Wesch: The Machine is (Changing) Us

I’ve watched the video twice now…  I find it fascinating…  I find the ideas intriguing…  I find myself contemplating my own use of technology and social networking platforms, considering my motives and whether I feel fulfilled as a result of the time I spend…

We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.
   – Marshall McLuhan

This simple phrase got me thinking about cell phones, iPhones, Blackberries, and other mobile devices that have become indispensible, as well as about platforms on the internet such as MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and on and on…

Cell Towers and Birds

Cell Towers and Birds

It’s been a few years since I’ve attended the state council meeting for Audubon… but it was recent enough that people were starting to tote cell phones.  I remember being very amused that after a session when folks bemoaned the effect of towers on birds that they all ran out of the room to use their cell phones.  Standing with one such participant who was checking her cell phone for messages, I smiled and shook my head.  She said, “What?”  I responded, “Do you not see the irony of what you are doing right now?”  She defended herself by explaining that she needed to be in touch with her office or her family… I can’t remember which…  It doesn’t matter.  We want the convenience, and we don’t want it to mess things up… but more importantly… we want the convenience.

At a recent national conference of environmental educators an even bigger percentage of participants had cell phones glued to their ears between workshops, or ran to their laptops, or the 6 or 8 public computers provided by the conference organizers, to check their email (or the Facebook status of their friends?).  I longed for “the old days” when conference participants actually talked to each other.

What did I do?  I carried my cell phone.  It was a helpful tool in coordinating lodging for me and my three colleagues, and it works great as an alarm clock.  I didn’t check my email or Facebook page for (gasp) three whole days.

But I digress…

What are my motives for having an email account, maintaining a blog, or being on Facebook?  What satisfaction to a get from it?  Is it worth the time I spend?  How is “the Machine” (changing) me?

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(my personal) Technology Evolution

I took my first computer class when I was a senior in high school.  We did the lecture and planning pieces in my favorite math teacher’s classroom.  We were learning to write programs in FORTRAN.  FORmula TRANslation.  It’s a computer language.  Or it was.

We had to be bussed down to the local community college to actually complete our projects, because that’s where the computer was. 

Herman Hollerith: founder of the company that became IBM

Yes – computer, not computers.  One.  And it took up the equivalent of two classrooms, maybe three.  There were two or three cubbies that had machines for punching holes in stacks of Hollerith cards.  (The cruelist prank you could play on a classmate was to knock over his stack of Hollerith cards forcing him to have to re-order them so his program would work.)

Once our program was punched and the cards ordered properly, we could take them to the card reader which would suck them through sending electrons racing to the big computing room.  A few minutes later, we could pick up a big green and white striped print-out that would either have the results of our program (correct, we hoped), or a listing of syntax errors.

Hollerith Card for coding data and computer instructions

If there were errors, we had to rifle through our stack of cards to find the offending piece of code, go punch a new card to replace it and start all over again at the card reader.

This old machine looks very similar to the one I used in college.

I didn’t take any computer classes during the first four years of college.  I managed to use books and journals for research and an old manual typewriter to produce all my papers.

After earning my Bachelor’s in elementary education and some early experience in the classroom, I decided the older the kids were, the more I enjoyed teaching.  So in the late seventies and early eighties, I went back to college to take more computer and math classes with the intent of extending my certification to high school.

By this time, terminals had replaced card readers and our programs were stored somewhere out there on the big machine in our “account.”  (That was hard for me.  What if “the machine” lost all my hard work?  At least when it was a stack of cards, I knew exactly where it was!)  I became a wizard at writing programs in FORTRAN, COBOL, and Pascal.

An early "personal computer" that ran off of two 5.25 floppy diskettes (no internal hard drive!) and the CP/M operating system.

Equipped with these skills, I accepted my first computer programming job.  And my first assignment:  Here’s a manual.  Learn dBase II.  We’re writing this application for a “personal computer”.

Not only did this small programming company write custom database applications, we also did a fair amount of training.  Eventually, we partnered with the community college to offer a very large personal computer training program.  Over the years I learned and taught many versions of operating systems from CP/M to DOS to Windows.  I taught people how to use word processing software from WordStar to WordPerfect to Microsoft Word, spreadsheets from SuperCalc to Multi-Plan to Lotus 1-2-3 to Excel, and databases from dBase II to III to IV to Microsoft Access.

Over the eighteen years that I helped people make sense of this personal computing world, I found that the most important thing I could teach them was how to learn, and I found that some students were better at this than others.  I recognized that the students who took copious notes on what key to hold down while tapping the other key were never going to make it.  The ones who grasped the idea of cutting and pasting as a concept would easily move from one platform to another and didn’t care what keys or mouse clicks made that happen.

I’ve been using technology for the past 12 years in my new job as Program Director at a Nature Center.  I’ve tended to use what I know and I don’t (usually) have to teach others how to use it any more.  As a result, I find myself terribly behind.  A friend introduced me to the concept of blogging and I got hooked on that.  My children are 18 and 21, and so because of them, I’ve entered the world of Facebook… 

But all this stuff – “attending” live lectures via Elluminate, watching taped lectures at TED or on YouTube, the concept of a wiki,… I have so much to learn…  And thank goodness I have learned how to learn over the years…  I’m not as fast at it as I once was… and my plate is already full.  But I’m just so fascinated.

Many thanks to all of the participants in this class.  I am lurking and learning so much from all of you.

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I’m not totally unfamiliar with the Internet…

Still, I’m having a bit of a hard time getting up to speed participating in this class.  I’ve been clicking through the class notes and student blogs, watching videos, pondering, dicussing ideas with friends, and learning one hell of a lot.  Wow!  There is so much more to it all than I ever knew.

And… I’m feeling very overwhelmed.  I hope to be able to keep up with you all!  Thanks in advance for all your insights!

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