We Must Become Masters of the Medium

I believe there’s a wave cresting – and I think you want to be on it.

The iPhone and the smartphone have now been with us ten years.  In those ten years, we have all become beguiled, fallen in love, even become addicted.  And it’s happened to every generation.  Our parents, ourselves, and…our children.

We all know well the infinite pleasures, the limitless time saving innovations, the expansion of connectivity and instant social gratification, the stimulation and access to information and entertainment – all in the palm of our hand.  It’s the Jetsons!

We also all know the guilt and the judgement.  The infinite number of apps and platforms that occupy or waste our time.  We all resent it when others are absorbed – our teen-age children, our peers, our colleagues.  We wish we could get them to put their phones down when we want to interact.  And they wish the same.

I believe we are a generation that is still learning to understand the cultural and behavioral effects of this magic life-changing technology.  We are each and all still adapting.  And we are coming to realize it.

I am seeing now a raft of essays in the media asking us to pause and reflect.  To take just a recent sampling, you can look at “Before the Internet” (in the June 2017 New Yorker); “I Love You, I Hate You” (by the technology correspondent for Walls Street Journal, 6.22.17); “Digital Detox” (by a father in my own local Richmond Family Magazine, June, 2017); or “I Used to Be Human” (Andrew Sullivan’s reflective essay in New York Magazine, September, 2016).

In truth, we could each probably find a dozen similar pieces in our local press, or on Medium, or in other national publications or media outlets.

But the good news is that we are noticing.  We are reflecting.

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I am a Middle School teacher.  Our school has determined that to be prepared and educated, our students need to be facile with the digital way we research, create, and learn.  They need to know how to use computers and the Internet and modern digital creative platforms – from Microsoft Word to Google Docs; from Photoshop to PowerPoint to Prezi, from WordPress to Dropbox; and beyond.

But it’s a double-edged sword.  We know it is.  On the one hand, we firmly believe that to be educated in the 21st century, you have to know how to use digital tools.  But on the other hand, the computer and the Internet, the cell phone, and the world of social media are one gigantic Pandora’s Box of Temptation.  How to manage that?

We try.  Earnestly.  I give a presentation to all our middle school students – every year.  I tell them about the temptations and the research.  I warn them what happens when you read on the Internet instead of the hardcopy.  (Thank you, David Carr, The Shallows, 2011.)  I arm them to explain to their elders how complex and rewarding much of the digital world they live, experience, and will work in really is.  They shouldn’t feel guilty for being tempted.  (Thank you, Steven Johnson, Everything Bad is Good for You, 2013).  I explain to them that the temptations they face are not really new, they are just the newest forms.  That information and communication technologies have always changed behavior, disrupted our attention, and how we work and communicate.  (Thank you, Nick Harkness, The Blind Giant, 2012.)

I warn them.  I tell them about Marshall McLuhan and his famous injunction, ‘the medium is the message.’  I tell them when I was their age that my peers wanted to ‘watch television.’  Not the Mets game or Batman or The Pink Panther, but the tube itself – whatever was on.  That, of course, is what McLuhan was talking about.  I ask them if anyone ever invited them to ‘do iPhone?’  “Hey. Do you want to do Internet?”  Because that of course is what we do.  And when we realize it, we know McLuhan is still right.  We think we’re texting, Snapping or Tumbling.  But we’re not.  We’re doing iPhone.

Most of all – I challenge them. Armed with this information, they must understand that the computer (and the iPhone) are both a tool and a temptation.  If we understand the temptation, then perhaps we can learn to use the computer as a tool.  I challenge them to become Masters of the Medium.

I also tell them there is a larger goal – one that’s true for all of us – middle school students and citizens/workers of the world.  That goal is true, inspired, passionate, fine, proud work – and it’s attained through the elusive psychology notion of ‘flow.’  Flow is most famously articulated by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book of the same name (Flow, 1990), but it is actually something we all know and understand and is easy for middle schoolers to understand.

We attain a state of flow when we are ‘in the zone.’  When we are so focused and absorbed in our work that we don’t noticed the passage of time and we don’t want to allow or allow ourselves to be distracted by petty distractions.  I am guessing we all know this exalted state.  It is when we do our best work.  It is something we all seek.  It is a form of creative nirvana.  It is the Holy Grail.

And it’s not possible when we work while allowing ourselves to be interrupted by messages, e-mails, the full range of digital delights and distractions.

It’s awfully easy for me to say to students, “You must become Masters of the Medium.”  It’s much harder for adolescents to do.  It’s even harder if we adults can’t do it ourselves.

When I present this spiel to parents I conclude with one basic message; they can’t do it unless we show them how.  As adults – parents or teachers – we have to set the right example.  My 7-year-old only wants a smartphone because he sees how much everyone else – his parents, his siblings, their friends – love their smartphones.

So how do we do it?  How do we learn to master the medium – and re-attain the sense of flow?

I think we’ve started.  The essays I cited at the top suggest that we’re waking up.  We recognize the problem.  But we feel alone.

I think we need to do it together.  I think we need to help each other.  I think it requires a family effort.

Start here.  Everyone has a story to tell about the time they were forced off the grid.  You forgot your phone or charger.  You were in the woods or on a mountain or in a foreign country without access to a network or wifi.  At first, it’s infuriating.  Until it becomes liberating.  I feel liberated when I am able to leave my laptop at work.  We all feel liberated – lost and lonely and hapless – but liberated when we are not tethered to our iPhone.

So we need to make it safe, enjoyable, OK, sought after, cool to untether.  We may need to find agreed upon times and modes to untether.  Together.

We can lead by example – and it might work – but we need to beware the temptation to appear or act self-righteous.  “Here I am in the blissful state of unconnectedness.  Join me.”  No one’s going to follow that guy.

Better to agree in groups.  While we watch this movie, read this book, take this walk, go on this hike, visit this museum, swim on this beach, eat this meal – we’re going to leave our phones behind.  We’re going to take a deep breath and revel in noticing each other and not always checking the answer or texting this friend or sharing this photo (now!) or adding this social media update.  We’re going to enjoy each other and everything we have to offer each other, everything we already know and love about each other, but are missing because of…that other thing.

I think if we join hands – if we’re willing to broach the concept – in our work environments, on our dates, in certain social outings, and especially with our families – we can regain what was lost “before the Internet.”  We can re-claim and assert and share our truly connected individual human selves.  Together we can learn to become Masters of the Medium.  And make flow possible for ourselves and our students.  And truly connect.

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