This is Your Brain, Hooked on Gadgets

Location: Doing ONE Thing at a Time
image courtesy of UCLA Magazine

I was pleased to see “Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price” in The New York Times, and it’s a decent follow up to my recent post about why I resist getting an iPad right away.

My own students love to multitask, and, frankly, often their work lacks depth because it has been done haphazardly and with partial attention. Too many students get Cs or lower because of this. Even though I encourage multimodal work that includes more than text, the core of the idea under discussion must be sound, and the execution must be excellent to earn an A.

A few of us in academe, notably Michael Joyce in his book Othermindedness and elsewhere, have celebrated the ways in which we think laterally and associatively, under the influence of networked technology. Joyce once praised “successive attendings” as more important to our future than a sustained attention span.

I won’t deny that appeal and the power of lateral and associative thinking, because brains like Thomas Jefferson’s thrived on it. But sadly, for most of us multitasking seems an either/or proposition. Michael Joyce has always impressed me with his expansive mind, like his fellow poet Walt Whitman’s, able to contain multitudes.

Most of my students, as well as this writer, can contain only a few things at a time. The result of trying to overload the brain often comes with a price, and for students, it’s likely the one paid by Connor, the son of one of the people interviewed for the Times story:

Connor's troubles started late last year. He could not focus on homework. No wonder, perhaps. On his bedroom desk sit two monitors, one with his music collection, one with Facebook and Reddit, a social site with news links that he and his father love. His iPhone availed him to relentless texting with his girlfriend.

Connor began getting Cs in school, largely, his parents claim, because of his multitasking. And that is what happens too often to my students. Parents can–and too often do not–encourage better habits by example and, old schooler that I am, punishment. But Connor’s parents are both heavy multitaskers, so dad interrupts vacation time to check mail and make calls. That’s a different world from that of my med-school-bound friend John, when he was in high school. After one B on the report card, John got pulled from our gaming group until he again got straight As.

John got the scholarship to UVA. I limped in and out of Virginia with a C+ GPA. I will admit that I had a lot more fun.

Some diversions were different then: paper-and-dice games, dorm bull sessions, movies in an auditorium and not on a computer. Others, notably women and beer, remain the same. But the effects of dividing my personal time were pernicious. Luckily, I had no cell phone or laptop when I burrowed into the depths of the Alderman Library to read and prepare drafts in writing.

Now, every square centimeter of our campus library has wireless access, and the students don’t look up as they cross our beautiful grounds. Their thumbs are busy, texting. With that goes a chance at introspection. As this shift has happened, I’ve grown less afraid that my students won’t know the fable of George Washington and the cherry tree than I am that no one but me and a few other old folks will notice the cherry trees blooming in front of Ryland Hall. This is the emblematic price we pay for multitasking. Cherry trees are the unnoticed wallpaper for student walks, not a vital part of their college experiences to remind them that beauty and youth fade quickly.

One of Sven Birkerts’ great fears in The Gutenberg Elegies, the waning of the private self, is coming to pass. There’s no quiet time alone for those I teach. You can get a 2010 sense of his thinking in “Reading in the Digital Age,” from The American Scholar. The waning process is well underway. How do we fight it?

I’ve learned, the hard way, to tell those who IM me at Gmail, despite the busy status, that “I’m busy.” In Second Life I’m relentless about not answering IMs when building. I check mail three times daily at work, and that’s it. I do not answer the phone, ever.

I’ve recaptured acres of time, as a result. But I have a strong will, strong to the point that I’ll hurt others’ feelings if they interrupt my work. My students, for whatever reasons related to peer pressure and a lack of counterexamples, live in a hive.

As a beekeeper, that’s a metaphor I normally enjoy. But humans are not honeybees.

As a student put in in the UCLA story where I found the image for this post:

“If I’m reading for one of my classes, and doing other things as well, then I am not paying my full attention to the reading, and therefore learning less.”

Other than “focus on one, maybe two, tasks until you are done,” I see no other way around this dilemma. The task is hard, but the reward, as Birkerts notes, is no less than living what Socrates would have called an examined life:

Concentration is no longer a given; it has to be strategized, fought for. But when it is achieved it can yield experiences that are more rewarding for being singular and hard-won. To achieve deep focus nowadays is also to have struck a blow against the dissipation of self; it is to have strengthened one's essential position.

Alphabetic Literacy & Thought: Tactile Insights

Braille smallest

A recent interview of reporter Rachel Aviv during the radio program “On The Media” makes some interesting connections to the thinking of Walter Ong and reveals some insights from the blind regarding the significant impact of alphabetic literacy on human thinking. Digital audio technologies continue to develop for the assistance of the blind so Braille seems no longer necessary, but this may be an illusion. Because it is based on the alphabet, Braille seems to have the a greater capacity for promoting intellectual complexity than simply listening to speech.

The oft-quoted observation of Marshall McLuhan that “the medium is the message” is usually applied to electronic technologies, but it is the medium of the almighty alphabet that has had the greatest impact on our consciousness – both positive and negative.

Ong reminds us in Orality and Literacy that “more than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness” and he notes how it freed the human mind from the mnemonic exercises of oral tradition and allowed humans to develop more complex and abstract thought via the alphabet. The alphabet, along with a few phonetic symbols, is capable of representing any speech sound a human might make, but its use for organizing and improving our thinking through writing is its greatest power. By externalizing our thoughts in writing we can more easily revise them and develop their sophistication and complexity. This leads, as we are experiencing, to ever more complex thoughts and technologies.

In her NYT Magazine article “Listening to Braille” Rachel Aviv cites recent studies that seem to verify the complexity-building impact of alphabetic literacy. In a study of two groups of blind children where one group learned Braille for reading and the other used digital audio, the audio only “readers” were less organized in their thinking and their thoughts were less complex.  Unlike strictly oral communication and aural reception of information, alphabetic literacy allows us to easily draft, develop and edit our thoughts in ever more sophisticated ways. Through Braille, alphabetic literacy can stimulate the visual cortex of the blind as Aviv notes regarding a series of studies done in the 1990’s demonstrating that “the visual cortices of the blind are not rendered useless, as previously assumed. When test subjects swept their fingers over a line of Braille, they showed intense activation in the parts of the brain that typically process visual input.”

As the digital age continues to transform human communication, in spite of our many new options, we are beginning to see the essential nature of a strong alphabetic literacy for maximum intellectual development. And, to further maximize our intellectual potential we must also know the limits of this most powerful tool. In Understanding Media McLuhan discusses some of the overlooked limitations that alphabetic literacy brings with it and notes the homogenizing influence of “typographic principles of uniformity, continuity and lineality.” (27) We need to cultivate our alphabetic capabilities without being blinded and trapped by them for, as McLuhan notes, there is “nothing lineal and sequential” in any moment of human consciousness – the lineal and sequential are the impositions (or the scars) of the almighty alphabet. As Emerson reminds us in his “American Scholar” graduation address, “Man Thinking must not be subdued by his instruments.”

Language on the Skids: Planet Biscotti Goddess


Admittedly, unlike the cartoon (taken from UPenn’s Language Log blog) this post is tepid stuff. I find myself, by inclination a descriptivist about propriety in language, vexed by the overuse of “goddess” and “planet” and even “club.”

Each of these words has been debased and lost some of its grandeur by their use in marketing.

This screed of mine began as I looked across the desk, delaying grading student work, when my eyes lighted on the box of biscotti I’d picked up at Ellwood Thompson’s Local Market, my favorite place to shop. The brand, Biscotti Goddess, appears at the local coffee shop and I’m fond of them.

I’m not fond of the name. Deities, even heathen ones, or especially those, merit some respect.  I’d say “Biscotti Diva” except I’d be falling into the same trap.

My concern with using such signifiers this way comes from the ability to suck the life from what they signify.  If you look up “weasel word” in Wikipedia, you’ll see that the term comes from how an actual weasel empties an egg that still appears intact.

And thus with language. Almost time for Planet Lunch!

Writing Consulting with Non-Traditional Students: Some Advice


I want to thank Writing Consultant Megan Reilly for providing the advice that follows. Megan has assisted Dr. Leatherman’s HRM 398 course this fall in The School of Continuing Studies.

This type of work is more common now at Richmond, yet often our 18-22 year old undergraduates find the experience to be daunting. I know the feeling; when I was new to teaching, I found it difficult to assist writers who might have been my parents’ age. It was hard to “correct them.”

The theorists whose work we read in the Eng. 383 course leave it as an open question whether it’s fair, or ethical, to make assumptions about writers based upon their ages. The professional literature often portrays “non trad” students as more engaged in learning, better prepared for meetings, more likely to start work early. At the same time, the flip side of this stereotype notes they may have full-time jobs, families, and other civic and personal responsibilities that our (in comparison) carefree undergraduates do not.

 Let’s see what Megan has to say about these writers and how we can provide effective assistance to them.

I think that one of the biggest worries that Writing Center Consultants have about working with nontraditional students is the fact that there typically is a considerable age difference between consultants and SCS students.  I’m sure both parties do not want any type of “awkwardness” because of this age difference.  SCS students are at a very different place in their lives than undergraduate students, and that is something to take note of; however, you do not want this to be a barrier between a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ session.

One of the biggest differences that I’ve noticed between UR undergrads and SCS students is that because SCS students can have regular, full-time jobs and families, this makes it harder to meet in person.  I still encourage all of the students in Dr. D’s HRM class to meet with me at the Boatwright Library.  When they do, I try to be as prepared as possible and go over the exact same issues that I would bring up with undergrads: content, sentence structure, organization, transitions, APA (or MLA) format.  If Dr. D’s students cannot meet with me in person I have them e-mail me their papers.  I provide comments via the “Review” feature in Microsoft Word and also e-mail them my thoughts and tell them to e-mail me if they have any questions! It is not uncommon that I look over a couple different drafts and rewrites of the same paper for one student.

I have also consulted with SCS students that have had trouble writing in English–English was not their first language.  In many ways this can be a daunting task because you do not want to correct everything wrong in that student’s paper.  I suggest choosing a couple sentences that display sentence structural errors (because this could most definitely be the case) and write how such a sentence should be written.  Have the SCS student try to correct these errors themselves when going through their paper.

I, personally, do not find working with SCS students that much different than UR undergrads.  I think both dynamics require patience and maturity on the part of the Consultant.  I believe that it is very important to be prepared, have constructive criticism, and that sense of maturity.  You need to show SCS students that you are capable of helping them improve in their writing, even if you are an undergraduate.  When I went to introduce myself to Dr. D’s class one student asked my how long had I been working in the Writing Center.  The question threw me off-guard at first, but I came to realize that this was a valid question.  As the Writing Consultant for this HRM class it was my job to show that I had experience both in the Writing Center and within my own classes.

Social Media and Employer Pre-Screening

Homogenized, sanitized and safe!

Social Media sites like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace are being featured more regularly in the mainstream media and becoming part of our national conversation even though 51% of Americans do not use them.  However, one group that is using these sites extensively are employers who pre-screen via social media. This topic came back to my attention recently when a student wrote a journal posting about an NPR feature on this practice and its implications. My student’s response was to consider pulling all of her social media sites down to prevent potential prejudice. And she is not alone in her concern.

Employer snooping is enough of a concern to inspire a social-media deletion site called Web 2.0 Suicide Machine and Facebook is apparently trying to block it from deleting sites that users want deleted. I guess we all click that “terms of agreement” button without really thinking about it (or reading it!). I doubt we would be so quick to click if the first lines of the agreement read: ANY AND ALL INFORMATION, IMAGES, AUDIO, VIDEO, TEXT OR OTHER COMMUNICATION BECOMES CORPORATE PROPERTY AND MY NOT EVER BE COMPLETELY EXPUNGED, RETRIEVED OR CONTROLLED IN ANY WAY BY THE USER. Of course, this is generally true for email as well, but that hasn’t bothered us much over the years.

No doubt employers will continue to snoop and surveil, but I wonder about the impact. In a way, such social media are a mildly homogenizing influence already, in spite of their many options, but if we’re all afraid to express ourselves in these limited ways because we might lose out on a job, won’t we become even more homogenized and bland in our timidity? When Huxley wrote Brave New World one of the purposes for the application of technology was the deliberate homogenization of each class to promote easy management and maximum production. The novel reveal the future of that world, but it is clear that submission to such micro-management and identical duplication are subtly conditioned over time. One clue to the future of their world comes in the opening scene of the novel as a group of Alphas are given a tour of the Hatcheries and Conditioning Center: “A troop of newly arrived students, very young, pink and callow, followed nervously, rather abjectly, at the Director’s heels. Each of them carried a notebook, in which, whenever the great man spoke, he desperately scribbled. Straight from the horse’s mouth. It was a rare privilege.” This does not sound like a group likely to take initiative or arrive at creative solutions to persistent problems – but I’ll bet they would pass an employer pre-screening.

Academic Demands & Student Stress

Bridge below Cornell

I’ve been thinking of Cornell University lately, the site of a first-year seminar program that heavily influenced my thinking about first-year education at Richmond.

Instead of having fond memories of my three visits to Ithaca, lately I’ve also been thinking about the three apparent suicides on the Cornell campus.

Bodies were discovered in the bottom of the gorges–huge canyons, really–that cross Cornell’s grounds. The image above shows the lowest of many foot bridges; on the bluffs above the bridges cross  gorges that are perilously deep.

There have already been six deaths on campus ruled as suicides, not including these three who presumably jumped into the gorges.

Later in life, it’s difficult to comprehend the stress that makes a young person do such a tragic and, finally, selfish thing.  Encountering suicide in person, however, is life-altering. In my second year as a UVA undergrad, I recall coming back to Monroe Hill’s dorms to find police on the scene. An electrical-engineering student had electrocuted himself by wiring his body to his room’s air-conditioner. For the first time in our self-centered lives, most of us came face to face with the reality of death.

Richmond does not have an engineering program, where students often take 6, even 7, classes per term. I roomed with an engineer in my third year, and the workload he faced was simply excessive.  The goal early in the program was to weed out many students, and luckily–I think now–I got weeded. But even at Richmond, faculty and students may not realize the demands we place upon each other. I grow concerned that we are only a year or two away from a tragedy on our campus as well.

Faculty at Richmond could do more by assigning less busy work, shorter readings, and shorter papers. At the same time, that reduction in workload needs to come with a clear message to students: “I will be asking more of you.” I’ve tried this in a limited way, and while I recapture some free time, and my students appear to be doing better projects at the end of the terms, they place enough emphasis on the grades they get to worry me.

Students need to understand–and this probably could be emphasized more effectively in orientation for first-years–that not everyone gets an A at Richmond, that a B or C will mean little, in isolation, to future employers, and that faculty are not understanding when a student places friends or social activities ahead of coursework.

This proposed attitude falls into a generation gap. Millennial-generation students have been studied extensively, and one apparent characteristic is their desire to do meaningful work on a schedule that pleases them. They crave constant assessment and demand both service from authorities and continual guidance. At Richmond, too often, they exhibit a strong sense of entitlement and treat the university like a product they have purchased. All of that grates on many faculty, especially those like me who believe that failure is a teacher and self-reliance the best guide in life. Yet “I’m confused; what do I need to do?” could be the mantra of Millennials, just as “Suck it up and do it yourself” was–well, is–the mantra of my fellow Gen-Xers. Circumstances from the early 70s onward taught many in my age cohort that life is, indeed, hard. We missed the late 1960s and its culture of bliss.

I’m not that callous, usually, but often I find myself telling a student who wants more from me “you cannot have that” or “that’s not A work.” Many, especially in the first year, have never been told this before.

Often, I worry about the consequences.  Yet the world is not made for us, whatever well intentioned but coddling parents claim when they, in effect, tell a child “you are wonderful, and always will be. You can be anything you wish.”  Xers had a different lesson; we older ones had distant and “tough love” parents. “You have no sense at all” and “life will teach you” were common messages among my friends’ and my parents. Younger Xers often had parents who had divorced; as children many led “latchkey” lives. That was rare among my friends, and all of us, after a time of rebellion, came back to love and honor our parents when they, in old age, most needed our help.

Yet Millennials now share something with Xers: graduating into a world with economic turmoil and no guarantee of lifetime employment, something only the oldest Boomers can recall.

If college should be a place to prepare students to think for themselves, to cope with adversity, and to broaden their intellectual horizons, are we Xer and Boomer faculty doing the best job? Or, perhaps, making the lessons too hard for young people who are not able to cope?

We all need to talk more about it, and change our expectations.

e.g. i.e. etc. What to do?

Defending the Empire

A reader who uses our Writer’s Web online handbook contacted me concerning my use of “ex.” before an example of correct usage:

 I was of the belief that the correct way to abbreviate "example" was, in fact, e.g., (preceded and followed by a comma), then the example itself.

I realize that the English language is ever-evolving and Latin is considered by many a dead language, but there are a number of other credible sources that still show exempli gratia in its abbreviated form as being the correct expression to use when providing an example.

Thank you for an otherwise valuable resource for the finer points of written English.

Dear Reader:

Language is indeed changing; what is “correct” today will be forgotten tomorrow. No cohort of academics can stem the tide.  Language policies are, at best, like Hadrian’s Wall: it cut off intruders who managed to slip over, so their small bands could be easily wiped out.  On the safe side of the Wall lay the Roman civitates, unarmed and peacefully doing the business of Empire.

Yet no Wall–Hadrian’s included–could withstand a mass onslaught. That is, indeed, what new media, and before it, television and radio have done to formal English.

To your questions: for the sake of modernity, I’m going to retain “ex.” in my examples. For the sake of clarity, however, I won’t abbreviate it. All “ex.” instances will become “example” since the abbreviation might be misconstrued as “former.”

Let us be Stoic about this, as Marcus Aurelius did in the face of change. As he so wisely put it, “If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

With this in mind, I teach writers to appeal to their readers. While a few well educated readers like yourself will be offended by my modern usage, in a few years no student I teach–at a selective liberal-arts university–will ever use “i.e.” or “e.g.” or “op cit.” or “idib.” except when writing a paper using the Chicago Manual of Style. Even that will be fleeting as fame and earthly treasures were in Aurelius’ estimation. I do not believe that the “paper” as we know it will even exist in a generation. Multimedia projects will replace it.

Ars Rhetorica will survive this change, as it did when Socrates lamented that his follower Phaedrus would recall nothing important during the arrival of that pesky new technology called writing. Had Socrates’ idea prevailed, would the Romans have plundered–I mean, appropriated–what they did from Athens’ rich heritage?

Take heart! Even as our old Roman stalwarts vanish into the linguistic sunset, the dogged centurion “Etc.” will, however, limp along, often misspelled “Ect.” Its original will remain as meaningful to modern readers (we bloggers do still read) as, exempli gratia, a Roman gladius would against a British Centurion tank.

Once I saw the need to hold some sort of line against language change. No longer, except when students veer into contemporary slang (much of it on the way to becoming formal English). Seeing the following changes in formal academic prose, for instance, I no longer penalize students for contractions or the use of “center around.” These both pained me at various times in my academic career. Now I’ve just moved along since, as Aurelius reminds us, “Every man’s life lies within the present; for the past is spent and done with, and the future is uncertain.”

19th Century Clues Explored with 21st Century Writing Tools

Usher, Beeble & Swedenborg

Here, avatar Beeble Baxter muses upon the image of Immanuel Swedenborg in Richmond’s virtual House of Usher.

During our pedagogical collaborations in virtual reality, there have been surprising parallels with traditional composition, but finding these parallels is not difficult. More challenging is the invention of an engaging and useful composition in virtual reality for use in our courses to help us to create that balance of challenge and learning that Lev Vygotsky called the zone of proximal development, or ZPD.

Poe’s horror story “The Fall of the House of Usher” has always fascinated me in terms of its psychological prescience and its manifold intriguing but arcane details. Like many Poe characters, Roderick Usher is melancholic and has surrendered to “the grim phantasm, FEAR” that seems to  paralyze him. Sometimes a cursory reading of Poe moves us to dismiss his tales as merely formulaic, but his details are often doors to the dank dungeons of the human psyche. The narrator of this tale, responding to Roderick’s desperate letter, attempts to distract his friend’s obsessive and fevered mind as they “pored together over” the titles in Usher’s library. In so doing, the narrator gains some understanding of Usher’s disintegrating psyche, but we do not.

However, it only takes a look behind the mention of Immanuel Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell (1758) to get a more detailed insight into Roderick’s madness. The full title of the text the narrator finds in Usher’s Library is Heaven and its Wonders and Hell from things Heard and Seen.  Swedenborg begins with an exegesis of Matthew 24:29–31 in which he makes the following claim after dismissing the literal reading of the passage:

 “However, people who believe such things are not aware of the hidden depths that
lie within the details of the Word. There is in fact spiritual meaning in these
details, for they intend not only the outward and earthly events that we find
on the literal level but spiritual and heavenly events as well.
This holds true not just for the meaning of phrases but even for each word.”

This passage almost seems to apply to Poe’s tale as well, and so in traditional text we have mirrors of meaning. Roderick’s belief in the consciousness or “sentience” (1st coined in this story) of his house and the influence of the masonry, most specifically the “collocation of the stones”or their particular arrangement, seems to suggest a tendency to find hidden meanings not unlike Swedenborg. The “House” of Usher certainly exhibits the layered meanings that Swedenborg sees in the Scriptures. In his mystified mental misery, it may be that Roderick overlooked or dismissed Swedenborg’s insight in entry 311 where he reminds us that “heaven and hell come from the human race” a concept that might have encouraged Usher to clean up his own haunted palace to end the personal hell he had endured for so long.

It is such detail that suggests virtual reality as a potentially powerful tool for motivating students to dig more deeply into the details of the text and reflect upon their narrative function. Why does Poe bother to list these specific titles? The image of Swedenborg on one of the walls of the Usher library can be “scripted” to provide clues for student research prompting them to ask: how can Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell can help us understand the intricacies of Roderick’s madness?

 And this is but one of the books named by the narrator of Poe’s story, each of which provides its own web of connections and opportunities for research. In “Fall of the House of Usher” the line of exploration can run from Poe to Swedenborg to William Blake whose astonishing hybrids of poetry and image composed via etching and engraving, continue to provide fertile intellectual and aesthetic delight even in the digital age.
The William Blake Archive is one of the first collaborative hypermedia texts to receive academic acclaim and its design provides unprecedented access to the vast collection of Blake’s genius scattered across the globe. Here students can follow the thread from Swedenborg to Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell which includes images and text critical of Swedenborg’s views.

When the 19th Century meets the 21st Century in the dark digital hallways of our virtual House of Usher, the possibilities begin to unfold for the bold who playfully pioneer.

Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Greetings From “The Old Man Store”

Old Time Office Supplies

Today I placed an order with Staples for some supplies badly needed at the Center:

  •  “Reinforcement, hole”
  • “Pressboard Report Cover, side tab”

My reader may well wonder, “why badly needed?”  No one died because pages fell out of a three-ring binder.

We forget at times how much the work of writing still depends on paper. As much as I’ve tried, mightily in fact, to be rid of paper in my office, I find that about once per year, I will need an ancient text I photocopied in grad school in the late 1980s, an article I saved and hole-punched from a moldy issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education in the mid 90s, or  a news item printed from the New York Times‘ Web site in 2005.

These sorts of materials are not alien to my students, but I suspect that keeping and organizing them are as alien as, say, using a slide rule would be to their peers in the sciences.  And yet a Writing Center could  not exist without its crumbling archives of printed matter.

One day in the not-too-distant future, such paper-based storage supplies will be as hard to locate as typewriter ribbons (Google that, you young rascals! We can still order them!). When that dolorous day arrives, I’ll do one of two things.

Option One: horde the remaining stocks of Dymo labels from the 1970s, hole-punch machines, and White-Out for personal use.

Option Two: Open “The Old Man Store,” with lines of clothing (suspenders, by gum!) and food (Where in the Sam Hill can I get me any Ovaltine?).

For a long while, The Vermont Country Store served this purpose, even including jabs at “the young word-processing crowd” in their praise for a manual typewriter (no longer available, it seems).

As if my students get sweaty palms thinking about opening MS Word.

I just wonder if, in a few  years, their younger siblings will be saying things like “OMG you still have an external computer!” as they chat on their brain-implants.

What that will mean for writing remains unseen, but I worry about the longevity of the technologies for paper storage. These everyday items have so long been a part of a writer’s fortifications against forgetfulness and stupidity.

1970s Dymo Label Maker

Shifting Realities

facebook                                           text message                                                shortwave radio

The shifting of the Caribbean tectonic plate that caused Haiti’s tragic double-earthquake provides an opportunity for insight into the shifting realities of communications technology, authority and power.

When major news corporations like CNN lost contact with Haiti and were unable to provide any information, images posted on Facebook by ordinary “nonprofessionals” were the first to be broadcast. The social networking platform has also been used  by Zynga games to raise $1.5 million for relief. Some of the earthquake victims have been able to contact rescuers via text messages and texting has also been used as a powerful fund raising instrument, raising $22 million.

These positive and potent applications of the latest digital technology are challenging old hierarchies, empowering new voices and inspiring fresh approaches. However, in our excitement over the potential of these new tools, we would be wise to remember their vulnerability and ongoing relevance and utility of elder technologies. It may be that our most intelligent and advanced approach to technology would be a thoughtful, selective hybrid of the new and the old.

While technologies like texting and Facebook rely on complicated and relatively vulnerable systems, a radio can be run by battery. Shortwave radio in particular has historically been effective for broadcasting in emergency situations, especially since its signal can reach any point on earth by using the ionosphere as a reflector. Because of this reliability and relative stability, shortwave radio is also a part of our technological response to the tragedy in Haiti. A group called Ears to Our World (ETOW) is providing shortwave radios for isolated Haitian survivors.

These are some of the shifting realities of human communication….and it all started with writing.