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Can We Raise True Thinkers in a Digital Age?

This morning, like many at our house, was a mad scramble of collecting lunchboxes, tennis shoes, and backpacks and hurriedly tumbling into the car. I delivered my older son to the curb of his school in the nick of time and enjoyed a few minutes chatting with my younger son. Suddenly I remembered something I’d forgotten in the morning commotion. I grabbed my iPhone and used the Voice Memo feature to dictate a reminder to myself. My son politely endured my interruption and then had a new thought.

“See, Mom, that’s why you need Siri,” he piped from the backseat.

Did I mention that I don’t have the latest, greatest iPhone?

“Well, honey, this will kind of do the same thing. I’ll just listen to it later and write it down.”

“But Siri would be better, Mom. She would just remind you. It’s quicker.”

Most normal mothers would simply have let it go. Or agreed with him. But no. My son had the good fortune to draw me for his mother. So first, this:

“Apple has done a very good job of selling to you, haven’t they? They’re great marketers. I have a really nice phone right here, but they’ve convinced you that I need the new one. Don’t you think they’re very good at selling?”

Quietly, sensing the precarious road ahead, my son nodded in agreement. He’s nine. Of course he agreed. He’s probably back there thinking, “How did I end up with this one for a mom?”

And then I really ramped up.

“This could be the beginning of the end of civilization as we currently know it,” I proclaimed. “I mean, we’re all driving around, listening to our cars tell us where to go and now our phones are making our dinner reservations for us. Who’s going to be left to think? Where will we find the thinkers?”

At this point, I think he was about to hop out of the car and hoof it the rest of the way to school. Instead, he offered up himself. “I will, Mom. I’ll think.”

There’s nothing quite like blaming the future decline of thoughtful civilization on Siri to get a kid’s day off to a great start.

I realize, of course, that this was all a bit much. But can you see how I got there?

I don’t pretend to be immune to the siren call of progress. Our home is a repository for technology of all kinds, not the least of which is my beloved MacBook Air. My kids have iPods and cell phones and computers to use. My eldest is an iMovie junkie. We’ve spent more Sunday afternoons at the Apple Store than I care to admit.

I also understand that technology has many useful applications for our lives, not the least of which is that it can make life easier, and sometimes, cheaper. I’m old enough to remember when my mom used to wait until after 11 p.m. to call her mother in another state, because money was tight and long-distance calls were significantly cheaper after that time. Or when I couldn’t use my cell phone if I were out of my “home area,” lest I incur frightful roaming fees. Now we call anytime from anywhere for “one low rate.” Who can argue with that?

And yet.

It’s the little moments that glint and glitter, that catch my eye and make me wonder: How far will this go? When kids do research for a school paper, their bibliographies consist primarily of Google references. Do they understand about a primary source? Or how to track one down? Does it matter? When they walk to school or ride the bus, iPod cords dangling from their ear buds to their hoodies, do they ever have time alone with their thoughts? Do ideas and questions percolate? Do they ponder? Does that matter? What about Garmin and Google maps? When I insisted that my eldest son learn to read a map, he challenged me: “What’s the point, Mom? Even your phone has GPS.”

Good question: What’s the point?

It reminds me of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the novel about a dystopian society where books are outlawed and little is questioned after the rise of TV. When I re-read it a couple of years ago, I wrote a long-winded post about its relevance today. He was focused on TV, the new technology of his time. Then, it was the thing that made people wonder: How will this affect the future? How will it affect our kids?

That’s exactly where I was going this morning with my over-reaching proclamation to my still-small son. What will these technological advances mean to us individually and to our society as a whole? I hope we will use them for our benefit, that we’ll continue to pursue knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and to use our gifts for the greater good.

What do you think? Will we?

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