Posted by: Richard Schwier | March 20, 2009

When worlds collide

I saw my worlds collide today. Hang with me here for a bit of a ramble.

Some of you may know that my oldest son is an adult who has Down syndrome. We’ve spent much of his life trying to connect him to the community in real ways, and the most difficult part of that process has been for him to find a friend – a real friend – one who sticks. He’s had loads of great acquaintances over the years and shared friends of the family, but I’d have to say, no real friends of his own.

So this week, we find ourselves at the Family Conference in Edmonton, and meeting the likes of John and Connie Lyle O’Brien, a well-known advocate for change and building a just and inclusive society. Most of you may not know of John or much about this movement – it’s part of my “other life.” But this guy’s a rock star in this area, and it’s a profound privilege to be part of a workshop he’s presenting on building inclusive communities.

So what? I discovered that John’s notion of community and his goals for inclusion line up exactly – not just similarly – with my own intentions for technology. He sees the possibility for a very different type of society, and it includes all kinds of people and the need for social invention. Social invention is about living and learning and working and playing in community, and about contributing to community. What we’re all aiming at is a good life, a meaningful life.

Sound familiar? It’s a whole lot like what I hear us talking about these days in educational technology, isn’t it?

And we find ourselves in positions of leadership. The person Barak Obama credits with getting him elected is community organizer named Marshall Ganz. He has a really neat way of conceptualizing leadership. He says “leadership is taking responsibility for enabling others to achieve purpose in the face of uncertainty.” Isn’t that exactly the type of leadership we need in educational technology?

We need to realize that what we do is about how we leverage technology to help people reach their own purposes, and in the context of enormous uncertainty. And we have to make mistakes and learn how to move beyond them. Here’s a neat example:

Before the session, Connie Lyle O’Brien and I were talking about technology – she had a Mac, so I liked her immediately. She told me a story of how technology went wrong for her because it had unintended consequences. They are often away from their condo in Georgia doing speaking gigs. A few years ago, in response to rising crime in their community, they put in a security system and automatic light controls to look after their place when they were gone. What happened? Their place was safe, but they found they were becoming more and more disconnected from their neighbours. Before the O’Briens automated their safety, those neighbours would regularly bring in the mail, come in every evening and turn the lights on and off, and generally keep a concerned eye on their property. In other words, they “took responsibility for enabling others to achieve purpose.”

The lesson in all of this? Well, it isn’t that technology is bad and interpersonal connection is good – we all know that is too simplistic and a false dichotomy. But what it tells me is that we need to constantly monitor the unintended outcomes of any technology. We need to see if the way we implement technologies does damage to a larger purpose by enabling a smaller purpose.

I could think of all kinds of adjustments to the technological and social setup to get around the O’Brien’s challenge, but I kept my mouth shut because they found their own solution. They removed the security system and light controls and started depending on their neighbours again. In this case, I think that’s just fine.


Responses

  1. […] Rick Schwier relates an interesting story of technology disconnecting people from their community. A couple who were often away from home installed a security system for their condo. This kept the condo and all their stuff safe, but it had the effect of distancing them from their neighbours who they often counted on to look after and keep an eye on their place when they were away. Rick has a keen observation: The lesson in all of this? Well, it isn’t that technology is bad and interpersonal connection is good – we all know that is too simplistic and a false dichotomy. But what it tells me is that we need to constantly monitor the unintended outcomes of any technology. We need to see if the way we implement technologies does damage to a larger purpose by enabling a smaller purpose. […]

  2. If Rick’s story has taught me something is that there is always a bigger picture to consider. In this case, technology, the tool, is at our service. The ones that have become disconnected is us, our societies, through a long process of “divide and conquer”. Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have become a resource. It affects every aspect of reality. But we want to blame technology. I know all this sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory of global dimensions, but if we think just for a second in the kinds of lives that our industrialized societies force us to have, we will see that we have become disconnected by our compartmentalized reality and not by the technologies we use. It is the chicken-and-egg unsolvable question revisited: do those technologies disconnect us or do we use them because we are already disconnected?

  3. “we have become disconnected by our compartmentalized reality and not by the technologies we use”

    Excellent observation, and food for thought. Sorry it took a few days to find it awaiting moderation. I seldom attract a lot of comments, so I was looking the other way!

    I don’t know if it is a chicken-and-egg situation. Is it possible that it is both at the same time? Is it possible that we compartmentalize ourselves AND that our technologies sometimes invite us to do the same thing?


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