Sunday, 13 March 2011

What Is Your Computer Metaphor?


It is Week 5 in Multiliteracies for me. I know, the workshop finished a long time ago, but I have decided that for me the workshop is going to last as long as I need it to last. Or, rather, as long as it takes me to go through my weekly tasks.

I printed some of my Week 5 readings (I know, so old-fashioned) and settled down comfortably to read them. I got as far as half-way down the page of my first text before I knew exactly what I wanted to say in this post.

In Functional Literacy Vance Stevens quotes from S. Selber's Multiliteracies for a Digital Age. Selber explores the metaphor of computers as tools and says that 'a tool metaphor invariably influences how users think about and work with computers".

As I have already said, I had an idea for a blog post half-way down this page. My mind tends to drift that way a lot. I could never get through my readings at University without getting into a dialogue with the text on its margins. Which is why I advise you to read the article I have linked to above on your own (and, when you are there, you can read the rest of the Week 5 readings), because I am going to talk about something much more frivolous here.

How much does the way we see computers influence our digital literacy? How much do our 'computer metaphors' determine our abililty to use new technologies?

My mother's generation often sees computers as living things. "What does it want now?" she says when she hears a message tone on her mobile.

My mother is a voluntary digital refugee. She is not on friendly terms with her mobile, though she begrudgingly recognises its usefulness. With our home computer... Well, she is not even on speaking terms with our home computer. Because, according to her, it is evil.

The fact that she is a retired teacher is not quite surprising. Because it is precisely from teachers that I hear this opinion most. They are the ones who believe that computers are corrupting schoolchildren. Whenever my son had a New Year celebration at school, the 'Santa' would ask them if they had been good. I always cringed because I knew what was coming. After asking them whether they had listened to their parents and their teachers, he would ask them whether they had been sitting in front of their computers for too long.

William R. Holmes, as a Magician
Photo on Flickr by Wisconsin Historical Images

There are different metaphors at play here. Computers are seen as monsters or as evil magicians who will ensnare the children and turn them into game-playing zombies.

On the other hand, I see something quite different from the not-so-literate adults of my generation. Sometimes the children are left unsupervised to go online and do whatever they like. In this case the computer is seen as a babysitter.

Macy's Christmas Display 2006: Mary Poppins
Picture on Flickr by jpellgen

This, of course, is a bad idea. The reasons why this is a bad idea are so numerous that I will not even get into them here. But is it generally dangerous to let our children go online and play computer games?

While I was growing up, we were one of the first generations in my country who grew up watching TV. We watched Looney Tunes cartoons, which some people said were too violent for children. There were long discussions about what TV was going to do to our attention span. You know, I don't think we are that different from previous generations. Though, to tell you the truth, I don't like TV much. It is too passive. They talk to you, you listen. You can change the channel, but that's as far as you can go to change something.

It is different with computers. My son was only five when he created his first PowerPoint Presentation. It was a messy thing, but he was so proud of himself. And we still have it somewhere.

I don't know what my son's generation will grow up into. Living near computers and being exposed to them is no guarantee that chlidren will become multiliterate. They will have the technical skills, but without the ability to think critically and to question everything you read online, computers are reduced to interactive TV. Watching the teenagers from my neighbourhood, I get the idea that this is their computer metaphor - computers are 'fun boxes' for them. They go online to download music and movies, or to spend hours looking through their friends' Facebook albums.

Which is why I believe multiliteracies should be taught at school. Alongside with this, critical thinking skills should be developed. Yes, and there should be world peace and enough food for everyone. Birds should be singing and sun should be shining every day.

Between the digital refugees of my mother's generation and the digital natives of my son's generation, where does it leave the rest of us?

We should be somewhere in between, shouldn't we? Except that we are not and people my age are divided into two tribes - the technophobes and the geeks. With lots of variations in between, of course. Some of my friends dislike computers or limit themselves to checking their email. Others, like me, are enthusiastic about the internet in a way my son's generation will never be. For my son, having a computer in his life is quite normal and taken for granted. For me, the computer has opened new horizons.

JJ At The Window free creative commons
Photo on Flickr by D. Sharon Pruitt

I see it as a geenie from a magic lamp, willing to do things for me and take me wherever I want to go. It is a magic wand helping me create things I never dreamed I was capable of creating. But primarily it is a communication tool, helping me connect to people.

I have used the chocolate metaphor in this blog before. I have compared myself to a child in a chocolate shop. Digital immigrants have the tendency to 'overeat' when they are online. They overload themselves with new information and new projects. Because they grew up in a society where they were expected to finish every project they started and because they still don't have the skills necessary to manage information online (such as filtering and sifting), they often feel overwhelmed. I believe that digital natives cope better in this situation. They start new projects, but they drop them as soon as they lose interest. They may not be as committed or as persistent as we are and we often accuse them of a short attention span, but maybe those are the characteristics necessary to 'survive' online. To use the chocolate metaphor again: maybe we should sample different kinds of chocolates, but we should also know when to stop before we overeat. Then one day you will find out what your favourite chocolate is and ignore everything else. And when someone offers something you are not interested in, you should find the strength in you to say: " Thank you, I have had enough."

Chocolate Tower!
Photo on Flickr By creativecommoners

Can you resist? I can't. But then, I am probably addicted.

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