Paying Attention, Not Glazing Over: The Power of Genuine Human Presence

In response to a piece extolling the possible virtues of new technology for precipitating an educational revolution, I wrote a piece on HuffPost Tech reflecting on my own practice as a teacher, and how I feel technology should function in the classroom.

It’s the kind of conversation (one of so so many) I wish I could have with Nic. He spent his last years lecturing and was always aggressive in his defence of the concept of technology and tool use. Language, for him, was a technology too – and thus it was the symbiotic relationship between emerging tool use and speech that drove our evolution into homo sapiens.

I would agree with that, but want to reflect more carefully on where that relationship has got to. In particular, I’m really interested in what effect our technologies have on our human interactions. Language is clearly a relational technology: it allows us to interact in far more sophisticated ways than gestures or noises. Guns are also a technology that impacts human interaction. The ability to kill someone without being anywhere near them is extraordinary – and very very different to killing them hand to hand, or with a mutually connecting weapon like a sword.

So – this draws the question: if we are reflecting on the relational impact of technologies, and thus their ability to enhance or diminish human experience, what are we to make of digital technologies that mediate human interaction? Writing a letter is a technology as much as writing an email – but their human impact is (now) very different. Seeing someone on a screen, as anyone who has used Skype will know, is not the same as being in the room with them.

My concern with something like Google Glass is that it will add another layer of technological mediation to our interactions. We will literally be living life through a lens – a lens onto which will also be projected email notifications, news flashes, information. The thinness of this new mediating layer is crucial: it is currently thick enough for others to know that something might be going on as well as the conversation, but thin enough for it to seem like our interaction should be ‘real.’

I ended the HuffPost piece with this plea:

Perhaps, in the final analysis, it is not under-used technology that is holding an educational revolution back; perhaps the most under-valued and misunderstood thing in the classroom is the power of genuine human presence.

My hunch is that the most effective classroom, the one where we learn most deeply, can explore new ideas most richly, must, at least in part, be a place of unmediated human presence. It must be a place where we can attend to one another and give full attention to an idea, to interrogate it, to listen and consider our responses. This cannot happen, as Professor of English Mark Edmundson has brilliantly explored in an article that gets more and more prescient, if we are constantly dividing our attention into other virtual spaces.

He experienced that in 2008 as wifi, email and messenger while he was trying to lecture. But bring in Google Glass, and literally the whole class will be glazing over: who will be able to tell who is ‘there’ paying deep attention? Add in the pressure to be delivering lecture content over video, and a very worrying picture emerges: learners who have experienced the content of an education up to degree level, but not really paid proper attention once.

For anyone who cares about learning – and thus anyone who cares about human progress, conflict resolution, religious reformation, environmental action and political engagement – the debate about technology and genuine human presence is one that you need to be engaged in. Without it, we’ll be sleep-walking, Google-glazed, into a future we’ll be shocked Siri didn’t notify us about.


3 responses to “Paying Attention, Not Glazing Over: The Power of Genuine Human Presence”

  1. Love it. I’ve never liked the polarization of technology being positive or ‘evil’ and think conversations like this are sorely needed. Let’s just get real and admit that convenience comes at a cost. I’m reminded of people’s reactions to the world created in Bruce Willis’ Surrogates, with many of my peers unable/unwilling to see that this is where technology is inevitably taking us. Cheers for sharing.

  2. chris

    As always, thank you for sharing your thoughts. Your part about guns as mediating technology reminded me of a piece that someone I know made:

    Both of you have identified the challenge of dehumanization that can take place without thoughtful reflection on the technologies that we employ.

  3. Great post Kester, It reminded me a lot of Shane Hipps’ “The Hidden power of electronic culture” and “Flickering Pixels” Both well worth a read.