The Future of Friendship

Pretty dramatic spike in readership this week.  Thanks to those that are forwarding the link and welcome new readers.

To what degree, if at all, are your friendships enriched by your use of internet-based personal technologies?

At the University of Olso, a US Fulbright student is studying how mobile phones are impacting interpersonal relations in Norway.  She reports there are more mobile phones in Norway than citizens because a lot of people have both work and personal phones. 

Recently, I asked a 16-year old Norwegian how many text messages she sends a day.  “Since purchasing this phone three months ago,” she said while digging into her phone’s archive, “I’ve sent 10,600.”  You do the math.  In the meantime, while trying to write the last paragraph, I sent my first three text messages (the third message was simply “leave me alone”) to my daughters who find my incompetence amusing.

In late August a few years ago, I played 9 holes of golf with five entering PLU students as a part of orientation.  I played with two of the students and an orientation counselor played with three.  When my group finished, the other group was still on the 9th tee, a par 5.  I suggested to my playing partners that we wait to see how their round went so that we could connect one more time since the whole purpose of the activity was to help the students get to know one another.  Fifteen minutes later, as we walked off the green together, five of the six students instantaneously flipped open their phones and started talking to who, friends participating in other orientation activities somewhere else in Tacoma?  What did we wait for I wondered. 

I acknowledge that cell phones, text messaging, instant messaging, blogging, social network sites, iPods, blackberries, and gps devices are changing how we interact with one another, but are those technologies contributing to closer, more meaningful friendships?  As you’ve embraced these technologies, have there been trade-offs?

I feel out-of-step with most people who are enthusiastically embracing the whole gamut of internet-based devices.  I find email imminently helpful, and I’m enjoying blogging, but I’m skeptical of whether cell phones, texting, and social network sites are contributing much to people’s interpersonal relationships.

When it comes to these technologies, I’m not totally clueless, just partially.  My friends tell me they value their cell phones because they like keeping tabs on their children’s whereabouts, they like knowing they can reach someone quickly in case of an emergency, and they like the convenience of adjusting schedules on the fly. 

I turned 46 last week and maybe the mantra of the 60’s, never trust anyone over 40, applies here.  Given my recent rant about privacy and my techno-skepticism, I wonder, am I even older and moldier than my biological age suggests?  And if I’m a curmudgeon already, what does the future hold?

Add into the mix this excerpt from a recent Wall Street Journal article about the future of friendship:

“Technologies like text messaging and social networking have made it possible to keep track of a much larger group of people than ever before.  With built-in alerts, you can get a constant stream of information about your friends and what they’re doing.  In the future, more information will end up in your social network—and you’ll be able to send that information automatically to your friends, wherever they are.  ‘The opportunities to keep in touch with people are going to abound,’ says Fred Stutzman, a researcher at the University of North Carolina.  And as GPS hardware becomes more widespread, that information will follow wherever you go—literally.  You’ll be able to keep track of the physical whereabouts of your friends.  It will also get simpler to use all these services.  Today, you have to sign up for MySpace to reach MySpace users, sign up for Facebook to reach Facebook users, and so on.  Futurists predict that in 10 years, you’ll be able to reach anyone using any service on your computer or cell phone.”

As an undergrad I did poorly on my first economics exam and promptly changed the course to “pass/no pass.”  Somehow I passed, but it must have been a close call.  Ironically, despite doing poorly, I took several key concepts from that course—among them, scarcity, elasticity, opportunity cost, and the law of diminishing returns—that I continually return to both in my professional life as an educator and in my personal life.

The WSJ excerpt brings the law of diminishing returns to mind.  At what point does a person have so many friends that they can’t see them regularly, can’t keep up on their daily lives, and inevitably sacrifice intimacy? 

Despite all the technological advances, time isn’t expanding so our potential for close friendship is still limited. 

Since everyone is awake about the same amount of time, imagine everyone has approximately 50 “friendship credits” and friendships range from “1” acquaintance to “10” the most intimate friend.  One person might have 5 “level 10” friends, another might have 10 “level 5” friends, another, 25 “level 2” friends, and yet another 50 “level 1” friends.  Maybe a more likely friendship profile would consist of something like 3 level 10’s, 2 level 5’s, and 5 level 2’s.

Seems to me that in their seeming excitement about technological advances, the Wall Street Journal’s futurists slight basic sociological insights.  Technological advances will undoubtedly make staying in touch with more people even easier, but the trade-off will be intimacy because meaningful friendships will continue to require consistent face-to-face contact.

Check back with me in 2018, but over the next decade, I don’t foresee a single technological innovation contributing significantly to deeper, more meaningful friendships.

If I have to choose, and that’s my precise point, we all have to choose, I’d prefer a relatively small, low-tech circle of close friends to a much larger tech-based circle of acquaintances.  How about you? 

Student-centered Education Reform

Much longer post than normal.  Economists may see a dip in US productivity as people all over the country simultaneously read this Monday’s missive, or more accurately, massive.  Persevere to the end and you’ll be rewarded with a picture of the worst cross country skier in Norway.

Thanks to the hospitality and constant help of people like our friend Inger, we’re adapting well to Norwegian life, learning lots, and enjoying the experience.  We’re settled into the second story of a nice house, picked up some Norwegian phrases, and learned our way around town.  It’s been clearer and colder than normal and It hasn’t snowed since our first two days.  J wants it to snow and I want it to melt so I can run which probably explains the meteorological impasse.

I enjoyed teaching for the first time recently with Inger in a town about an hour away.  Beautiful drive, combo of forests and snow covered family farms disguised under the snow as pure white ocean swells.  Interaction was limited in the classroom, but the students were very attentive, and they want me to return, so that’s a good sign. 

J is in a neighborhood school part time and A is playing in an orchestra and is about to enroll part time in school too.  L has been organizing school visits and has turned our apartment into a nice base.  Home schooling is underway and during today’s break J went ice-skating across the street where we live.  She came home from PE the other day and said basketball isn’t the Norwegians strong suit.  I told her not to talk too much smack because everything will even out on the ice. 

We miss friends and elements of home—ice-less running paths, Marleyboy, our garbage disposal, and Costco prices.  Prices are two to three times what we’re accustomed to.  Gallon of gas, $7.50-$8.  Litre of milk, $2.20, or nearly $8.50 gallon.  Small jar of peanut butter, $4.  Swimming pool/fitness center entrance, $14.  Movie, $13-$14 depending on how long the movie has been playing.  It’s a daily torture chamber for a cost conscious person like me.  The Fulbright stipend was adjusted upwards for the higher prices, but it’s still hard to pay $4 for six eggs or over $40 for a family trip to the pool.  On the plus side, the hens probably have decent health care.  In A’s and J’s view, the killer slide at the 50 meter pool . . . priceless. 

The UN Development Program uses about 30 variables to measure quality of life in countries throughout the world and Norway is often ranked #1.  Minimum wage is around $20/hour which helps explain the cost of goods.  L and I tried to figure out the bus system recently and failed.  We must have looked pretty forlorn because we were offered a ride by a nice couple and jumped in.  Nice, newish VW wagon I thought to myself before learning our new friend was a prison guard at the 50-person prison in the middle of town (built in 1864).  I think he makes a bit more money than his counterparts in the U.S.  

Schools provide an interesting window into a culture.  Before offering initial impressions about Norwegian schools, a precautionary parable:

In the mid 90’s I traveled to Accra, Ghana with a colleague, Dave, to visit students of ours studying at Cape Coast University. Over the course of a two-week visit, Dave and I became friends with Marshall, the Cape Coast University employee who had been assigned to us as our driver. The more I got to know Marshall, the more I liked him. He had held a series of interesting jobs in a few different countries, he had a large and loving family, and he was excited about the goings on at his local church. I could tell by the way he talked about his family that he was a caring father.

These positive impressions were all called into question when, while negotiating narrow streets in a dense, residential part of Accra in our van, an 18-month old child ran out into the street right in front of us. Marshall slammed the breaks, stuck his head out the window, and yelled at the knee-high girl in a local dialect. I was stunned. I thought I knew him well enough to know he wouldn’t cruelly lash out at a young child.

The three of us sat in silence for a few minutes until Dave, sitting in the passenger seat, asked, “What did you say to that girl back there?” Marshall briefly paused, and then said, “I didn’t say anything to the girl. I yelled at her mother telling her ‘Children are precious gifts from God and you should keep a closer eye on yours!’”

This cultural misunderstanding was an epiphany for me. I learned that cross-cultural encounters aren’t always as they first appear; as a result, when trying to make sense of them, it’s important to guard against quick and definitive conclusions. I was certain that I saw and heard Marshall yelling at an infant. In actuality, I couldn’t see Marshall’s eyes from where I was sitting to know who he was looking at, and I couldn’t understand what he said because I didn’t understand the local dialect. Sadly, I didn’t let those limitations keep me from concluding that Marshall was not a caring person. When trying to understand cultural differences while living abroad, our eyes, ears, and other senses sometimes fail us.

With that caveat, here are some initial impressions and tentative conclusions from visits we made to a range of Norwegian schools last week.  We also spent one evening watching a youth orchestra rehearse.   

The administrators couldn’t have been friendlier.  They spent a lot more time with us than U.S. administrators would have been willing and able to spend with a visiting Norwegian family because they had far fewer fires to put out.  I looked in vain for the requisite denizens of school offices in the US, the frantic parent, the in-trouble troubled students awaiting their fate, the over-eager student council leaders clamoring for the intercom, the disgruntled faculty member. 

We casually walked into class after class sometimes unobtrusively watching and others creating enough of a stir to interrupt the lesson.   My favorite entry was through a black sheet that turned out being the back drop for the cast of “Queen: We Will Rock You.”  Suddenly we were on their stage.  I figured that was sufficiently embarrassing for A and J so I resisted the urge to belt out “Find Me Someone to Love.”  The administrators exuded a calm that spoke to the smooth functioning of their schools and society I suspect.

The ethos at each school was informal.  After our tours we sat down with the administrators to look over the master schedule.  We’d explained our interest in classes that weren’t as language intensive; art, music, PE, and their response were always, “No problem, whatever works best for you.”  When L and J finally settled on a school, L asked about paper work and was blown away to learn there was none.  In essence they said, “Whenever she shows up, we’ll take good care of her, no problems.”

Teacher-student interactions were informal too.  Students seemed almost equally divided between being in class with a teacher, socializing while on a formal or self-determined break, or working on a class project in small groups mostly independent of a teacher.  Inger’s daughter Rakel explained that students at her high school (grades 11-13, children start school one year earlier) are free to leave the classroom if so moved.  No real explanation needed.  Most of the time they visit in the cafeteria awhile before eventually returning to class.

Like everywhere, the students were social.  A friendly eighth grade girl complained to us about the obnoxious boys in her class, a universal lament.  Students were lively and energetic, but not so much so that administrators or teachers had to intervene.  I didn’t notice any obviously alienated or unhappy students.

The hallways and classrooms struck me as unusually relaxed environments.   

There was one telling sign that at least some of the instruction was more teacher-directed than student-centered.  Some of the classrooms were V-shaped.  Strangest thing ever.  Everyone knows classrooms are supposed to be rectangular.  We walked into a “V-shaped” 9th grade English class and the teacher was so excited she stopped reading about the King of Norway’s new Toyota and explained the lesson to us.  The 50% of the students on our side of the “V” gawked at the real live Americans that magically appeared before them.  The other 50% had to listen and imagine what the visiting foreigners looked like.  Eventually, we exited through the other half of the “V” so they could compare their images with reality.  How do you lead a class discussion when one half of the class can’t even see the other?  And more importantly maybe, what do you do if the person you have a crush on is assigned a seat in the other half of the “V”?  Classic example of architecture confounding student-centered teaching and learning.

It’s difficult to assess how good one set of schools is compared to another without first thinking through the purposes of public schooling.  One philosopher of education distinguishes between a utilitarian/extrinsic orientation toward the purposes of schooling and a humanitarian/intrinsic one.  She labels the first “education for having” and the second “education for being.” 

In the US, in the first decade of the 21st century, business model thinking has reshaped public schools and the pendulum has gotten stuck on the “education for having” end of the continuum.  Teachers are constantly being told that economic competition is intensifying and China and India will dominate the 21st century if we don’t raise academic standards, improve math and science teaching, eliminate the achievement gap, and toughen graduation requirements. 

As Nel Noddings notes in “When School Reform Goes Wrong,” teachers are unfairly scapegoated when our economy underperforms because they don’t receive credit when it does well. 

I’m extremely skeptical of politicians and business leaders ideas for improving public schooling, yet I acknowledge young people are entering a more competitive economy and more challenging future.  Phone calls, tax returns, x-rays, anything that can be digitized probably will be, and once digitized they will be sent via coaxial cable to a lower paid worker on the other side of the world.

My sense is new teachers are passively accepting the business model prescriptions for strengthening schools.  Add to that the publics uncertainty about whether young people will be able to earn a livable wage, have health benefits, and afford decent homes in an era of outsourcing.  Instead of hoping that their kids will do better than them, many parents wonder whether their kids will live as well as them.

This mantra of foreign competition combined with general economic unease has created stressed out teachers, parents, and young people.  I want my college students to earn a livable wage and successfully compete for jobs with health benefits, but I would be doing them a disservice if I didn’t challenge them to think about the intrinsic, “education for being” value of education as well. 

My sense is Norwegian educators and parents aren’t nearly as worried about China, India, or their children’s economic prospects, and not just because they’re sitting on incredible oil and financial reserves.  My guess is they know that type of pressure isn’t in their children’s best interest.   

As we drove to class recently, Inger, my colleague and friend and I, were discussing this.  She thinks Norwegians may be compromising academic excellence by limiting academic competition.  In fact, during my initial visits to four Hamar schools, I didn’t get a feel that many students were deeply engaged in especially challenging content. 

To a casual observer, Norwegian and American schools would look fairly similar, but dig a bit deeper and meaningful differences reveal themselves.  I believe cultural differences enrich the world, so I’m glad schools in Norway and the US reflect those differences.

Advocates of business model education reform often reference the “race” we’re in with other developed countries.  The “race” metaphor suggests a zero-sum global economic competition with clear winners and losers.  What about challenging the business model orthodoxy with other metaphors that accentuate cooperation more than competition?  Does educational excellence have to be a zero-sum game?  What can I learn from Inger about Norway’s unique approach to schooling and what can she learn from me about schooling in the US?

If Inger and I were put in charge of educational policy in our respective countries, she would seek to infuse a bit more US-style academic competition into Norway’s schools and I would seek to emulate aspects of Norway’s more informal and relaxed educational environments by decoupling academic excellence and global economic competition and by asking teachers, parents, and students for their best ideas on how to make schools healthier, happier places.


Mad as Hell

As Ian McEwan’s last few novels and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking attest, writers engage readers by using descriptive details in place of vague generalities and by revealing their true, unvarnished selves.

Recently, I’ve been wondering, how do writers, including bloggers, reveal their true, unvarnished selves while maintaining some semblance of privacy?  And this question is complicated when, in being transparent, a writer also reveals details about close family and friends.  For example, right as I was launching this blog, I published a commentary in the Tacoma News Tribune originally titled “The Social Cost of Wealth.”  I forget what the editor changed the title to.  In the essay, I argued there is a psychic disconnect between affluent people and those struggling to make ends meet, a disconnect that impairs social relations.  The only way I could help readers grasp that idea was to provide concrete examples. 

The problem was my wife was uncomfortable with a few of the details provided in some of the examples.  In essence she was saying, “It’s one thing for you to sacrifice some of your privacy for the sake of your craft, but I’d prefer to manage my privacy myself.”  Makes perfect sense. 

So now I’m trying to reveal as little as possible about close family and friends while revealing just enough about me to engage readers and maintain some semblance of privacy.  Tough balancing act. 

Currently I’m reading a special section from a recent Wall Street Journal about anticipated technological changes over the next 10 years.  One conclusion I’m drawing is that whether we’re writers or not, our privacy will continue to ebb unless more of us begin tapping our inner Howard Beale and begin yelling at those who couldn’t care less about our privacy, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” 

Nothing short of “Seattle World Trade Organization in the streets” type of resistance will probably make any difference.

Recently I was walking into the Tampa Bay Aquarium when a guy reached out for my elbow and tried to pull my family and me over to his makeshift camera studio.  He had a digital camera on a tri-pod, stools, and some dorky, ocean-themed backdrop.  He was pouncing, staging, and snapping before acquiescing families even knew what hit them.  Jerking my elbow away I said, “No, I don’t want our picture taken.”  Incredulous, he looked at me as if I was the first person to ever say no to him. 

I didn’t want him to have digital images of my wife, children, and me on his computer.  And I don’t want to have to give Big 5 my address and phone number every time I want to buy a pair of frickin’ swim goggles.  And I don’t want video cameras on every street pole like in London.  And I don’t want GPS devices alerting others exactly where I am.  And I don’t want marketers tracking my purchases in order to individualize their advertising. 

Even if I stick my head out of my window and yell, “I’m mad as hell” I don’t think I can stop the further denigration of my privacy without tens of millions of other people getting equally as pissed off.  I don’t see that happening so I’m resigned to a certain erosion of my privacy. 

Few adults are helping young people think privacy issues through as they dive headfirst into Facebook, MySpace, and related social networks.  Admittedly, there are security concerns in London and elsewhere, GPS devices are wonderfully helpful at times, and many people look forward to customized advertising, but too few people are thinking through the negative consequences of these technological advances.  Instead, they’re mindlessly acquiescing to predatory photographers and high tech marketers.  Once they get concerned about the loss of privacy, it will be too late.  You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.

Twenty-three years ago I was chasing my now wife around southernmost Mexico.  One day we hiked from one small village to another just outside of San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas.  It was a beautiful walk that culminated with a sharp descent onto a small zocalo where the most unexpected event imaginable was taking place.  Indigenous Indians were hoopin’ it up in a ragged basketball tournament.  The tallest player might have been 5’5”.  They were very physical, but not very good. 

I was hoping some team would be a man short and I could channel Kareem Abdul Jabbar but that wasn’t to be.  I didn’t think people would believe my descriptions of the scene so I took out my camera, focused the zoom lens, and began snapping away.  An Indian sitting behind me made a “tsskk” sound, which I took to mean “Hi” in his language.  I kept snapping away, but couldn’t help notice the “tsskk” change to “TSSKK!”  Culturally oblivious, I continued to focus in when “SMACK” he hit my zoom lens with a stick.  That I understood.  Soon after I learned Chiapas Indians believe that when their picture is taken, a part of their soul is entrapped inside the camera. 

I wonder am I sacrificing a part of my soul every time I provide personal information to a business, make a purchase on-line, or add to my blog?  Like my Indian friend and my wife, I want to manage my soul, but Madison Avenue and Silicon Valley are formidable foes especially when they team up.  Anything short of a mass movement of tens of millions of people refusing to be grabbed by the elbow and the continuing erosion of our privacy is all but certain.


Northern Retreat

When it comes to parent-child relations and the “quality versus quantity of time” debate, “quality of time” adherents are often rationalizing skewed priorities.

Parents cannot spend enough time with their children during the first ten years of their lives. 

Parenting is the most selfless act imaginable.  Effective parenting entails putting your child’s needs before your desires on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis year after year.

I’m far from a perfect parent, but I’m proud of my wife’s and my work and the young women our daughters are becoming.  I’ve accomplished a fair share of things, but without a doubt, I’m most proud of who my daughters are becoming.

Why ten years?  That’s fairly arbitrary, but three of four years ago I remember having a conversation on the way to school with A, age 15, that is etched in my mind.  The specific words aren’t as memorable as the vivid feeling the conversation engendered.  It had something to do with friends, choices, the importance of schooling, delayed gratification, and planning ahead.  She cut me off midstream and completed “the talk” in her own words.  It was as if I was seeing the future, hearing what she’s likely to tell my grandchild on the way to school in two or three decades. 

It was an epiphany.  We were done.  Give her a driver (with navigation), a frig filled with food, and she could damn well live on her own. 

Ten years of affection, reading together, attending violin recitals, talking over dinner, commitment.  Ten years of trying to put her needs before my desires.  I enjoyed the process, but at that moment, felt even more moved by the result.

Intellectually, I knew A would forge her own path after high school; I just was caught off guard by how mature she already was.  Part of me was saddened that she would never need me in the same way, but I knew I had to accept it as a natural part of the cycle of life.  I had an intense joy that’s tough to put into words. 

We’re probably a more modern family than we’d like to admit.  We try to be countercultural and resist the urge to over schedule ourselves.  But it’s two steps forward and one back.  There’s an ebb and flow, but too often we get overscheduled, drive too much, and don’t spend enough time together, unplugged, and fully present. 

Maybe the best way to flee the grasp of modernization is to retreat on occasion.  In 2003, thanks to my university, we retreated to Chengdu, China for three months.  I was the site director for our study abroad program at Sichuan University.  We separated ourselves from our friends and regular activities, lived in a small apartment without an internet connection, walked all over together, dealt with homesickness and cultural differences together, played ping-pong and made new friends together, and as a result, deepened our bonds.

If you’re reading this on Monday, February 4th, we’re probably half way over the Atlantic in transit to Hamar, Norway, 83 kilometers north of Oslo, where, thanks to a Fulbright grant, I’m doing guest teaching at a university. 

Our first shared experience was preparing together.  And we just learned our “semi-detached, tiny, but cozy” guesthouse won’t be ready until February 25th so it’s three nights in a hotel and two and half weeks in an apartment in a museum 30 minutes away.  Most importantly, we’ll bop from place to place together.  It will be the first of hundreds of new experiences that we’ll share together.  Instead of five minutes of conversation after school, or ten during dinner, we’ll once again be living in very close proximity, experiencing interesting and challenging new things together on a daily basis, leaning on each other, and once again, deepening our bonds. 

My hope is we’ll be changed as a result of our Northern retreat, both individually and collectively.  When school and full-time work begins again in September, and we return to our regular routines, I hope there’s a legacy of intimacy that helps us better manage the pace of modern life and relate to one another and others with even more patience, kindness, and love.