Have you seen those 30-second ads by AT & T with six year-olds sitting around a table answering questions from an adult about whether more is better than less and whether faster is better than slower?
The kids, cute as buttons, answer that faster is better than slower and, of course, more is better than less. If you have not seen the ads, see here and here. They highlight AT&T’s speed and services in a humorous way.
And the ads have been hits, according to market researchers. Ad agency BBDO released the series–called “It’s Not Complicated”–last November and they have soared in ratings as measured by how many times tweets mentioned the ads.
I have watched these ads many times and I finally put my finger on what bothered me about them. What got to me was not that the values of speed and quantity were being reinforced with kids–hey, the first-graders’ responses are cute and you gotta smile when you see a gap-toothed little kid jump up and down in excitement. What bothered me was the degree to which the pervasiveness of beliefs in technology and its generous fruits are held in America and is now peddled to all of us explicitly without a blink or doubt… by first graders.
Not only in “Silicon Valley” (CA), Austin (TX), Seattle (WA), Boston (MA), and New York (NY) where high-tech businesses and culture flourish but also in small towns, leafy suburbs, and along Main Streets elsewhere are these strong beliefs in the power and glory of technology prized. What are some of these social beliefs?
*New technologies can not only solve global warming, cancer, and low reading scores but also entertain us daily and make life at home easy.
*New technologies spur change, altering old and familiar ways of doing things. Thus, change means improvement. Improvement leads to progress and progress is good.
*Fast is better than slow.
*More is better than less.
None of these beliefs and the values they mirror, of course, is new. They were in the DNA of colonists in Pre-Revolutionary America, mid-19th century pioneers, homesteaders and entrepreneurs, early 20th-century captains of industry, and greenhorn immigrants disembarking at Ellis Island. Relishing the use of new technologies from the plow to the mechanized reaper, from canals to railroads, from the stethoscope to the X-ray, from the classroom blackboard to the iPad–Americans have seen these inventions as unvarnished progress in solving vexing problems. It was America on the move, creator of the new and destroyer of the old.
What’s new is that these beliefs have been converted into facts and made explicit; they are so commonplace as to appear in ads where six year-old foils shout them out.
No rant against technology here. After all, I have a full array of devices in hand and at home to use for work, play, and managing my life. What bothers me is that the taken-for-granted acceptance of these beliefs now made explicit has silenced serious examination of their flip side, the negatives of these entrenched views.
Where, for example, can issues of how new information technologies erase boundaries between work and home, where you are on call 24/7, be examined? Where can issues be discussed of new communication technologies not leading to more democracy but being used by dictatorships (e.g., Syria, North Korea, China) to stay in power or how new technologies worsen existing problems (e.g., fracking for oil, loss of privacy)?
In the home already saturated with labor-saving and entertainment devices? Hardly. Few families can examine openly beliefs they cherish.
Perhaps in the old media of newspapers, television, and books where such opportunities do exist but, unfortunately, they are largely ghettoized into newspaper op-eds, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) programs, and seldom read academic studies.
Sure, there have been some academics and public intellectuals from Langdon Winner to Neil Postman to Evgeny Morozov who have pointed out the political and social downside to a technology-rich culture viewed as crucial to economic growth and solving age-old problems. Moreover, a few social scientists have compiled experimental evidence on multi-tasking, distractions, and the perils of doing things speedily. And some philosophers have laid to rest the deeply embedded notion of inevitable progress as a positive good. A nano-fraction of the public read these studies.
Where, then, can the pluses and minuses of technological innovations be examined? Perhaps you have already guessed where I am going for an answer. Public schools.
There are some schools and teachers who within the disciplines of science, math, history, English get students to think critically about past and present issues including analysis of media ads, technological innovations, and the beliefs students hold about these issues. Not many, however.
Most public schools are enmeshed in a standards, testing, and accountability regime aimed at sending everyone to college. Critical thinking, media literacy, and analyzing the pros and cons of technological innovations are seldom in evidence in most school settings, given the past three decades of making schools an arm of the economy.
I do wonder about those six year-olds who made those ads for BBDO and what they learned while the camera was on. What if their teachers asked them whether faster was better than slow in doing a school project or helping a friend or eating dinner with a parent? I do wonder.