Meet Me on the Corner of Green and Digital

by Dr. Stuart Grauer on November 28, 2012

To see this article in the Community Works Journal where it first appeared, click here.

If Rip Van Winkle had fallen asleep for a generation and woke up in my neighborhood today, there are some obvious things he’d notice, like different car models. But much of the change has been less noticeable. Usually change creeps on us, then something happens and we become aware that things aren’t the same. In this way, the changes Rip might find most noticeable are ones that many of us already seem to take for granted. Like the lady in my neighborhood who walks up and down the hill every day talking to herself.

My wife talks to herself on a regular basis, but that’s another story. The lady on the hill has a little ear attachment on. This might not seem like a profound change, but then, things not being like they seem is an important aspect of quantum change. No one seems to notice the shift that has occurred. Things are “virtually” the same, but really different.

Today, people drive, walk their dogs, read magazines at the beach, and glide through the grocery store aisles talking to themselves, or talking to a palm-sized digital device, often with an ear piece or tiny speaker. We will surely see much of this on campus this year too. Its not new, its just that it is at last ubiquitous. As such, its often invisible. And as such, it is impacting your community, almost wherever you are in United States.

Talking to one’s self is not just occurring in the United States. All over the world communities are shifting as people become digitally perambulated. In places we might think of as economically disadvantaged, such as Tanzania or deep down in the Baja, Mexico, a quarter to over a half of all adults carry wireless cellphones, like brain parasites. In those less advantaged countries, people cannot afford the big glass screens and full-sized keyboards that characterize the way so many Americans access digital technology, but rapidly developing technologies are tapping the global citizen into the digital world of faceless, wireless communications.

With due appreciation for the amazing technology connecting our global village, hardly a thought is given to the isolation of all those digitally enhanced brains walking around our schools and neighborhoods. In schools across the country, textbooks are being replaced by digital textbooks, and the next iteration will surely deliver “apps” that students can use to click right in to their books. Again, this is amazing. And probably those big schoolbook crates the kids all carted to school every day throughout the first decade of the new millennium are not going to be missed.  But what will be missed?

It is a struggle for many “Millennial” youths to distinguish between “virtual” and “real,” because so many of their relationships are conducted online. This has occurred gradually and steadily, and our communities have not been presented with a clear time or place to deal with it. Call it “creep.”

Over that last generation, as Rip dreamt wirelessly, American students would become the most obese, depression-medicated people on Earth. Online we’d go to FarmVille, a farming simulation social network game developed by Zynga in 2009 that grew to around forty million active users within a year of launching. This would become their surreal slogan: “Everything grows in FarmVille.”

By 2010 or 2011 over ten percent of Americans, very few of whom would ever actually eat any whole foods from real, local “villages,” were planting and harvesting crops and turning cyber-plots of land into dream-like cyber-farms. Online. In FarmVille.

For many kids, FarmVille had become the most accessible means of controlling the environment they lived in, their way out of powerlessness and institutionalization. And, by the millions, they would be taking vacations, throwing touchdowns or hitting holes in one, and making friends “virtually,” online, largely incognito—all this, and no physical movement or eye contact.

Steadily, in schools and communities, virtual reality grew to be indistinguishable from real reality. Today, ironically, digital social networking software—even as it has come to be increasingly understood as an enemy of empathic human communication—is now marketed by technology firms to districts across America and brought into overcrowding classrooms in a spiritless effort to restore cost effective social interactivity. As school districts are going financially belly up in record numbers, corporations peddling technology to schools are having record years by promising those districts cost savings and greater efficiency.

Is this doom? I doubt it. For starters, beware of people who are shocked and appalled in general. In particular, these changes will surely lead to the next ones. All change is prologue to countervailing change. For instance, here is something else I keep noticing in my travels to various parts of the country, including on school campuses from urban to rural: Technology and ecology are two sides of a constant, irrepressible human need, rebalancing itself in the most natural ways in the world.

Paralleling our shift to an isolating world of digital preoccupation is a world of collaboration and localism. Just as digital technology is interruptive it is also collaborative. In Tanzania or the Baja, people launch real businesses with a cell phone in our Millennial blogosphere.

Another silent, countervailing milestone is the rapidly growing presence of community gardens and community supported agriculture (CSA) springing up. People who never thought tomatoes grew out of the ground are now gaining access to small plots of land in their local communities. Increasingly, schools are emulating the farm to table movements we see occurring across the land. Who knows, maybe some of these people were inspired by … FarmVille!

The digital genie is out of the bottle and we can now look him squarely in the eye. By squarely facing the fact that we are deep in a digital age, we can focus on the issues that have presented themselves along with that: being social off line and in the community, using appropriate technologies (not just digital), eye focus, handwriting, being present, taking down-time from digital tech. Issues large and small. The point is, with the line blurred between digital time and offline time, a new role for parents and teachers is to help youths remain sensitive to the distinctions between the two. The difference between virtual and real is not obvious.

Here are three facts about our kids:
• Our students are avid, daily users of social media, with Facebook being the most popular site (many even have a second Facebook to stay “under the wire”).
• Most teens in general report a positive impact from using social media
• Most teens prefer face to face communication. They sense that in-person time is still the most valued time.
• Quite a few of our nation’s students wish they could disconnect more often.

To maintain the focus on community, parents and teachers can identify times that digital devises are needed . . . and when they are not. At our school in California, all teachers have laminated front-back cards: the front is the sun (we’re looking outside!) and the back is the moon (its time to look into the screen). We are learning to mark with great clarity the difference between our local and our digital worlds, a distinction that seemed at risk in the first decade of the millennium.

Digital technology is at large everywhere and so our community wellness depends upon our willingness to teach digital awareness and digital citizenship. Digital platforms tend to be impersonal, and by contrasting them with the beauty of the outdoors and with shared times, we can create awareness about how great it feels to be unplugged and to treat the out of doors like more than just a dream.

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