Humanity harmed by technology?

I got to talking to a bunch of my students this week about the idea of virtual schooling after mentally wrestling with Shirky for awhile.  I kind of assumed that they’d be all for the idea of digital learning spaces.  After all, they’re the same kids who crave digital learning opportunities and who spend the majority of their time away from school connected.

So I was a bit surprised when the general consensus was that virtual schools was not something they were terribly interested in at all.  “I don’t come to school for learning,” student after student said, “I come because I want to see my friends!  If we went to school online, we wouldn’t get the chance to hang out with one another.”

While they didn’t realize it, their opinions revealed another one of Shirky’s central conclusions about digital tools:  Technology will NEVER replace human interactions primarily because humans are deeply drawn to face-to-face interactions.

Throughout his text, he uses examples of digital improvements throughout history that caused great panic from people who believed that humanity would be harmed by technology.  His primary example is the telephone.  Since it became ubiquitous, people have worried about the impact that it would have on the travel industry and face-to-face interactions.  Why would you go and meet with someone in person, the fear goes, if you could communicate with them in an affordable way from home?

The crazy part is that even as long distance phone rates have dropped remarkably  (did anyone else ever get grounded for a month because of the $83 phone call to someone you fell in love with at summer camp?), the travel industry hasn’t suffered at all.

As Shirky says:

“We gather together because we like to, and because it is useful. Assuming that videophones or email or virtual reality will reduce the overall amount of travel is like assuming that liquor stores will kill bars, since liquor stores sell drinks much more cheaply than bars do. In fact, the reason people go to bars is not simply to get a drink, but to do so in a convivial environment.”

Shirky’s point is a simple one:  For most people, “digital worlds” and “the real world” aren’t different spaces with different people.  They are overlapping versions of the same groups.  Technology just “greases the wheel” of interactions between individuals.

His quote:

“The internet augments real-world social life rather than providing an alternative to it.  Instead of becoming a separate cyberspace, our electronic networks are becoming deeply embedded in real life.”

So what does this mean for schools?

Do schools become hybrids?  Places where students from across disparate geographical areas primarily interact with one another electronically and then come together a few times a year?

Or do schools themselves stay largely unchanged—with the exception being that learning is extended far beyond the school day by electronic interactions with peers?

Or do people finally realize that they don’t need formal school buildings at all—instead, building networks of learners “practicing” together both online and offline?

One thing I’m certain of is that we’d be foolish to leave these questions unanswered!