Recently I was washing my hands in a public restroom. The paper towel dispenser was one of those that automatically dispense. There was a towel ready to be pulled off; you took it, and the dispenser automatically pushed another towel out for the next user.
I was in the middle of taking my fourth towel when I realized that my hands were long-since dry and that I was taking the towels continuously because the dispenser was offering them to me.
Technology offers itself to us, but technology doesn’t decide whether or not we should use it. That is and always has been a human decision. We can forget that, or ignore it, but we do so at our peril.
If the towel dispenser was one of the motion detected sort, the above story would never have happened to me, because I would have always had to exercise my agency to get it going. Ironically that was what the Greeks meant when they first used the term automatos or αὐτόματος: It came from , autos (self) and méntis (thought) and meant “self-moving, moving of oneself, self-acting, spontaneous” according to Wiktionary. It wasn’t until the late 1940s when the term automation became more widely used, by General Motors in reference to their new Automation Department.
Although my towel story might be funny to some (it was to me,) it has some serious implications when we think about social media and digital literacy, in particular for our children. Let’s take this example:
One of things that has created a confusion of tongues in social media is the fact that we are bombarded with opportunities to share regardless of what the implication might be if we do. The Facebook status update box is a great example: As someone I know once said, “they gave us the box, but they didn’t tell us what to with it.”
What is your status update? Is it how you are feeling? What you are eating? What you are doing/thinking/talking about? If the box tells you to write something in it, do you have to? If you are not feeling happy, sad or tired, do you leave it blank. And what if you aren’t grateful for something right now? The status update can be seen as akin to the towel dispenser: pushing out prompts for you to think or communicate a certain way, but not telling you how or even that you have the choice to refrain from doing so as well.
In the 21st century, to educate our children and adolescents about personal responsibility and agency is to educate them in digital literacy. This is the responsibility of adults who themselves were raised in a culture that never trained them how to deal with the increasing automation of society or the way social media has changed our brain, sense of self and the social milieu.
It may not come as a surprise that I have strong opinions about this, and they come in a large part from my training as a clinical social worker. I believe that social workers have a responsibility to help their clients achieve and improve their digital literacy. In general if you are a mental health provider I think it is your job to do this. We are tasked with helping the human being in the social environment, and technology is part of the social environment for the majority of the population we serve. If you do not know how to use Facebook then you are insufficiently educated to work with families and children in the 21st century. If you are unaware of geotagging and the risk it poses to domestic violence victims seeking safety from their perpetrators you are putting your clients in jeopardy. If you are an LGBT-affirmative therapist and you don’t know about Grindr you won’t be effective. If you are a psychotherapist and you don’t ask about your patients’ use of social media you are missing out on a significant part of their daily interactions, behaviors, thoughts and feelings.
Chances are that if you are reading this blog you are not one of my colleagues who is completely averse to technology, so I hope that you’ll pass on some of this info to your colleagues who are. To the best of my knowledge there are only two graduate courses that teach social workers about the impact of technology on our clients, and I’m teaching them. This will have to change if we are to remain relevant to the populations we serve.
Technology is offering itself to our clients every day in hundred of ways. It is up to us to remind them to pause and remember that they have agency. If we don’t, then we are the ones who have become the machine.