Fresh Eyes: The color of technology

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by Muktha Jost

MJ headshotIf you ask me “What’s the color of technology?” I’d pick green. I think about food and technology a lot — a lot of the time every day, actually. I don’t mean that I think about the technology of food, but technology as food. I do this because it’s the simplest and deepest comparison I’m able to make in order to carry on those complicated and profoundly engaging conversations about the tools at our disposal today.

Amma, my mother, is 78, and very skilled with a multitude of tools including the ones involved in food preparation, gardening, sewing and a variety of crafts; and in the last 20 years those cognitive tools, the computer, the iPad, and the iPhone.

She sleeps with her iPhone under her pillow because her sister who is awake at that time in India might call her to give an update about her daughter’s grandchild or how much her shoulder has healed from her recent fall. Or her niece might call her so they could both virtually share a sorrow that has gripped them for more than two years since Amma’s sister was partially paralyzed after a stroke.

During the day, she is very present to the people who are around her, but she doesn’t miss an opportunity to Skype with her friends in India or watch an occasional Bollywood movie with me online. Recently, when a niece visited her in New York, she texted the picture of a face that took me back to a feeling in my teens. Last winter, Amma risked the wrath of my sister and texted a picture of her shoveling snow to my sister-in-law, who is the only person in the family that can confront my sister about her ambitious physical exertions.

Amma is our Facebook. With the help of her devices, Amma reminds us all of each other’s birthdays and anniversaries, shares news about a grandkid with the rest of the extended family, demands our attention, nudges about what needs to be done back home in India, savors the news about elections or floods or the current event in India and researches online the nutritional value of some common greens that was part of her staple diet as a child.

Tools and technologies are like food and water — when you think deeply about them, life as we know it today would vanish if we removed them from our worlds, but if we feed babies and toddlers the technology “food” fit only for adults, the human mind as we know it will deteriorate. 

All in our fifties, my brother, sister and I have started and raised families in the US, and in the not so distant future we may have a grandchild in our midst… I hope. I wonder a lot about that little life, and about what exactly would be “safe” for those hands to grip as they reach towards the world to learn all about the its brightness and darkness. Definitely not Amma’s tools — knives, blenders, scissors, knitting needles, shovels, hoes, needles, sewing machines, iMacs, iPads, iPhones….

Wait. Not those iMiracles that you now see in the hands of infants and toddlers? Yes, most definitely not those. But why?

Here’s why: Tools and technologies are like food and water — when you think deeply about them, life as we know it today would vanish if we removed them from our worlds, but if we feed babies and toddlers the technology “food” fit only for adults, the human mind as we know it will deteriorate. By this I mean the human mind that is capable of critical thinking and problem-solving, art and engineering, stewardship and creative destruction, empathy, compassion and kindness.

There are foods and there are foods. You can’t step into the internet without some banner ad screeching at you about foods you need to avoid or consume in order to get a flat tummy, or a toned arm, or glowing skin. Let’s take the best kind of food, the kind that’s hands down good, like bananas and breakfast. We know that children who eat breakfast have better concentration, problem-solving skills and eye-hand coordination. Children who do not eat breakfast are tired at school and eat more junk food.

Despite this piece of knowledge that research has confirmed many times, we don’t overdose on breakfast, or eat breakfast all day. Despite the amazing nutritional value of almonds, walnuts, peanuts, pecans and such, we keep them away from infants and toddlers and introduce them only when it’s “safe” to their development. We now have a good sense of timing and value of food when it comes to our little vulnerable people.

But we don’t seem to have that same sense of appropriate value when it comes to our devices. A device in Amma’s mature hand gives more than it takes away, but it’s just the opposite in the hands of a developing child. Why are we so keen to put high-tech devices in the hands of our children too early, too eagerly? Perhaps it’s because they’ve not been around half as long as bananas and walnuts and hand-held blenders. Or, perhaps our devices have already hurt our own critical thinking.

Muktha Jost is a professor of instructional technology and the interim director of digital learning, planning, and assessment and NC A&T University’s school of education.