of technology really stated pushing through the boundaries of what we thought was possible. I somewhat miss the old days of technology. I see these 7 year old children having their own personal smartphone or other smart device and it almost makes me sad. Many young kids get glued to their devices and thus will not spend as much time developing social skills and being outside. Pairing this with the lockdown of COVID that nearly forced everyone to stay in their homes for 2 years, many children missed out on a lot of their developing years. Sure, when I was a kid I was playing games on the computer when I had the chance, but I also knew when to get off it and go outside and I would not throw a tantrum when my parents told me that it was time to get off.

    Technology is amazing in how it allows us to communicate across the world, as a child I never would have thought that possible with my little flip phone trac-phone. I am not trying to say by any means we should go back to the times where smart phones and other devices were still new. Sometimes I just wish that people would treat the technology the same way they did back then and to not be so reliant on it that it skews our perception of how to act and treat other people.

    Saying these things about “the good ol’ days” makes me feel old even though I am only 19. Things change fast however and they will continue to change fast. Before we know it the world will be a different place with different people, and we’ll just have to sit back and watch

  2. This is a very interesting post to me because I regularly hear very similar thoughts from my mom and sister – both teachers. My mom works as a study support at my old high school, and sees students from 9-12th grade on a daily basis. She has many students who never learned how to adjust back to regular learning after all the shutdowns. My sister teaches 6th grade and has students who spent half of elementary school with online learning. They have no idea how to socialize or be an effective student. My generation grew up with technology, but before high school I believed many of us were well adjusted enough to not depend on technology. Unfortunately, I no longer believe this. The number of times people walk into me on campus or just blatantly block paths because they cannot look up from their phones is shocking.

    That being said, technology is still a very useful tool. It greatly aids in learning and can improve our daily lives. To people who grew up without technology, it must have been a crazy concept to be able to talk to anyone regardless of where they were on the world. Any information that someone desires can be found in seconds by simply asking their cellphone. I believe that technology should continue to advance, even if I understand the negative consequences it may have on developing minds. In my opinion, elementary and middle schools should ease back on technology so these students can develop their social skills normally, while high schools should allow them for more in depth learning. There cannot be any one answer to how we handle technology, and unfortunately it is down to the individual how much time they want to spend on it. I always enjoy time away from technology while existing in nature, but I have also been outside with people who were miserable that they would not get cell service during a hike. Some people are growing too reliant on technology, and that is their burden to bear. I am very interested to see what studies come out discussing the impact on technology as my generation (the first to grow up with technology) grows older and enters the work force.

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