Why Teaching Crowds will make you Connected, but Alone!

Gears, by Christopher Penn, https://flic.kr/p/7joyHZ, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In this week’s readings, techno-optimism met techno-pessimism. Where Dron & Anderson are almost giddy about the potential of social software in education in Teaching Crowds, Turkle’s thoughts in “Connected, but Alone” on the effects of technology on society are much bleaker  It seems that Dron & Anderson could find nothing wrong, while Turkle had little positive to say.

Connected, but Alone

I had previously watched Turkle’s TED Talk, but this time realized the cause of my discomfort while watching. Turkle is paradoxical; she acknowledged it herself, “I embody the central paradox” (Turkle, 2012, 0:11). While decrying the death of conversation and the perils of pervasive smartphone use, she admits, “My daughter’s 20. … She sleeps with her cellphone, so do I” (Turkle, 2012, 1:38). Previously celebrated on the cover of WIRED magazine for her work on developing virtual communities, she quipped that her new book was unlikely to get her on the cover again. While professing to be excited by technology still, her warnings about it make her sound technophobic.

Notwithstanding the seeming contradictions, Turkle’s warnings ought to be heard. Her credentials are impressive, and her analysis of the change taking place is well researched as evidenced in the book, Alone Together. Further, her concerns about the effects of technology are not novel. Her warning that “[smartphones] don’t only change what we do, they change who we are” (Turkle, 2012, 2:17) is reminiscent of McLuhan’s thesis that tools change their users embodied in the maxim, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” McLuhan’s media tetrad would be a useful matrix through which to consider the effects. Of course, one of the challenges of assessing the effects of any new technology is that the effects are often not immediately discernible. However, some effects seem predictable. A device that enables connection whenever and wherever also inhibits connection to people both physically and temporally present. While physical and temporal distance are reduced, psychological distance increases (Adam, 2016).

Another challenge an analysis of the effects faces is that such an analysis is merely descriptive, not prescriptive as Turkle would like it to be. This highlights my most significant struggle with Turkle’s argument. She seems to advance an argument that is fundamentally moral. She focuses on what she thinks ought to be, without providing an adequate reason for the acceptance of her view of the future (or is it a return to the past?). It seems to me that this has prompted some (at least one) to accuse Turkle of nostalgic longings and technophobia. Those kind of comments make me pause to wonder if she is missing an inevitable (and perhaps desirable in the eyes of some) evolutionary trajectory from humanism to dataism (Salon, 2017) or trans-humanism (Clark, 2017). As a follower of the Christian faith, I don’t think so. But Turkle’s thesis depends, it would seem, on an understanding of anthropology. In an interview, Turkle said, “we expect more from technology and less from each other; we’re treating each other as less human” (Nolan, 2012). The age-old question, “What does it mean to be human?,” continues to puzzle us in the face of rapidly evolving technology.

Teaching Crowds, Chapter 1

In contrast to Turkle’s ominous tone, reading Dron and Anderson’s chapter on what social software is and how it is useful in learning was like a walk through a garden in full bloom, beautiful, hopeful, and full of potential. There was some material that was new to me, but most was a helpful review. More of the chapter deserves comment, but I’ll highlight one sentence that may make the title of this post worth it. Dron and Anderson (2012, p. 9) write,

Whereas learning with others in the past often meant giving up certain freedoms, such as those of place, time, or direction, increasingly our social technologies support networked individualism (Rainie & Wellman, 2012), where we interact with others but remain at the centre of our social worlds.

Pressed to an extreme, this approach to teaching crowds could leave us connected, but alone.

(For the record, I do not think that this is an inevitable outcome and that there is a good case for social software in education.)

This post is the second in a series for this semester’s course, “Digital Tech in Adult Ed,” with Dr. Rob Power at UOIT.

Week 1 Readings

Dron, J. & Anderson, T. (2014). On the nature and value of social software for learning. In Teaching Crowds: Learning and Social Media (pp. 3-34). Edmonton: AU Press. https://doi.org/10.15215/aupress/9781927356807.01

Turkle, S. (2012, February). Sherry Turkle: Connected, but alone [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/sherry_turkle_alone_together


Adam, I. (2016). What would McLuhan say about the smartphone? Applying McLuhan’s Tetrad to the smartphone. Glocality, 2(1). https://doi.org/10.5334/glo.9

Clark, L. (2017, February 15). Why Elon Musk’s transhumanism claims may not be that far-fetched. Retrieved from http://www.wired.co.uk/article/elon-musk-humans-must-become-cyborgs

Nolan, J. (2012). A Conversation with Sherry Turkle. The Hedgehog Review, 14(1). Retrieved from http://www.iasc-culture.org/THR/THR_article_2012_Spring_Nolan.php

Salon, O. (2017, March). Sorry, Y’All—Humanity’s nearing an upgrade to irrelevance. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/2017/02/yuval-harari-tech-is-the-new-religion/

Further Reading

Dyer, J. (2011). From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications.

Groothuis, D. R. (2016, May 27). First Principles of Technogesis. Retrieved from https://douglasgroothuis.com/2016/05/27/first-principles-of-technogesis/

Reinke, T. (2014, July 19). Six Ways Your Phone Is Changing You. Retrieved from http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/six-ways-your-phone-is-changing-you

Studio, B. (2013). The Innovation of Loneliness. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/70534716





2 responses to “Why Teaching Crowds will make you Connected, but Alone!”

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