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Into the cave again

Note the experiences of the people in the commercial.

2-XL is my muse. Though I delight in reminiscing about this toy, my real interest lies in reflecting upon the impact of technology in our lives. When I look at my 2-XL sitting in my den, thoughts are stirred. Could technology have had a different impact in our lives? Could technology have taken a different course? Might it still? (I’ve stated this before, 2-XL anticipated a very different course, one with more personality — personalness.)

The negative impacts of technology are well-documented. Nicholas Carr writes in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains that technology is adversely changing the way we think. The Internet is making us dumber, we are less interesting, we are more disconnected. I’m inclined to agree with this assessment. Though the Internet has enriched many aspect of our lives (I am blogging after all), it has totally consumed us and altered our social patterns.

Here’s an observation: most of our interaction with technology involves staring at a screen. We are glued to our phones, our computers, our televisions. The focal point of our attention is a flat surface. This fosters impersonality, shallowness. Not that I expect computers to be living beings, but I don’t want computers to be drawing us away from real, living experiences — from other people. One might have several hundred friends on Facebook, but how many of those relationships are real? Have friends become avatars?

Playing with 2-XL as a child was a very social experience. I remember my brother and I pushing buttons, laughing at jokes, and being very much delighted by the experience. Though 2-XL was merely a cleverly conceived 8-track player, he gave the impression, not only of an intelligent being, but a social being. That may well be because Dr. Michael Freeman, the inventor of 2-XL, was the voice and personality of the “talking robot.” Children were only one step away from a person. Because 2-XL successfully gave the impression of personality, playing with him became a very social experience.

Freeman is an important figure because championed the use of technology in the classroom in a age when its potential was not fully understood. He found ingenious ways to modernize the classroom, using existing technology. Some might find it strange to regard 2-XL as a significant advancement, but this “talking robot” actually provided meaningful instruction.

Today, computers (and even more rapidly, smartphones) are being employed in classrooms. But what is the result? Impersonality. We are self-absorbed. We see only what is before us, and little else. We experience little, understand little. Do computers and smartphones foster social interaction?

I do not imagine that computers will change very dramatically, but our experience must. I suggest that 2-XL, though primitive in design, suggests a different way to interact with technology. First, his programs were less visual, and more oral. This oral element fostered imagination, more active thinking. Second, because 2-XL was a less visual experience, 2-XL fostered social interaction. Users were less dependent on him, more dependent on themselves.

I wonder what the classroom might look like today, even the technology we employed fostered social interaction.

© 2013, Mark Adams. All rights reserved.

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