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The Thinking Man’s Machine

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The Washington Post had an interesting article this week about university professors banning laptops from their classrooms, and it sent me on a ramble about just where the digital age has taken us and where we're taking it.

The piece begins with David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown who started banning computers in class in 2006. Since then plenty of colleagues, both at GU and beyond, have followed suit. His reason was that allowing laptops was "like putting on every student's desk, when you walk into class, five different magazines, several television shows, some shopping opportunities and a phone." It's one great distraction, and there's no denying it, especially with wireless internet access.

As a high school teacher, I completely understand his decision. All of my students have cell phones, and many of them are smart phones. They're on them constantly, despite the rules to the contrary, and if they had free access to the whole internet during the day, nothing would get done. I'd have better luck giving a lecture on a YouTube video at that point.

Since the internet and computers went mainstream, it seems that there have been more distractions than useful applications. I submit for your consideration The Annoying Orange. I mean, what is that? It took all of three seconds to discover, and I find it more than a little frightening, frankly. Not only does time get wasted by the watcher, but there are people out there spending hours of their life making this stuff. Oh, I freely admit to being a consumer and distributor of random web oddness, but does it really do me any good? Are we better off as a society because we can now tell when our cats are trying to kill us? I feel myself hard pressed to make that argument.

It's no wonder ADD is on the rise in this country and bilingualism is on the decline. We allow ourselves to become distracted by meaningless drivel and it turns our brain to mush. We have stopped spending time in hobbies which force our minds to work in different ways. I mean, when was the last time you ran into a kid who built scale models after school? I was never a great one for that, but I did see a handful through, and I can testify to it being far more mentally taxing than making Mario sling shells on a race track. Not to say that there isn't some great creative work out on the web (it would be the height of hypocrisy to rail too hard against technology on a blog, after all), but I just don't think it works the same way. What we do out here in cyberspace seems so transient to me, so insubstantial. I often have a hard time finding the lasting benefit in it all, even when I write here. The web is so full of noise that you've barely let your lone note fly before it's been drowned out by the great cacophony.

Which brings me to a quote from the article by one of Cole's colleagues, history professor David Goldfrank: "The breaking point for me was when I asked a student to comment on an issue, and he said, 'Wait a minute, I want to open my computer,' …. And I told him, 'I don't want to know what's in your computer. I want to know what's in your head.'"

I often wonder what people would do if we suddenly lost all our electronics, like at the end of Escape from LA. It would be madness, of that I'm sure, but if it became permanent, I'm not sure how some people would live. Even day to day on the job, the dependence is frightening. I haven't been in the teaching game long, but I did start before a ceiling-mounted LCD projector became commonplace. I still don't have one (though it wasn't my decision). These teachers coming out of college now can't hack it if their bulb burns out. They learned to teach using technology and nothing else, and they've lost the ability to adapt when something goes wrong. There are two things I know for sure about teaching. First, the technology ALWAYS breaks. Second, if you can't think on your feet, they'll eat you alive.

It's become a recent cliché to declare all forms of print dead. Newspapers, books, even pen and paper notes. I don't buy it. Technology gives us options, sure, but it will never kill the printed word. We're a physical race and there's no changing that. From the clack of a keyboard, to the stain of fresh ink on our fingertips, to the musty smell of a library stack, the tangible has too much to offer our souls for it to be defeated. For as often as I log on, I will just as much put a pen down on a blank page, and it's nice to know I'm not the only one.

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About Chris Bancells

  • I’m with you, Chris! I’m on the computer for work all day long, and evenings and weekends too, part of the time, but I’ll never give up the notebooks and pens either. Question is, are we a dying breed? I think we might be.

  • I’m old enough to remember the time before computers and I have seen the difference over the years as computers have become more plentiful and the kids more dependent on them. There are good uses for the computer and they definitely can be life-enhancers, but all too often we binge and allow them to become energy and life suckers.

    I’m no different. I make a point of having zero computer time and continue to write the old way with paper and pen, as well as the new digital way.

  • jon says “are we a dying breed?” i’m not sure but i bet we are. i know kids approaching their mid-20’s who write nothing with a pen or pencil. they read nothing not via the web either.

    i mean, i’m with you guys, since my house is sagging under the combined weight of thousands of books…but it wouldn’t surprise me if it all vanishes (though not as soon as some people are saying..2 years..sorry, crazy talk if you ask me)

  • We’re only a dying breed if we allow ourselves to be.

  • A journal and good pen are the only cures for a “stuck” writing mind in my book. I have a laptop and an iPhone, and I still make my grocery lists on notepads, and carry a bound journal and mini-legal pad in my purse at all times in case inspiration strikes.
    My kids attend a Waldorf school, and there is a huge focus there on the connection between our physical and mental efforts. So, I don’t know that we’re a dying breed. Struggling, perhaps, but not moribund yet.