Growing up, my grandmother always told me, “Nevan, I’ve lived in a different world.” She was talking about the changes in technology over her lifetime, which made her feel as though the world had changed significantly enough to be as new. This always sparked my imagination, and I often tried to fill her in on what I thought were the remarkable developments going on – often things with which she had little to no first-hand experience. She was born in a log cabin in 1910, rode to school in a buggie, and didn’t have access to telephones. As a young woman starting out as a teacher, she was asked by the principal to spend half her time as secretary because she had taken quickly to the typewriter.
She never used a computer, and it was clear she couldn’t form a coherent understanding of the internet based on my abstract descriptions. I generally lapsed to explanations like the ability to store all of the text of Shakespeare’s plays on a single disk, and the idea that entire libraries of information could be stored electronically in something that could sit on a desk or be accessed over a telephone line by request.
Technology brings with it the allure of greater efficiency and therefore productivity. Some innovations, like the telephone, make possible the previously impossible. Others, like the telegram and email, speed up the previously slow. It’s important to remember that our minds don’t actually work any faster than they used to, and training one’s mind still requires a kind of effort that cannot really be artificially expedited. It is one thing to learn how to use a telephone, send an email, create a user account, publish a web page or blog, type on a keyboard, type on a mobile phone, fill out and manipulate a spreadsheet, use a camera, assemble a slide deck. It is another thing to learn how to reason, how to hold a conversation, how to write, how to express one’s feelings, how to describe ideas, how to watch for special moments, how to give a presentation, how to read. To some extent, learning the former can aid the learning of the latter. It can also distract. Negotiating a balance in a high-tech world is an individual process that depends on an understanding of both kinds of things, and of one’s self.