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My Computer Is a Small, Yet Extremely Effective Time-Suckage Machine and I Am Stressed

January 21, 2010

Nicholas P. Negroponte, a computer scientist who founded the One Laptop Per Child organization, claims that “[i]t’s not computer literacy that we should be working on, but sort of human-literacy. Computers should have to become human-literate.” I agree. But computers have human users and those users also need to become aware of the human costs of their tech use.

I am stressed. Last night at almost 9 p.m. I received an email requesting a letter of recommendation. There was a job description attached so that I could figure out what to address, I suppose. At least it said there was. I didn’t open it. I didn’t have room in my brain for the information. The sender needs the letter to be mailed by Saturday. Although I truly respect this person’s intellect and would be delighted to provide a reference, I really do need more than a couple of days to do this.

Here’s another related hint: When you make a request and get a response, be sure to respond so that the person isn’t left hanging. This applies to setting up advising appointments or help sessions or any other kind of time commitment you’re requesting. I just received a kind and understanding email regarding the letter I was unable to write by Saturday. Imagine that you are me. For whom would you be willing to write a letter in the future? The person who never replies to you or the one who sees that you are a human being too

I really should know better than to check email when I get home from work, but since I’d been in meetings since 3 p.m. without a chance to look, I wanted to make sure there wasn’t something urgent like a meeting time change for the next day. Incidentally, here’s another hint related to human/computer interaction. I’m not your friend planning to meet you for a movie and I have to drive an hour to get to work, so if you want to cancel a meeting with me–unless the circumstances are extraordinary–don’t email me right before the meeting time.

As for the letter, I already have my work time committed for the next couple of days and the only place to get more time would be to give up some sleep or eat faster. I’ve already planned for my “free” time and will be using it to finish getting a conference presentation ready for next week. I’m behind because of several other requests for rush letters, and that’s another reality. As I’ve mentioned before, I have not yet found a time to make time elastic.

Technology is getting to me. I do love email because it’s preferable to listening to endless voicemails and I’m old enough to remember pre-answering machine days of endless attempts to contact someone. But just because you can reach someone and send something out, it’s not reasonable to expect 24/7 response•ability. I know that I am guilty of this myself, and so I don’t mean to sound as though I am not. Still, wanting a response to something that will require a couple of minutes and wanting several hours of a person’s time are different things and all of us should be aware of this.

Teachers are especially vulnerable to this kind of request, particularly if we care about our students’ success. Even being asked can activate our guilt button. As a student, you should be aware of the time cost of any query, particularly if you may be only one among many who are making similar requests. I’m delighted to provide input about multiple things, but not instantly. And please, do not get huffy when you email on Sunday morning and haven’t heard by afternoon. Ask yourself what students did before email and IM and voicemails. How might you get answers for your questions on your own. My son, who teaches middle school, asks his students to ask “three before me.”

There are other things I’m asked to do are things the person should do her- or himself. Even if I’ve read two million books, I’m not likely to want to spend the afternoon providing you with bibliography of “best” resources related to a particular topic. If I can think of something, I’ll be glad to share it, but I don’t want to do your work. It’s part of why students are in school, to learn to locate resources. I get asked to do this kind of thing quite frequently.

A couple of years ago, I got one of my favorite requests: “Here’s a list of my information. I know that you’re a former graphic designer, and I was wondering if you could create a resume for me since I’m headed off to a job fair next week and I want it to be perfect.” What I wanted to write back in response to this email (I didn’t even get asked in person) was “ARE YOU NUTS?!” Instead, I politely responded. I should have been clearer about how inappropriate this request was.

This isn’t my only tech challenge today. Let me simply say that institutions can have communications systems that are frustrating. I am sometimes left feeling like I am serving the system and not that the system is serving me. And then there’s the email I got today with sixty attachments. I’m interested in what’s in them, but until I look, I won’t know for sure. I fear my boat of good intentions will sink as it hits these shoals.

Neil Postman (1992) points out in Technopoly that there are winners and losers in the spread of computer technology. The winners tell the losers “that their lives will be conducted more efficiently. . .should the losers grow skeptical, the winners dazzle them with the wondrous feats of computers, almost all of which have only marginal relevance to the quality of the losers’ lives but which are nonetheless impressive” (p. 11). Many days I feel like a loser as technology becomes more and more intrusive and its benefits become instead huge time-suckage-frustrations.

What are the costs and benefits of technology in your life?

Computers make it easier to do a lot of things, but most of the things they make it easier to do don’t need to be done.
• Andy Rooney

Working in an office with an array of electroic devices is like trying to get something done at home iwth half a dozen small children around. The calls for attention are constant.

•Marilyn vos Savant

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