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An Interview with Paul Horton: Are we Slouching toward Technopoly?

Dec 14, 2018 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1. Paul, you have recently written an article about the very serious dangers of students being addicted to games, iphones, ipads, Second Life, and the like. In your mind, how serious a problem is it?

From my very limited perspective, digital addiction is a very serious problem. It does not kill as quickly as opioid addiction. It increases levels of anxiety, political polarization, and ignorance and reduces human potential, the ability to reason effectively, the ability to empathize, the ability to learn to interact in meaningful ways in face to face real time, and it absolutely kills the ability to read closely.

I talk to other teachers from all over the country throughout the year at conferences and classes and the consensus is that sixty to seventy-five percent of middle and high school students are addicted to video games and/or social media. When many students complain about having to do too much homework, they are actually complaining about not being able to fit homework into their gaming times.

As education and cultural critic Neil Postman said many years ago, we are “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” We need to push close reading, thinking skills, and face-to-face discussions to promote fulfilling futures for young adults. Digital technology is simply a tool that should be used to create a more vibrant democracy. Fun and play are essential components of learning, but we need more and more face-to-face fun and play.

Kids need to learn to code, they need STEM and the Humanities, and they need to learn a craft or a skill before they graduate. Summer School should be expanded to include apprenticeships that mesh school programs with craft and technical union supervision as well as coding classes.

2. You and I, as history buff and serious students of History and World History- know that students have to READ to do well in school. What are the issues?

Students are losing the ability to read closely because they spend so much time on digital screens that are scanned, not closely read. Digital reading is not close reading. It encourages students to scan to find bits of data or information. They lose the ability to determine a point of view and the ability to connect data and facts with larger contexts. We are turning into a people without history because more and more students are not creating broader conceptual frames for analysis. We (humanities) teachers are fighting an uphill battle because our disciplines are based on the ability to read, absorb, analyze, and synthesize large amounts of knowledge. Increasingly, knowledge or wisdom that we are responsible for imparting, is lost in a hurricane of random or algorithmically sorted data or information bits. We are all lost in a category five hurricane of data that feeds dread and depression because we are losing the ability to sort it into discussions to create more social and intellectual coherence.

Either we construct a new common culture that integrates people into a vision beyond red, blue, cultural identity, class, and gender or we will continue to break apart. The digital noise prevents face to face discussion. Hyper-nationalism, and either-or thinking are in part a reflection of the modern world drowning in absurdly presorted facts and images that are cartoonish representations of a world facing huge scarcities and the existential emptiness of the dead-end of digital addiction.   Getting beyond the screen and back to print and reading more and reading more carefully is a good place to begin healing, which includes digital withdrawal.

3. You mention a book about some fool addicted to gaming to the point of exhaustion and near death. Can you summarize the book for us?

Jonathan Franzen’s novel, Purity, is basically about a Julian Assange type character who uses an army of hackers to acquire information to blackmail and hijack the world’s governments and political leadership. The protagonist sets himself up as a God and his hackers are drone bees.   Sound familiar? The metanarrative is that we are killing ourselves with screens, literally, but that today’s leaders can be assassinated politically with stolen information that destroys the legitimacy of institutions that bind people together. The biggest casualty is privacy because there is always a back door behind every screen.

Without privacy, distrust can easily be sown and conformity can be dictated, like in Calvin’s Geneva. The book complements two other recent dystopian books, Dave Eggers’s The Circle (a fictional Googleplex), and Margaret Atwater’s feminist nightmare (many would say emerging reality) The Handmaid’s Tale.

4. Are there any policies in place in local schools to address these issues?

I think many school districts are rethinking rules around iphone use and screen time in schools. Some schools or districts do not allow iphones out in class or in hallways. Because many schools have been drawn into more issues surrounding internet bullying, they are doing more to educate students and parents and they are setting up protocols and expectations about social media incivility and intimidation.

Digital social media is abused by those who act more aggressively than they would during face-to-face communication. Recent studies have indicated that iGeners, or those who have grown up with cell phones, are experiencing more depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. This this especially true of young women who are more concerned about being left out of digital and face-to-face social events. Digital media also create more distortions of body and facial imaging that are especially destructive for young women. Schools are very concerned with all of these issues and are walking on eggshells due to increased reported anxiety, depression, and especially suicidal ideation.

5. Paul, you and I have a great deal of “will power”. We sit down, we think, we read, we write. Is the younger generation simply without “will power”?

NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) surveys indicate that book reading has declined as screen time has increased. Students may still read books for fun. Science fiction fantasy books and graphic novels are especially popular.

But I think that we are witnessing a decline in narrative book reading at all levels to learn, to take in knowledge. English programs that emphasize literature rather than Common Core approved documents can do a lot of good. Reading documents in history classes is vitally important to construct thinking skills, but we are losing the connection to larger narratives, I think, become we have overemphasized focusing on the pieces for the last twenty years.

This is ironic, because we are seeing a renaissance of the brilliant and highly readable synthetic narrative that can be found, for example, in the Oxford American History series or in the books of David McCullough, Georgetown’s John McNeill, or the late great Alfred Crosby. As for will power, I think this iGen generation has grown up with a different reality, it is their culture. They started digital reading much earlier. I think parents, teachers, and professors all have to work together to insist on close book reading. Many of us find that we must now give more frequent quizzes, if not a quiz at the beginning of every class period.

We find that there is more resistance to reading closely and reading what we were expected to read as teenagers. IGeners experience increased academic anxiety partially because they cannot succeed in more demanding high school and college courses by scanning for information and watching YouTube videos. They are also growing into adulthood more slowly on average.

According to Lukianoff and Haidt (2018), because they have often been “coddled” by overprotective parents, much stress can be attributed to the expectation held by teachers and professors that their students grow into adulthood more than their parents have tolerated.

6. Paul, while not addicted to e-mail- I do like to keep up with colleagues, such as yourself- and current events. Anything wrong with this ?

No, of course not! The key is to limit your screen time and balance it with proper nutrition, exercise, and the cultivation of organic rather than digital relationships. Hang out with the folks at the Dairy Queen in Hobbes a couple of times a week! Above all, make time to read a print newspaper or magazine. Read the NYT and the WSJ cover to cover every day if you can. The rule should be 70 percent face-to-face communication in real time relationships. Don’t sacrifice digital for organic relationships. Ninety percent of communication is nonverbal.

7. What have I neglected to ask?

Big Tech and billionaires have been pushing digital addiction to make money. Big Tech has been pushing the digitalization of education and charter networks that rely increasingly on digital education. When the Big Tech firms succeed in capturing a school, district, or state Ed departments, students and parents complain about the quality of full time digital learning. Like pharmaceutical companies pushing opioids, Big Tech is pushing digital education to make more money by selling product and the personal information of students, educators, and parents.

They intend to create life-long addiction.

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