Only sometimes ‘alone together’ in the same room

Sometimes we’re present for each other, sometimes not; what matters is that we’re thinking together about whether we need to be in each situation, as we work out the social norms of digitally informed life.

By Anne Collier

I get tired of clever terms like “iDistraction,” as found in Sunday’s New York Times, featuring a photo of a family of four lined up on a couch, each person using a different device. Let’s do ourselves a favor and employ a little critical thinking when pictures and terms like these suggest families (and relationships and child development and so many other things) are going to hell. [My headline refers to MIT professor Sherry Turkle’s book, Alone Together.]

At least reporter Alex Williams says “the culture of home-based iDistraction has already become a pop-culture trope … never has there been so much to consume on so many devices. On a recent episode of ABC’s ‘Modern Family,’ the character Claire Dunphy explodes when she tries to serve the family breakfast, only to be ignored by a husband adjusting his fantasy baseball roster on his iPad, a son playing video games on his PSP and two daughters e-mailing each other from across the table. ‘O.K., now that’s it, everybody, gadgets down, now!’ she declares. ‘You’re all so involved in your little gizmos, nobody is even talking. Families are supposed to talk!’ Haley, the eldest daughter, writes to her sister, Alex, ‘Mom’s insane,’ as everyone returns to their screens.”

Not just netiquette and phonetiquette

Actually, Mom’s far from insane, people aren’t just being distracted (they’re communicating, if at an inappropriate time for the people in the room with them), and it’s predictable that a newspaper reporter would focus so much on consumption when referring to all these devices and media everybody’s using together. There’s nothing wrong with consuming media, of course. It’s just inherently disrespectful – of today’s media, its uses and its users – to extrapolate anything from an assumption that consumption is all that’s being done. It’s also inaccurate. Even we adults do all kinds of things with media and digital devices: communicate, socialize, create, research, play, organize, etc.

So I was delighted when, way down near the end of the piece, Williams cited the view of a psychology professor that maybe a family that does parallel play or media use in the same room isn’t necessarily dysfunctional, that all relationships need to have both togetherness and separateness. It’s just that the separateness can now happen for two or more people in a room together, and maybe the most important thing to do under these new conditions is think together about how that’s working for everybody in that situation and point in time. Anything, including technology, that encourages this kind of thinking is a plus. This is how we’re all going to arrive at the social norms of this media environment – in addition to the netiquette and phonetiquette. And it’s ok we’re not there yet; the social norms of digitally “enhanced” life are a work in progress.

What’s fascinating to see is that, in this social media environment, digital (or tech) literacy and media literacy support each other, but neither is complete without social literacy. The three, I think, add up to or together define something broader than the “digital citizenship” the online safety field talks so much about and is still struggling to define (see this). We’re struggling still because today’s citizenship isn’t, can’t be, just digital. It’s largely this: life lived well because supported by digital, media, and social literacy. In addition to a well-functioning life (online, offline, whenever), these support full, positive engagement in participatory culture (or “Online Safety 3.0”). But I digress….

Three key conditions today’s media allow So we’ve arrived in an age of simultaneous individuality and collectivity, as well as of participation:

* Participation, obviously, in the sense that we’re no longer just passive consumers; we’re participants, though of course we can choose to be couch potatoes whenever we want (our kids probably haven’t heard that term, but I remember writing about how it was a big concern in Japan, when I lived there a couple of decades ago and where the media were dithering about how young “couch potatoes” – actually adopting the English-language term – whiling away unproductive hours in front of screens).
* Individuality in the sense that, like never before, we each customize media to our needs and interests, pursuing them more actively than passively, on the couch or wherever – tapping into amazing possibilities for 24/7, boundary-less learning that’s customized, self-paced, and by definition engaging.
* Collectivity in the sense that new media empower, almost require, a new kind of collaboration that is not restricted by where, who, or how old we are, allowing for the real-time, trans-global collaborative problem-solving, organizing, and creating that this complex, shrinking world is increasingly demanding of us.

“What we’re gaining [as a society] is the ability for people to be … smarter in community than they can be alone,” Arizona State University professor James Paul Gee told PBS “Frontline.” Of course it could go the other way. This could be the age or a culture of distraction if we choose to make it that, but that’s very individual too, and we have the choice, family by family and school by school. I do believe that teaching media literacy (at home and school) requires three things: 1) valuing independent thought and critical thinking so we and our children are equipped to participate constructively, and possibly as agents for social good; 2) modeling as well as teaching this vital part of media literacy – because we have little credibility and influence with our children if we can’t walk the talk (they’ll justifiably react the way Haley in Modern Family did) – and 3) encouraging this media literacy for children from the first moment they have connected devices in their little hands.

A student’s view on what participation enables

Then maybe they’ll grow up to demonstrate the kind of active, literate media participation that University of South Alabama student Amanda Spence expresses in this comment to Duke University Prof. Cathy Davidson’s blog post (linked to here):

“I don’t view my generation as ‘absorbed with media.’ I think we take advantage of the opportunities that have been put before us. I believe Generation Y can change the world. And that begins with having the capability to speak with people all over. Earlier generations didn’t have the privilege to make such an impact. They could change something locally, but it was much harder to change a nation, much less the world. From what I can tell, our generation will be very successful because we realize the world is in desperate need of change. Using Facebook and Twitter allows us to put our thoughts out there, and see how we’ll jump on.”

Related link

See this thoughtful interview Tiffany Schlain gave author Brian Solis about her film Connected – and about what today’s hyper-connectedness means to and for all of us.

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