There was a revealing moment at the third annual “All Things Digital” conference, a gathering of super-techies, featuring digerati luminaries like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. As speakers took the stage, the dimness of the ballroom hall was illumined by the ghostly glow of laptop screens — attendees were using the building’s WiFi to check their e-mail and surf the Web even while presenters spoke.
Those glued to their screen were in what one called a state of “continuous partial attention,” a mental blurriness induced by an overload of information inputs from the speakers, the other people in the room, and the glow of their laptop screens. So the conference hosts unplugged the ballroom’s WiFi, that lifeblood of digital connectivity. Throughout the room there was an eerie electronic silence, as the screens blinked off.
But there was still WiFi out in the hall, where a knot of attendees decamped to post blogs announcing to the world what had just happened. Two camps emerged. One argued that people at the conference should be fully present, paying attention to what was going on in the room. The other side contended that they were being present, but to a wider social world, their virtual audience .
The upside of connection-at-a-distance, of course, is that it can offer a human link to those far away. When done wisely, the benefits are ample. A priest told me about a funeral he conducted for the brother of two elderly sisters, who were themselves too frail to attend. So, via cell phone, the priest gave a soto voce you-are-there narration of the service at graveside, while another conduced the funeral. “Though it sounds awful, it was wonderful,” he told me. “The sisters were quite delighted to be included this way.”
And so two social realities vie for our attention: the flesh-and-blood world of those physically present, and the virtual universe of those we connect with digitally. While there are certainly arguments for staying connected to those we care about while we are at a distance, there is always a trade-off with the distractedness this wisp of an information stream induces, drawing our attention from people in the here and now.
There are, to be sure, both value and risks for education itself in these new technologies. The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, which I co-founded, advocates boosting children’s social skills along with bringing the new technologies into classrooms. As the George Lucas Educational Foundation proposes, this would mean that as new technologies free teachers from rote tasks, they use that open time on their students’ social and emotional education. These are the human skills society needs to value more urgently, and so coach children in.
Technology makes interpersonal abilities all the more vital, because of the ways it threatens to erode emotional connectivity between people. Take one potential futuristic app emerging from collaboration between Dr. Carl Marci (a Harvard psychiatrist who monitors the physiology of therapist and patients during sessions) and techies at MIT’s famed Media Lab. They have developed an ingenious fanny pack that psychiatric patients can wear at home, 24 hours a day. Wireless technology monitors their physiology, from sweat response, muscle tension and heart rate, to the rate of their movements and subtleties of tone of voice. This device may one day herald psychiatry at a distance. The monitor would automatically alert a psychotherapist when, for instance, it recognized a pattern signaling that a patient has begun relapsing into depression — a virtual psychiatrist-on-call, 24 hours a day. Soon after talking with Dr. Marci, I happened to meet with a group of physicians at the same Harvard hospital, a task force to design the “outpatient practice of the future.” High tech systems for getting information about patients to the physician played a role, as did monitoring and contacts at a distance (though none as futuristic as Marci’s).
But as the conversation went on, another rule-of-thumb emerged: the more virtual the connections between doctor and patient, the greater the need for an actual human contact, a lifeline connecting every patient to a real person who knows them and understands their feelings and needs.