published Sunday, April 14th, 2013

Cook: Little Darth Vaders

The other day, I watched my kids tinker with the family iPad. Sliding their sticky fingers left and right on the screen — like working the eye slot on some old speakeasy door — they did the work of gods.

Called forth knowledge. Communicated across time and space. Created new worlds.

Yet like gods, the iPad giveth.

And taketh away.

"We hand even our smallest children enormously powerful machines long before they have the moral capacities to use them," Lowell Monke writes in Orion.

Wherever you look, there is iPad creep. It's sleek, capable of stunning coolness, easy to use, and may best symbolize the new world of modern tech.

Hamilton County schools want to put one in the hands of every kid. Private schools already have. No device since the electrical outlet can transform education in such ways. (Virtual schooling even allows computers to supplant teachers themselves).

Yet in our mania for gadgetry, we've skipped the part of the conversation that asks: Why? What are the dangers of iPadding our kids?

Let us count the ways.

"The computer has not been able to show a consistent record of improving education,'' Monke writes.

The iPad is a thief. It steals kids' ability to sit quietly and daydream. Steals their autonomy (the machine, forever by their side). Steals any commitment they have for research beyond "Googling it."

Long hours with an iPad change the way kids receive knowledge. Staring at a screen -- which has a mesmerizing, addictive quality to it -- is not the same as staring at a real book.

One is an exercise in distraction; the other, a commitment.

(I checked email at least a dozen times while writing this column; had to throw my cellphone in the backseat the other day to keep from using it while I drove).

Strangely, kids become less engaged with the world around them.

A virtual, online creek becomes more interesting than the real creek in the backyard.

IPads come from the corporate world, which means, past everything else, they are designed for consumption. You buy a book -- once -- and read it 100 times. You buy an iPad and only keep buying.

Apps. iTunes. Products. Downloads. The newest versions.

Students then become indoctrinated into the corporate state. And we hand them like lambs over to the wolves.

People who disagree with this will say the iPad is just a tool; the dangers depend on how you use it.

Yet tools are neutral. Tools do not alter the physical, mental and emotional landscape of their users. IPads do.

Our level of interaction with them can stretch from one end of the spectrum to another (I saw a teenager jogging down the road, talking on her smartphone while she ran; I wondered one day if she'll be carrying her iPad), yet any engagement has an effect on its user.

Kids like them? Of course they do. They also love dessert before dinner, and an end to curfews.

We must never forget that schools and teachers exist to teach our kids to read and think. Read and think. Deeply and critically. Read and think.

While iPads can support such work, they do not replace the hard work of becoming citizens who think critically about the world around them.

They are, as one local teacher said, politically regressive. More entertaining and mesmerizing than politically activating.

Remember Darth Vader? Part human. Part machine. Conflicted, he was.

We face a similar conflict. So did Dr. Frankenstein.

How do we keep our machines from becoming monsters?

How do we keep a generation of kids from becoming little Darth Vaders?

David Cook can be reached at 423-757-6329 or Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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