The Internet Just Is

Yesterday I read a very powerful piece by tech writer Paul Miller who decided to spend one year free of the internet. He describes the initial euphoria of being free from the need to be constantly on, his opportunity to ride bikes, read books, and even take a trip to the Asifa against the internet at Citi Field. He talks of his hopes to transform himself, reprogram his brain, improve his focus, discover the joys of writing and receiving letters again, what we have come to call "snail mail", and enter into more meaningful relationships. In short, he muses that his time offline will lead him to a deeper, less shallow lifestyle.

However, after the first months of perceived bliss wears off, Paul Miller discovers that he is still the same person with the same flaws without the internet as he was with it. His time away does not solve any of his problems. Rather it creates new ones as he gradually grows less and less connected to his friends and family who cannot communicate with him regularly via Facebook, instant messaging, email, or Skype. He grows more lazy, spending inordinate amounts of time in bed or playing video games, and gradually recedes into his own world.

Especially poignant is his description of his time with his young niece who lives in far away Colorado and who he no longer communicates with regularly since he cannot Skype.
The internet isn't an individual pursuit, it's something we do with each other. The internet is where people are. My last afternoon in Colorado I sat down with my 5-year-old niece, Keziah, and tried to explain to her what the internet is. She'd never heard of "the internet," but she's huge on Skype with the grandparent set. I asked her if she'd wondered why I never Skyped with her this year. She had. "I thought it was because you didn't want to," she said.
Paul Miller's social experiment has made me think a great deal of what it means to be connected. For us older "digital immigrants" technology mediated tools seem to be qualitatively different than "regular" communications. Skype still appears to be a futuristic novelty out of the Jetsons, shared Google Docs is really, really cool, Facebook friends and groups are a revolutionary way for us to connect with friends from yesteryear. We separate mentally our normal conversations from the conversations that we have using Twitter, Facebook, Skype and the like. We distinguish between our "real" world and our "virtual world".

For our kids, it is not this way. They were born into this digital world. It is just normal for them. It is the way that they communicate just as much as talking face to face or using the telephone (which nowadays they use more to text than to talk anyways). They cannot understand why anyone would choose to step away from this. Taking a break from technology would be like taking a Taanis Dibur (a fast from speech) something which I tried on Tisha B'Av for a few summers when I was a teenager in Morasha Kollel and found to be MUCH more difficult than fasting from food. This could be one explanation for the current malady amongst some of our teenagers that has come to be called "Half Shabbos". (Although the issue of Half Shabbos might also be more fundamentally due to our kids lacking meaningful Shabbos and Jewish experiences rather than to their addiction to texting.)

I first started thinking this way about how our teens view social media and the internet after reading a piece by one of the leading creative Jewish informal educators, Dovid Teitelbaum, who runs Camp Sdei Chemed and writes a blog that consistently impresses me with its insights into the psyche of teenagers living in the Orthodox Jewish world. In a symposium for Jewish Action entitled The Social Media Revolution: What Does It Mean for Our Children? he writes about proposals from some Haredi circles to ban Facebook for our teenagers:
In my mind, discouraging social media is counter-productive. As one camper told me, “They’re not banning cell phones and Facebook, they’re banning my friends.”
Why is this so important for us as Jewish educators? Firstly, we need to recognize that the internet in general and social media specifically is a tool for communication and collaboration that like the telephone is neither good nor bad. You can say lashon hara on the telephone; you can also use the telephone for Dial-A-Daf. The same is true regarding the internet.

But I think more importantly, teachers have to realize that while utilizing the internet and technology is essential for good pedagogy, to our students who are born into this world, it will never seem be that revolutionary. To use technology to further communication and collaboration for them is normal. Not to utilize it in school is what they consider to be strange. As Chris Lehman states, "Technology should be like oxygen, “ubiquitous, necessary, and invisible.”

I am always surprised when speaking to teachers and students about our current 1-to-1 iPad implementation. Teachers usually talk about the iPad in starkly dramatic terms. It is either revolutionary for their classroom or a grave danger to their teaching. There are almost no teachers who are neutral about the iPad. Either they love it because of how it can transform the class or they hate it because of how it can transform the class.

When speaking to students, I get a very different response. They don't think the iPad is that big a deal. This is not because they dislike the device or don't value what they can do with it in a classroom. Rather, this is because to them the iPad is as normal as a pen, paper, or  white board in the room. Do we speak about writing assignments as transformative? Do we kvell about the great innovation of a teacher's use of the class white board? Of course not. While these tools are important for education, they are just regular everyday tools. Our students view technology the same way.

In summation, the internet and technology in general is neither friend nor foe. It can be utilized to facilitate cheating, distracted thought, and illicit activities. It can also be used to organize, share ideas, and work together across continents. This is revolutionary to us as teachers but to our students the internet is not a revolution. It just is.