Thursday, March 06, 2008

Technology and Nostalgia

Today, in a conversation with a group of people planning a conference on writing in the digital age, we slipped into a conversation about classic rock. It was a tangent from the idea of "old" writing methods. I suggested "classic" and we were off. But then it turned into a more serious consideration of the ways in which nostalgia about old technology affects how we might approach teaching with new technologies.

We reflected for a few moments on typing but then moved on to other topics. But I got to thinking about how people tend to get attached to doing things a certain way. My grandmother used to tell a story about a great uncle of hers, who fought in the Civil War. He lamented the loss of the fire as a source of heat. He said he just couldn't feel warm without a crackling fire in the fireplace. The new-fangled steam radiators just didn't cut it. And it didn't really matter whether radiators generated more heat or not. He perceived that they didn't.

It's an interesting parallel since from 1865 to the early 20th century, there was a huge amount of industrial and technological innovation. In that man's lifetime, the world went from horses to cars, from wood fires to steam heat, from candles to electric lighting. And those changes involved huge social changes as a result. Likewise, in my lifetime, we've gone from 3 channels to nearly infinite, typewriters to cloud computing, telephones to Skype. If my grandparents stories began, "Back in my day, I had to walk to school uphill both ways . . ." my stories begin, "Back in my day, I used correction tape to erase, one letter at a time . . ." In both cases, the implication is that the modern era is easier and the stuff we had to do "back in our day" built character and made us better people (cf. Calvin and Hobbes).

We build romantic notions around the tools we used to use, the methods we used that developed around those tools and we have a hard time letting go. We think that the new ways replace those old ways, but that's not necessarily true. They can build on the old ways or make the old ways more efficient. But it does mean we need to look critically at those ways of doing things and not hold onto them out of nostalgia.