Disconnect: Technology and the Web of Relations at an International School

“Unless there is some kind of spiritual revolution that is able to keep abreast of our technological genius, we will not save our planet.”

– Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth, p. 137

As one final weekend fling before the new school year, my wife and I along with a small group of teachers went to see the film “Disconnect.” Two hours later I emerged from the theatre visibly agitated – heart palpitating and mind racing. My visceral reaction resulted from something beyond the entropic narrative webs that seemed destined to unfold like a Greek tragedy by movie’s end.

Rather, what shook me was the film’s claim that we as a civilization are simply in over our heads when it comes to technology’s sweeping transformations of modern life. Even as a middle-aged late adapter to all thing e-related (e.g., no smartphone), I could relate to or had read articles about all of the tech-related conflicts. “Disconnect” put on full display how technology is infusing, amplifying, and accelerating social ills not so distant from our school community: cyberbulling, teen online sex, stolen credit card information, and pseudo cyber-identities.

“Disconnect” offers a simple diagnosis: our closest relationships are under threat by technology.  Family members talk less to each other and go online for satisfaction. Intimacy in our real world interactions is becoming increasingly scarce. For all of technology’s magic, we sense that life as we know it is being forever changed. Technological growth seems to be far outpacing the wisdom to manage these changes.

In all the plausible vignettes that continued to build pulse-like through the film, traditional authority structures were noticeable only by their absence. Government, religious, and school authorities played almost no role in the film. In the dog-eat-dog virtual world, moral communities are caught flat-footed, belatedly carrying out a mop up operation of our cyber-facilitated failings.

Five years ago when I conducted focus group interviews with my international school students to learn how to teach classes that develop care for society, students characterized the fundamental problem facing young people as disconnectedness.* At every turn, students are tempted to remain focused on their own concerns rather than those of others, be they family, classmates, fellow citizens, or victims of the latest war or natural disaster. Their preferred metaphor for this disconnectedness was living in a bubble.

Five years later my school is beginning the fourth year of a 1-1 laptop computer program, and most students have smart phones. Positively, I have seen how these new tech tools have helped immensely to develop my students’ writing and researching skills, and I’ve become an enthusiastic, if less than fluent, tech facilitator in my classroom.

On the other hand, since the adoption of our 1-1 program our school has endured a series of wrenching crises involving bullying, depression, cheating, and drug use, all of which became more problematic because of technology. For instance, bullying generally occurs over weeks and months, but viral cyberbullying can occur within a few hours. Is it simply a coincidence that serious behavioral issues have escalated in the same years that we have experienced a quantum leap in technology usage?

indexLeslie Thiele, Director of Sustainability Studies at the University of Florida, argues persuasively in Indra’s Net and the Midas Touch: Living Sustainably in a Connected World that our Promethean instinct to grow without limits results in technological benefits that paradoxically always leave a debt to be paid. While a particular technological device is intended to solve a specific purpose (e.g., help students write better essays), “it sends a ripple across the web of life whose full ramifications can never be known” (103).

indexReferring to environmental activist and writer Wendell Berry, Thiel asserts that “every problem is a symptom of a system that is failing to satisfy the needs of its constituents” (108). Christopher Bache, author of The Living Classroom: Teaching and Collective Consciousness, concurs: “Forms of social pathology such as crime, drug abuse, and violence are seen not only as personal problems, but as symptoms of stress in the collective consciousness” (84). I can only conclude that there is some relationship between the growth of technology at our school and the issues that we’ve been forced to confront as a community.

Thiele’s solution is that we need to “solve for pattern, addressing a particular need in a way that sustains the web of relations within which it is imbedded” (107).  Solving for pattern at my school means counteracting the pressure, competition, and fragmentation with lessons that not only reduce stress, but more importantly enhance purposefulness and deepen relationships. Inspired by Bache’s emphasis on World Cafes, one of my goals this year is to include more time for guided classroom conversations. I will also continue to provide service activities that so effectively burst my students’ bubbles of disconnectedness. Finally, I will experiment further with silence, meditation, and other centering activities that students say are such a welcome respite from the relentless drive to achieve.

As technology races ahead, educators need to realize that beneath the illusion of virtual connectedness, students fear that technology may be facilitating a breakdown in our most precious relationships. While the challenge is daunting, we teachers in conventional educational settings should remain hopeful, for our saving grace is that we still meet our students face to face. And in that encounter is the possibility of developing a web of relations that can bring about positive change. In conversation with our students, we can develop new pedagogical strategies that re-connect students to themselves, to each other, and to the world beyond the classroom.

Works Cited

Armstrong, K. (2005). A short history of myth. Canongate: Edinburgh, Scotland.

Bache, C. M. (2009). The living classroom : Teaching and collective consciousness. Albany, NY: State University of New York.

Schmidt, M.E. (2009). Teaching for social conscience in Hong Kong secondary schools. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia.

Thiele, L. P. (2011). Indra’s net and the Midas touch : living sustainably in a connected world. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

* In my dissertation, I described this essential problem of disconnectedness in this way:

“Students spoke frequently about what prevented them from becoming socially conscious individuals, often referring to a sense of disconnectedness that they felt. This sense originated from a number of sources. For many students, the academically challenging nature of HKIS and its emphasis on achievement and success cut them off from being cognizant or concerned about social realities. This competitive environment, some Chinese students explained, can be attributed in part to the examination-driven atmosphere of local Hong Kong schools. Other students cast the blame further afield, attributing the competitiveness to the larger materialistic, profit-driven milieu that they are immersed in as part of the upper echelon of Hong Kong society. Some students spoke of the location of HKIS in an affluent, suburban area on Hong Kong island as a contributing factor. Positioning themselves in a larger frame of reference, other students pointed to the socio-economic disparity between the wealth of Hong Kong that they had become accustomed to, in contrast to its poorer Asian neighbors and to poor people in Hong Kong; both groups being outside their normal world. For the more philosophically-minded, this disconnectedness was a local manifestation of a modern existential phenomenon which 21st century students have no choice but to face. Students were in broad agreement that disconnectedness is a fundamental issue faced by students at School A.”

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Follow-Up Questions to the Movie

  • How does technology both connect and heal as well as separate and destroy in the film?
  • What makes the final coming together of the three scenarios so poignant?
  • What threat does technology have on your family life? Does it do more harm than good in your family?
  • What role do traditional structures of authority – government, church, school – play in this film? (Answer: no role)
  • How do certain pairs of characters develop a surprising intimacy through the use of social media?
  • How does social media heighten the fear of betrayal in the film?
  • How are issues of sexuality involved in each scenario? What is the relationship between technology and sexuality?
  • Do you feel that technology has forced you to react to relational issues in less time than before? Has this had a detrimental effect upon your relationships or do you feel you have been able to adjust?
  • Do you feel you need to grow up faster with greater exposure to issues and relationships through the reach of technology?
  • What are the various meanings of the title, “Disconnect?”
  • What is the danger of always being “connected” 24-7 through our devices to our family and friends?
  • To what degree are “likes” taken seriously by those who use technology? Are we too governed by others’ opinions now in this age of social media?
  • Which of the issues were  most frightening to you personally?

Additional Information

  • In this excerpt from my dissertation, I share my findings about the roles teachers play in helping to re-connect students through social conscience education.

About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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6 Responses to Disconnect: Technology and the Web of Relations at an International School

  1. Joanne Lam says:

    Interesting Mr. Schmidt! I’ll have to watch this movie, it sounds really interesting and definitely something that everyone should watch. I hope you’re doing well.

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