Times Like These

Technology and everything associated with it has exploded and gone viral. The genie has exited the bottle and there’s no way to put him back.

The recent exponential growth of tools like social media, and the transition from what began as Web 1.0, or the first generation tools beginning with the Internet, which produced a static web, has rapidly transitioned to and through Web 2.0. Web 2.0 introduced interactivity via blogging and brought us to and beyond the social networking of Facebook, which most of us are now so familiar with. With the compression of exponential change into shorter and shorter bursts, we’ve entered the next realm of growth wrought by mobile technology, mainly smartphones and Web 3.0.

All of these technological developments divvy up our world into two distinct camps. One group thinks that all technology and its subsequent changes are good. There are many proponents and spokespeople that laud all things technological. A name connected, serving as a champion for this first camp, might be Ray Kurzweil, or the gang at Wired. Our second camp, which holds a position at the opposite pole from Kurzweil and company, are those holding positions equating technology, computers, and anything digital with the demise of all that’s good and holy. Wendell Berry would reside here, as would the late Neil Postman, Morris Berman, and even writers that were writing about technology’s  dark underbelly 50 years ago, like Jacques Ellul and Lewis Mumford.

There is a third group. Their position takes some variation between blind allegiance to technology as a deity and the others that view smartphones as the end of life as we know it. There are varying degrees within this group. Some members lean towards the pro-technology camp, with others tilting towards the technophobic group, harboring reservations and concerns about technology’s endgame.

I put myself in camp #3. My position is a hybrid that holds that technology isn’t bad, and can even serve as an amazing tool in assisting with a variety of tasks related to communication. Obviously I’m all about the blog, and use Facebook and Twitter regularly. I’m also aware of and offer occasional caveats about holding the belief that technology carries with it the solution to each and every problem we face as a society.

I think anyone that’s on the north side of 40 remembers what the world was like before computers, cell phones, and Facebook. Heck, I grew up with a rotary phone and when Mary and I were first married in 1982, we were happy living without television for the first five years of our marriage.

Reflecting back across my life, I am able to draw upon enough experience, and a sample size that allows me to articulate (sans nostalgia) what I think the positive qualities were during the years when I was growing up; the 1970s and into the early 1980s. This was also around the time when I would marry, and Mary and I brought a son into the world. The interval between then and now is 30 years. A lot has changed over that period; communication, interactivity and how we stay in touch, as well as the quality of our societal fabric has evolved. Some would say for the better, some would say it’s now worse than ever, and then, others would say that history teaches us that there’s nothing really new under the sun, technology, or not.

There is a quality, or better, a characteristic about the time period when I was growing up in the 1970s that is remarkably different than our current epoch. There was a commonality—some might call it a unity—that emanated from everyone getting their news from a common local or regional source. That source was the daily newspaper. The three major networks and nightly anchors like Walter Cronkite and Harry Reasoner were akin to trusted friends, invited into living rooms from Seattle to Boston and points north and south. Some academics have argued that the loss of consensus that began in the 1960s, brought a period that was characterized by malaise in the 1970s, especially economically.

Now, there as many sources of personalized information as there are people with a tether to the Internet and a device to access it.


When Mary, Mark, and I moved back to Maine in 1987, if I wanted to stay in touch with friends in Indiana, I had to write them a letter. It required some effort, and there was always a time lag from when I first dropped my envelope in the mail receptacle, to the day I’d arrive home from work and find a letter from my friend sitting on the table.

Our current state of communication can be instantaneous. While arguably more convenient, we now rarely reflect before we respond. This can produce interaction that’s overly reactive because it lacks the space required for rumination. I would argue that this is one of the drawbacks to this current state of technological immediacy. At the same time, we can now share pictures with loved ones a world apart, Skype face-to-face, and stay connected as never before.

I will tell you that my first experience with the World Wide Web was a magical thing. Long before I’d own a computer, I was working at the Lewiston Sun-Journal. They had opened a computer lab where they had what we’d now consider ancient desktops that they were using for training. At that time, I had started hearing the first use of URLs on talk radio, mainly on political talk shows, like Rush Limbaugh’s. Everything was www this and www that and I felt like I was missing the next big thing. I was still unclear about the Interwebs and even if Al Gore really invented them.

A couple of my fellow district sales managers had been playing around with the computers and they offered to provide me with a quick tutorial. The browser was Netscape, and after spending 15 minutes of web surfing, I wanted to locate my own ramp to this information super highway. This was 1996. Netscape, a subsidiary of AOL, epitomized Web 1.0. In 10 years, they went from being the dominant web browser to holding less than one percent of the world’s web traffic. By 2006, it was all about Microsoft. By then, email had become the preferred method of staying connected. While I wasn’t an early adopter back then, I still viewed my contacts with AOL email accounts as tech dinosaurs and behind the curve. They generally were.

Friday was a demonstration day of the duality of our world we are living in during this second decade of the 21st century. On one hand, I had a standing date to meet Miss Mary at the Verizon Wireless store in South Portland. We had finally decided after talking about it for the past year that now was time to deep six our trusty BlackBerry smartphones and take the next step up the ladder of Web 3.0.

In Maine, it’s still winter, even though our calendars indicated that Wednesday was officially the first day of spring. The outside temperature was hovering below freezing when I looked out and I decided I wanted a fire in our wood stove to remove the chill in the air, since this was a work-at-home day for me. In cleaning out my wood stove, I noticed one of my rear fire bricks lining the fire box of our 20-year-old stove was cracked.

Our trusty wood stove; low-tech at its best.

Our trusty wood stove; low-tech at its best.

This has been happening for the past few years as fire bricks seem to have a useful life of about 20 years. Once or twice a season for the past few winters, I’ve had to replace cracked bricks. I now keep a supply on hand for that purpose.

This one happened to be at the back corner of the fire box, in a hard to reach location, abutting the center angle iron running the length of the stove’s fire box. Replacing it would require notching one of my replacement bricks with a 1 ½ inch cut in the corner. Given the nature of the cut and what I’d later learn, was the precision required in replacing the brick, I knew I needed a tool slightly more sophisticated  than a hammer and a chisel.

Like many projects attempted over my period of home ownership, what begins as an expected  45-60 minute project, by completion, often results in an investment of much more time and energy than originally factored. Notching my firebrick fell into that category.

I had a masonry blade for my portable circular saw, but figured I couldn’t get the level of precision required. Worse, when I removed the traditional cutting blade and tried to install the one designed to cut brick, it wouldn’t fit into the bracket. Several calls later, I found that my local True Value store (no big box for this job) in Freeport knew exactly what I was describing and he told me that he had a carbide rod saw that would attach to my hacksaw. My solution was a simple, low-tech tool that cost $5. Back home, I began what would become a painstaking, labor-intensive practice of sawing back and forth; basically wearing away a groove in the brick. It took about 50 minutes to complete my first cut. I was merely getting started on this job.

Sometimes, you just need the right tools.

Sometimes, you just need the right tools.

By 2:00, I had to wrap up to make a phone call, hop in the shower, and then head to South Portland to pick up my magic, mobile phone. My firebrick still didn’t fit into the slot in the back corner, requiring a bit more precision of a cut to get it into the space abutting the angle iron. I was still an hour away from completing my task. I also wasn’t able to build a fire until I fixed that fire brick.

Mary and I got our new phones. I went with the Motorola Razr HD, and she decided she wanted to go Apple and get the iPhone 5. It’s the Baumer tech version of Hatfields vs. McCoys, or in our case, Google vs. Apple.

Motorola Razr HD

Motorola Razr HD

While the first flush of owning the new phone has been positive, even early Saturday morning, figuring out how the phone actually worked, I still wasn’t done with my very non-technological task of fixing my fire brick and getting a fire lit. By 9:00 am, I had my brick in place and a fire roaring.

Nothing beats the heat from a good wood fire.

Nothing beats the heat from a good wood fire.

My feelings and attitude towards technology have gone through a period of evolution. Rather than fight a battle I recognize I’ll never win, I’ve embraced social media, recognizing that mobile communication and the new tools can enhance my capacity to communicate, create opportunities, and I’d argue, even use this new Web 3.0 technology for community-building.

What I don’t subscribe to, however, is the Kurtzweil-lian worldview of technology as being our savior. While new phones and social media help connect us, often across gulfs of geographic distance, there comes the time when face-to-face is necessary. In fact, I think having the ability to engage in person dovetails nicely with an awareness of, and the ability to use social media tools like Facebook, Twitter, and other similar platforms.

I saw this firsthand this week when I journeyed five hours north to Aroostook County. In my role with the Maine Business Leadership Network, I’m  in the process of planning a series of regional employer summits focused on disability hiring. A group of local leaders, who I first met in November on a previous trip to Presque Isle, are helping me get this off the ground in June.

So far, I’ve had a couple of phone calls with my “boots on the ground” people in Presque Isle and Caribou. Given my past experience, and success in this kind of work, I knew that at some point, I had to make another trip north because email, social media, and phone aren’t sufficient to get it done—it still requires some face-to-face time building what I refer to as “intentional” partnerships. These are the ones that tend to yield lasting results.

I’m not unsympathetic to the concerns that some people have about technology. There are dystopian possibilities with each new uptick in the ability of devices to track, monitor, and keep tabs on our movements. The one area where we haven’t done a good job in our rush to embrace the latest device or platform, is recognizing the importance staying current regarding issues of free speech, privacy, innovation, and consumer rights. There are groups that are, however, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

At the same time, success in a free agent economy requires knowledge and awareness about how to communicate successfully. Being networked now also means using social networks to your advantage.

Taking the time now to learn the basic building blocks of social media, coupled with other tools that are timeless, like knowing how to connect with someone at a business-after-hours networking event, will serve you well and yield positive results.

Trust me on this one. It’s what I’ve been all about the past couple of years.

A low-tech tool that still works fine.

A low-tech tool that still works fine.

4 thoughts on “Times Like These

  1. Jim, I also fit in category three. You were learning about “new” technology about the same time as I was. Bob, my ex, went to Bosnia at the tail-end of that war around ’95, I think. A friend of ours, whose husband was also in Bosnia, had one of those new fangled home computers, and she let me write an EMAIL to Bob. My boys and I were excited! He had to wait his turn to use the computer but got back to us within the hour. We did not have to wait a few weeks for a reply to a letter. Fast forward to the Iraq War, 2010: my son Zak was first to go and he took his laptop. (They did that then; now I think they just take their Smart Phones). At that time, I was not on Facebook. I had heard of it because my students were talking about it and most were using it. So much for the age limit! I knew Zak was on Facebook, and on one of our infrequent phone calls, he told me to join because that would be the best way to communicate. He also complained that he actually wrote letters to friends, but they never wrote back; however, they did “facebook” him. So I joined Facebook. I was excited! I got to “talk” to him thousands of miles away. He sent pictures of himself in a sandstorm and another with his head and face wrapped in a keffiyeh. I was thankful to see that he was okay. Then, at the end of Zak’s tour, Ty went. (They actually overlapped by a month but never could meet up as Ty was stationed out at Iron Horse, and Zak was on his way to Kuwait.) By the time Ty got there, I had learned about Skype from a colleague who had hooked up with it in the classroom where she and her art class talked face-to-face with her son in China. When I was in Maine that summer, I was able to talk to and, best of all, SEE my son. Nothing better for a mom with a son in a dangerous place to see! Today, we all use Facebook and texting. (Zak likes to actually talk on the phone, but Ty prefers texting.)

    Media and technology are a large part of my language arts curriculum. Students come to me knowing how to text, play video games, and surf the net but little about how to actually use technology as a tool. I teach them how to format Word or Pages or how to make a PowerPoint, a Keynote, or an iMovie, all of which I learned on my own. I teach them how to research using reliable sources, and that Google is a search engine, not a source. I also teach about web safety. My students are incredibly impatient with technology; they want it to work NOW, and they do not like to have to search for things on a webpage by scrolling; if it does not appear on the page when they open it, it is not there. They also have the same impatience with formatting. They don’t like to have to search or experiment because that involves work and brainpower. The conversation may go something like this.
    Student: I couldn’t find your file for the research. You didn’t put it on.
    Me: I am certain I did. Did you check the ‘File’ section?
    Student: File section? Where is that?
    Me: At the bottom of the page. You have to actually scroll past my announcements. It is after ‘Quizzes’.
    Student: Oh, I didn’t see it.
    Me: Look again. Remember to scroll down, and then click on ‘Files’. You will find all the documents you need for your research.

    I could use this scenario for just about anything involving technology; students do not “see it” if they have to work to find it. I will give them credit, though, because when they are shown something on technology once, they usually do not need to be shown it again.

    As a mother, daughter, and friend, I love the communication technology. As a teacher, I have a love-dislike relationship with it. I love iPads and how we can use them in education; I love instant research on the net; I love the iPad apps; I love Evernote for students to keep notes and projects to access from any computer; I love my grade book; and I love connecting with colleagues and professional journals on Facebook. I dislike the battle of cell phones in the classroom; I dislike students’ misuse of their phones camera by taking pictures in the bathroom of inappropriate body parts and sending them to friends; I dislike and worry about the bullying on Facebook and its intrusion into the classroom; and I dislike and am concerned that my students’ brains are wired so differently from mine; I’m not so sure that is a good thing. There is a lot to be said for brain growth while calculating with it instead of a fancy calculator or smart device.

    • Great comment, Katherine!

      When Mark, our son, walked across America in 2010, he kept us abreast of where he was via his blog and updates via his smartphone. We would have been worried sick not knowing where he was and if he was ok. I can only imagine what it’s like to be a mom with a son in a war zone; and you actually had two!!

      It was the road trip that sold me on Facebook. I was blogging and Mary and I were updating our pages and getting tons of comments and positive feedback. At one point, Mark said he was getting 16,000 hits on his blog page.

      There are certainly abuses and things about Facebook and other social media platforms that are problematic. They’re here to say, however, and they’ve become central in much of our everyday conversation and commerce.

  2. An interesting discussion, Jim and Katherine. Was surprised that Jim didn’t connect social media and the wood burning stove stories. Surely the wood burning stove is a platform for communication too.

    What most resonated for me were Jim’s comments about “rarely reflecting before we respond”, and the lack of “space” causing over-reactions. I would agree, it’s wonderful to have the capacity to connect with loved ones far away, and no one is against the pull of the togetherness forces. It does seem to me that the need for frequent contact is sometimes anxiety driven. In the extreme, we hyperconnect, and there is this herding thing that happens. I don’t blame this on communication technology, but on how folks who lack self-regulation may use it. There doesn’t seem to be enough awareness of the fact that humans need some space and separateness from each other to think and to grow. Leaders in particular need to have enough distance to be able to think objectively so they can make proactive decisions, and not just react to all the instantaneous communications. It’s a trick to stay connected (not isolated), while retaining some emotional separateness from the crowd.

    Also , there is an addictive quality to our use of these tools for communication, which I think makes it more difficult to create some space for thinking, reflecting, digesting. The same is true of our addiction to data and information. If we only had enough information we could solve any problem. It seems to me that sometimes collecting more and more information can be an avoidance of making a decision, taking a stand, or just general procrastinating.

    We all have different tolerances for connectedness. Some of us reach saturation levels quickly. I find getting an optimal balance is sometimes elusive. Our brains are hopefully evolving and adapting.

    • Really interesting comment, Emily. I appreciate that you took some time to weigh-in on the discussion.

      I was intrigued by what you articulate as “different tolerances for connectedness.” This dovetails nicely with Susan Cain’s book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” It’s one of the books I’ve highlighted to read in 2013. I heard her interview with Terry Gross and it was fascinating.

      It is becoming increasingly difficult to find the space that we need to reflect and make important decisions.

      Lots to think about.

      I look forward to our conversation on April 9th.

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