Digital Natives

Lately I’m starting to feel that I’m languishing on the wrong side of the digital divide. I’m starting to wonder if I’m really cut out for technology. I realise that this is a rather strange reflection for a teacher of Information Technology with a PhD in Computer Science. Perhaps it’s time to start calling me Dr Strange. It wouldn’t be the first time.

A few weeks ago I tried very hard to leave facebook. I was increasingly unhappy with the way facebook kept arbitrarily changing its sharing protocols so that information I had locked down under tight privacy settings kept getting made public in various surreptitious ways, which I only found out about when friends started posting warnings. (Fortunately these types of warnings tend to go viral fairly fast.)

I was also getting frustrated that facebook kept dictating what information I wanted to see, and who I wanted to interact with. Despite me repeatedly changing my settings to say “I want to see everything from everyone with equal priority”, it kept resetting the interface so that it could choose what I saw, the order in which I saw it, and who I was really friends with.

The internet is increasingly filtered, shaped and redirected by companies like facebook and google. They show you what they think you want to see, but also what they think they can make money out of you seeing. Google search results, on which we rely so heavily these days, are heavily biased in favour of paying customers and strange ranking rules. We see what Google wants us to see – after all, how often do you page through to the 3rd page of results, let alone the 10th? The information on the first page is likely to be all that ever makes it into your brain.

Sadly my attempt to ditch facebook hasn’t worked. I have too many friends on facebook who I am, I have to confess, better connected with because of facebook. I love the interaction, and seeing who responds when I share something I found particularly funny, poignant, or outrageous. I love the political conversations and the funny ones. I love that I can poke fun at English or Maths teachers and start small riots among my friends.

It’s a vital, interactive community. I am more connected with friends who live overseas. I have reconnected with old friends, and I find commonalities with them via facebook that I never would have guessed. It’s also a way to share news – although it’s highly suspect for that, because of its aforesaid tendency to hide or reveal posts according to its own bizarre agenda.

When the outside temperature rises
And the meaning is oh so clear
One thousand and one yellow daffodils
Begin to dance in front of you – oh dear
Are they trying to tell you something
You’re missing that one final screw
You’re simply not in the pink my dear
To be honest you haven’t got a clue

I never closed my account, and I will probably start posting there again soon, because I miss it. I hoped that friends would travel over to google+, but it hasn’t taken off among my circles yet. Posting on google+ at the moment feels a little like flinging bread pellets into an echoing abyss.

Most of my students are active on social media all day every day. I have to work hard to keep them engaged and off chat during class. They carry phones everywhere they go, and are highly responsive to them. And I admit that, under stress, I love to be able to text or chat with close friends and get sympathetic or encouraging responses. It helps me feel connected and supported.

At the same time, though, all this connectivity seems to take a toll. I wind up feeling frayed around the edges. It’s only when I step away from it, and stand outside sniffing the breeze and listening to the birds, that the frayed edges of my soul start to knit together. It’s stillness, meditation and peace that allow me to calm down. All my electronic gadgets conspire to deny me these things. They wind me up. It’s too tempting to sit hunched over my laptop browsing facebook, rather than going outside to breathe and reravel myself. The internet seems determined to keep me unravelled and buzzing.

I’m knitting with only one needle
Unravelling fast it’s true
I’m driving only three wheels these days
But my dear how about you

I’m going slightly mad
I’m going slightly mad
It finally happened

I am sure that my year 11s, reading this, would label me old fashioned, perhaps even curmudgeonly. I know that my kids rail against our restrictions on “screen time”, and are constantly seeking ways around those limits. They want nothing more than to be permanently logged in. Yet rather than relaxing their limits, I think I need to beef up my own. I need to prioritise the ravelling of my soul over the answering of my email. Just let me check who’s on facebook…

Risky Business

Our perception of risk is a strange and flawed thing. Evolution has led us to a very tribal calculation of risk: What happens to the tribe could happen to us, so paying attention makes good survival sense. Our ideas of risk are based on the stories that we hear, which used to come primarily from people close to us, at least geographically. Now the stories we hear come from the global media, which is desperately skewed – not by any foul conspiracy, but by the need to make money.

These days if it bleeds, it leads. News stories come from all around the world, and of course we don’t hear about millions of children getting to school safely. We hear about the one child thousands of kilometres away who was snatched by a paedophile. The front page of a newspaper website will be filled with sensational tales of gory murders, gruesome kidnappings and horrendous road rage, gathered from around the world, and guaranteed to arouse excitement, indignation, and, above all, sales.

What’s more, the media gorges on the details of these cases day after day – so a single sensational incident may spend weeks headlining the news as individual details trickle out. Then they headline again when the case goes to court. Each new headline, every individual news story, reinforces the idea that the world is a dreadful, terrifying place, filled with psychopaths out to get us, and worse – targeting our children.

Today’s headlines in the Melbourne Age (in Australia), for example, include “Missing tour guide found dead in ‘hit-and-run’ after three days” – about an American woman in Tuscany. “A vicious, vile reign of terror has come to an end: pair caught after teen slain” – another American incident. Oh, and “Gunman opens fire near uni campus” – about a man who fired one shot, straight up into the air, and then drove off.  The implication of the headline is far more dramatic than the reality of the story.

danger sign

Similarly, common risks don’t get much media mileage. Car accidents often don’t make the news unless they are particularly horrific. Occasionally the road toll is reported, but they are impersonal & meaningless statistics, compared to the gripping drama of a kidnap victim, or missing child. Everyone knows the story of Madeleine McCann. No-one knows the story of Jane Do who was hit by a car and wound up a paraplegic or dead.

So we underplay the danger of, for example, driving while over-tired, or talking on the phone (hands-free or not makes little difference, in the few studies that have looked closely at the risk – it’s the distraction, not the device itself).

Headlines also cater to popular prejudice and misconceptions. Cycling has an image as an incredibly risky activity, despite studies that show that health benefits far outweigh the risks. Hundreds of people die in car accidents every year, in Victoria alone, yet a single accident involving a cyclist can make headlines for days, while the vast majority of deaths in car accidents go unreported.

At a recent talk on reptiles, the keeper at Ballarat Wildlife park pointed out that we are terrified of snakes, which cause on average 1.4 deaths per year. Yet we are not the slightest bit alarmed by Christmas trees which cause around 3 deaths per year (in Australia). I can’t verify these figures, but the point is valid nonetheless – our perception of risk can be wildly out of proportion to the actual likelihood of harm.

All these stories feed into our perception of risk in potent ways. Survival used to hinge on paying attention to what went on around us. Now we are paying attention to what goes on around the world – but only the gory, sensational, terrifying parts.

We can’t, of course, go around verifying risk statistics every time we do anything. Pausing to cross the road, our calculation of risk must be instinctive and rapid. But I think we would all benefit from a little more research and a lot more thought about the risks we take in our lives.

Australians on average live richer, safer and more privileged lives than ever before, yet at the same time we are jumping at shadows. We are frightened of strangers, refugees, bicycles and bugs. We teach our children to insulate themselves from the world, and hold themselves aloof from it for their own “protection”.  I have to wonder – at what cost?