the educational technology journal

Vol 17|No 5|May 2008
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What Digital Age?

By Jamie McKenzie
About author

Technology vendors and cheerleaders would have you believe this is a digital age, but some members of the society would have it otherwise, preferring a balance between things digital and the sensuous aspects of the natural world. Digital landscapes and menus are not always comparable. Shall we walk through a virtual rainforest or a real one? Hardly a choice unless you are addicted to the couch, the tube and your headphones.

Sadly, this is an age of substitutes, fakery and the ersatz as "reality" TV shows and news magazines offer simulated experiences that too often disregard real news and the real world. To accept the digital label uncritically is a form of surrender to cultural trends that should inspire dissent and apprehension. Virtual reality?

While some aspects of the digital panoply are splendid, others are simply hollow. Is digital destiny?

Reflection of a Mimosa

© 2008 Jamie McKenzie

Not surprisingly, the attempt by technology merchants to name this age "digital" goes pretty much unchallenged by the popular media, yet here and there a voice is raised to warn of the culture's drift away from the rich and the soulful to the thin and the barren.

Irish poet John O'Donohue, who passed away in January of 2008, devoted a section of his book Beauty: The Invisible Embrace to an analysis of how things digital may dilute experience and take us away from the beautiful.

O'Donohue explains, " . . . the digital virus has truncated time and space."

The self has become anxious for what the next moment might bring. This greed for destination obliterates the journey. The digital desire for the single instant schools the mind in false priority. Page 27

He laments the impact of things digital on the quality of life:

When you accumulate experiences at such a tempo, everything becomes thin. Consequently, you become ever more absent from your life and this fosters emptiness that haunts the heart. Page 27

Such dire warnings stand in stark contrast to the claims of various purveyors of the Digital Age. According to them, life is grander, more fun and vastly more entertaining when it flashes by with the velocity of a TV ad.

Deep Time and Deep Thinking

There are times when digital can enhance the beauty and meaning of life, as when good music and noise-cancelling headphones might filter out distracting sounds and voices while a writer struggles with important questions on a laptop. But a balanced view of things digital should include an honest look at the nerve jangling, interruptive phenomena that O'Donohue warns against.

As Sven Birkerts states . . .

Resonance -- there is no wisdom without it. Resonance is a natural phenomenon, the shadow of import alongside the body of fact, and it cannot flourish except in deep time.

The Gutenberg Elegies by Sven Birkerts - Page 75

Used wisely, digital resources can help us to find deep time, but they might also prove diversionary. The cell phone rings at many wrong moments. The email message arrives with a beep. An alert warns us of a stock loss or a governor's scandal. A string quartet lulls us into reverie.

It is a matter of choice and judgment. Each individual must learn how and when to go unplugged. Digital offers richness and value when chosen thoughtfully. We can hardly line up a live time unplugged symphony orchestra when we hunger for the inspiration of Bach, Copeland or Mozart. Without recordings, how could we possibly hope to have such masterpieces at our beck and call? Similarly, how many of us can hop on a plane to enjoy Monet's Water Lilies in Paris? Without the rich offerings of virtual museums, all of lives would be lessened, no doubt.

Flying across the Pacific at 36,000 feet reading The Spanish Bow, a novel about a famous cellist, I realized I possessed and could hear on my laptop the Bach Cello Suites that figure significantly in the story. Digital combined powerfully with print to enhance my appreciation of the music threading through the story.

Photo of cellist in Jardin de Luxembourg in Paris, © J. McKenzie 2008

Going Unplugged - Running with or without Headphones

When race officials in the USA started to ban the use of headphones during races, the reaction of runners was quite mixed, as some runners never use headphones and argue that the incessant noise is disturbing as well as dangerous. Others find the music during a three hour run to be an important source of inspiration - for thinking as well as running. The impact of music on mood and thought can be deep. Without doubt, certain music might prove better for running than thinking and the converse might also be true.

But how about running with email? When considering the complete array of digital experiences and resources, which are most likely to enhance deep thought and which most likely to disturb it?

Many of the telephone and technology companies push a digital lifestyle suggesting that it is best to be connected "any time and anywhere." Some of these ads promote the advantages of bringing one's work everywhere. Owners of Blackberrys sometimes complain that they no longer have a life - that intrusions are 24/7 and persistent.

One ad shows a woman executive enjoying the porch of a summer home in bright sunlight, sitting in dark glasses with her laptop and several other devices. The text reads "Spacious corner office redefined. Business is no longer confined by four walls. Today folks need to access and exchange information - anytime, anywhere." There is a zeal to intrude, invade and disturb - the selling of a work life that is ubiquitous and all-pervasive.

Life is a beach?

When things digital invade the beach, as we see in the cartoon above from http://phoneybusiness.com, we should pause to consider the implications. Do we want a Digital Age? Children unable to sit at table without a Gameboy to keep them occupied?

There is something to be said for grains of sand between one's toes.

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