If you’ve read the Radical for any length of time, you know that one of my favorite readers is Dina Strasser, who writes her own pretty darn remarkable blog over at The Line.
What makes Dina so important to me is that she is constantly willing to push against my techno-cheerleading. A progressive teacher who understands that technology will play a role in our lives, Dina is nevertheless worried about the impact that our interactions with technology are having on our interactions with—and appreciation of—each other AND the natural world.
“My worry is the fundamental concept of aloneness the Internet fosters, disconnected not only from each other, but from our physical world. In terms of our *actual* human needs…the idea that we are, and can exist healthily, completely under our own steam is a pure falsehood. It’s that simple.”
While Dina’s written about her thoughts about a thousand times here on the Radical, I never took her all that seriously until I took my kids to see Oceans—Disney Nature’s newest Earth Day release—on Thursday.
Oceans is an absolutely remarkable movie, full of live action video of the most amazing scenes from the seas. Viewers watch feeding frenzies that involve dancing schools of shad trying to avoid whales, dolphins and diving sea birds all at once.
They’re drawn in by beautiful shots of fantastic animals that seem straight out of an imaginary world. Crab battalions fight huge battles, schools of jellyfish float on currents with an otherworldly vibe, and rockfish use their natural camouflage to blend in with the sea’s floor.
Now, if you would have asked me a month ago,I would have used a movie like Oceans as proof that digital technologies are adding real value to our world.
After all, everyone with an Internet connection has almost never-ending access to scenes like those captured in Oceans, no matter where they live. The decreasing cost of handheld video cameras and streaming video sites means that our students never have to wonder what the world looks like.
With just a few digital clicks, anyone can get “real life” experiences with parts of the natural world that they may never get to experience first-hand. Poor students in rural Kansas who may never dip their toes in the Pacific can share some of the same experiences as rich students who scuba dive in the Caribbean over spring break and who first swam with the dolphins on a family vacation to Sea World when they were five.
But as I sat enthralled in the last row of the theater, a student leaned over to me and asked a question that has got me wondering whether digital renditions of the natural world are actually doing more harm than good. He asked:
“Is any of this real, Mr. Ferriter, or did they use computer generated images to make this movie?”
Amazing, huh? Here we were watching a film that oceanographers and videographers probably spent years creating, meticulously capturing and editing footage of scenes designed to capture the minds and hearts of viewers, and my student couldn’t believe that any of it was real.
I guess I can’t blame him, though.
After all, he’s grown up in a world where computer generated imagery is becoming more and more common. Video game creators and movie production companies are regularly using clever programmers to create their own imaginary worlds that look as real as anything sitting outside our windows.
Does that worry anyone besides me?
Are we getting to the point where understanding the natural world through sweaty experiences seems pointless when we can simply sit in our living rooms and “experience the world" in air-conditioned, Frito-eating bliss? Are we becoming satisfied with second-hand opportunities to "see" our planet—and if so, does that decrease our motivation to protect our environment?
More importantly, are our children becoming jaded and doubtful about the visual content that they consume? Are they at the point where it’s difficult to believe any visual message simply because they know what’s possible from a computer-generated image standpoint?
What implications does that have for protecting our world? Will tomorrow's children be as touched by the scenes of pollution that leave me moved to act, or will they simply attribute the images to a biased programmer whipping up a horrible world in an attempt to change minds?
I’ve always loved the fact that I can use digital experiences to break down the walls of my classroom and to take my students anywhere. Now, I’m starting to believe that digital experiences are making some students too lazy to wander—or wonder—beyond those same walls and are making others skeptical about the world being presented to them by the minds behind their Internet connections.
And that’s got me more convinced than ever that digitally driven teachers have a new responsibility to reconnect their kids to the real world. It's not enough to sit in sterile classrooms looking at beautiful pictures—even if sitting in sterile classrooms looking at beautiful pictures is easier.
The kids sitting in our classrooms need time to play in the dirt—otherwise, they'll begin to doubt that dirt is real, too.