The Book Test

Launa Hall’s recent essay in the Washington Post describes her misgivings and concerns about her third-grade students using ipads in the classroom. Hall describes a handful of arresting moments when her students’ ipad use caused them to tune out both her and each other in favor of their devices, setting the contemporary technology aesthetic of “sleek devices” and “shining screens” against the “give-and-take” of “human interaction.”

Hall’s essay is one of a modern genre that despairs over the growing ubiquity of mobile technologies and their impact on human values like conversation and connectedness, but it is one that seems blind to other, more entrenched media that perform the same function. The intellectual support for this movement has recently been provided by the questionable research of MIT professor Sherry Turkle, who provides concerning anecdotes that support the fears of anyone who has begun to suspect that our screens are having noxious effects on the human need to [fill in the blank].

I want to propose a test: How would we react to the worrisome, antisocial behaviors Hall notes in her essay if we simply replaced the ipads in her descriptions with books?

For example, this is how she describes the moment when her students first received the devices, but with the references to tablets replaced by references to books:

I placed a book into the outstretched hands of each of my third-grade students, and a reverent, text-induced hush descended on our classroom. We were circled together on our gathering rug, just finished with a conversation about “democratic citizenship” and “library safety” and “our school district bought us these books to help us learn, so we are using them for learning purposes.” They’d nodded vigorously, thrilled by the thought of their very own books to take home every night and bring to school every day. Some of them had never owned a book before, and I watched them cradle the clean, uncreased covers in their arms. They flashed their gap-toothed grins — not at each other but at the open pages before them. That was the first of many moments when I wished I could send the books back.

Later, Hall notes that a report by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood found screen time for young children limits the development of social skills. Again, here is the passage, with references to ipads replaced by references to books.

We have also known for years — at least since the 2012 report “Facing the Reading Dilemma” from the Campaign for a Book-Free Childhood — that reading time for younger children in particular comes with a huge opportunity cost, depriving them of hands-on learning, time outdoors and “face-to-face interactions with caring adults.” Highly-literate parents in Silicon Valley made news way back in 2011 for enrolling their children in steadfastly book-free schools. They knew that their kids would be turning pages and mastering encyclopedias soon enough, but there are only a limited number of childhood years when it’s not only really fun to build with Legos, it’s also really good for you.

What is telling to me about this exercise is that changing these references to references to books does not alter the truth of Hall’s observations. My children are proud to own books, and value them as Hall’s students value their books. They engage in personal reading that cuts them off from contact with their parents, teachers, and peers. Personal reading also deprives children of hands-on learning, time outdoors, and interactions with others. Yet, I suspect that most people would find such alarming descriptions of third-graders’ enthusiasm for reading to be misplaced.

This is, of course, because our culture values reading not only as a means of personal development but also as a sign of advanced literacy. The problem with this genre, and the narrative of technology it espouses, is that any personal media, from a book to a tablet, can be alienating in its use, because all such media is designed for individual interactions at some level.

We can, however, consciously make these experiences more social; indeed, we have developed cultural norms to manage our experiences with personal media explicitly for this purpose. It is perfectly acceptable for me to pull out a book and begin reading on the subway but not at a small dinner party. Thinking through the social aspects of technology use requires effort and time, and we as a society have not quite worked it out yet. We know we are supposed to turn our cell phones off at the movies, but what is the etiquette for sharing a photo of our food on Instagram at that dinner party?

The basic problem with research like Turkle’s is that it magnifies anecdotes from this time of social upheaval of media creation and consumption into universal truths about technology, and it is not yet clear how our technology is actually changing us.

Put differently, the unique social impact(s) of these technologies is hard to parse because they are not yet held in check by cultural expectations. This uncertainty also exists in school settings, and one wonders why Hall does not simply limit her students’ Ipad use in ways that encourage interaction. I was a voracious reader as a child, and if my teachers had allowed me to do so, I would have buried my head in a book all day long and never talked to anyone or learned anything. Such a pedagogy would not have been very effective, and so my reading during school hours was strictly regulated.

So, why the book test?

The subject of digital technology and the questions of pedagogy that attend to it are important ones. Parents and educators have legitimate concerns about when children should be introduced to screen technology, how technologies like Ipads should be integrated into classrooms, and what skills we should be encouraging through the use of these technologies, along with robust bodies of research on these questions. Here I do not mean to dismiss these questions. Rather, I believe that if we focus on the uncertain cultural status of digital technologies, we make it difficult to understand and react to the actual impact of these devices.

In this context, the book test, replacing references to technology in opinion pieces like this one with references to books (or some other media), allows us to separate our cultural reactions to emerging technologies from questions of their impact. Making a clear distinction between the two can help us more effectively address both how we want to integrate our screens in our culture and classrooms and to better think about unique impacts of those screens on us as compared to other media.

Banner image: “My lively little kids stopped talking and adopted the bent-neck, plugged-in posture of tap, tap, swipe.” Photo by Jeremy Hiebert