Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Let's Not Forget What We Lose With Those Screens Between Us and the Other People

I've been taking a lot of long and necessarily solitary walks these days. The weather has been glorious and, frankly, there's not a lot else to do. Occasionally, I encounter people coming toward me from the opposite direction. The protocol is for both of us to move as far to the right as we can in an attempt to create the six foot separation that is the depressing hallmark of our current era. Sometimes one or the other of us has to step out into the street because most of the neighborhood sidewalks aren't wide enough to accommodate both of us. I've been trying to make eye contact, to smile, and to greet my fellow pedestrians. It's not the usual big city protocol, but these are extraordinary times.

The other day I was making my way up the long hill of Dexter Avenue after a turn through Fremont. I spied a young man in the distance, a boy really, maybe still in middle school. We were to pass one another on a wide section of the sidewalk so I moved to my side well in advance of our encounter and he to his. Then, just as we approached one another, just as I was about to nod my head in greeting, he began to drift toward the center of the sidewalk, toward me. It didn't seem intentional. Indeed, I felt myself pulled toward him as well. It was almost as if we were falling into one another's gravitational fields.

Several years ago, there was a commercial on television featuring screen-based technology that allowed children to "paint" on their screens. The pitch featured a girl enthusiastically making pictures for her daddy who was away on business. There were smiles and secret tears, the heartstring pulling idea being that this technology was almost as good as being together. At the time, it seemed like a vision into a colder, less connected future, one that has come to pass.

But I've been thinking about my encounter with the young man on Dexter. I've started live broadcasting on the internet, taken part in two e-conferences, made videos (see my YouTube channel) and produced an e-course (see below or click here), with another one on the way by the end of May. I'm doing this as an economic replacement for speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I'm not very good at it, but I imagine I'll get better. I'm glad the technology exists, but I very much miss the gravitational pull of other people. I miss sitting down on the floor in the midst of a crowded preschool classroom and to experience children being drawn into the divot I've created in the fabric of space and time. It's disorienting for me to use this technology, to have people "present," real people, who I can see and hear, but who are not exerting the "gravitational" pull that is a part of being physically present with one another.

We talk about our five senses. Screen-based technology can only convey degraded versions of sight and sound, while it fails entirely when it comes to smell, taste, and touch, not to mention the hundreds of other senses we seem to have, like this gravitational pull. I worry that one of the lessons learned from this time of isolation will be that this sort of technology is a satisfactory replacement for schools and offices and social life. Already, there are those who are suggesting that more of us will be working or getting educated from home, and I suppose they're probably right, but that will never fly for preschoolers, who still must learn through all of their senses, their one hundred senses, which are the source of what Reggio Emilia founder Loris Malaguzzi called the "one hundred languages of children," his metaphor for talking about the "infinite ways that children can express, explore, and connect their thoughts, feelings and imaginings."

We are using our screens right now as a substitute for our usual life of "infinite ways." Let's explore them and make the most of them, but let's also not forget that there is so much we lose, so much we can never understand, so many "languages" we cannot speak or things we cannot sense, with those screens between us and the other people.

I did not arc away from that young man who was drawn toward me. I felt his pull as we passed, just as I could tell he felt mine. We are only really fully human when we are human together, a lesson I've learned by sitting on the floor in the center of the classroom and experiencing all those languages.


I hate to do this, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've just had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 6 months. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the donation button below. 

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