System failure

18th June 2004 at 01:00
I think that I've discovered a new medical condition in our staffroom. It's called the technology twitch. Or maybe I'll call it the information itch.

The chief symptom of this is an irresistible urge to keep checking for text messages, emails, news, discount airline fares or racing results, or whatever seems most pressing.

I used to think I was working with a bunch of restrained, self-contained individuals; now I've found that I'm sharing the Nescafe with a bunch of information junkies.

The moment they enter the staffroom it's like a quick-draw competition, as mobile phones are whipped out of pockets and they start to check for messages.

Perhaps they're all having heart-stopping affairs, or maybe they're all in the final stages of signing contracts for enigmatic first novels. Whatever the reason, it clearly needs a great deal of urgent communication.

Or maybe they just don't want to talk to each other and it's more comforting to send text messages about not forgetting to pick up the bread for the kids' sandwiches than to speak to the person next to them.

The resident techno-anorak at our school - I'll call him The Buff - has taken this a stage further. After the obligatory check on the mobile, he now takes out a fancy-pants personal organiser which lets him check emails and internet pages. If he had a radar dish on his head and a satellite tracker in his briefcase he couldn't be better informed.

But the worst thing is that it's contagious. I keep checking my phone messages and emails. I'm not sure what I'm expecting, but I can't resist looking.

And we're all doing it. The next time you get off a plane or come out of a cinema, watch everyone tapping their phones like they've been away for 100 years. People used to rush to light up cigarettes, now they're addicted to communication.

We don't have a crystal ball in the classroom, so we'll have to make do with The Buff and his handheld wireless computer. He's a classic early-adopter, and where he bores now, so we will surely follow.

And maybe he's right that we should have all this information at our fingertips - and in a time and place that suits us, in the park, rather than being parked behind a desk.

This is the tie-loosening time of year, when the sun is shining, and it always makes me want to unplug everything and get outside. Children even more than adults need to be fed daylight. When the weather is so good, it's almost cruel not to let them run around outside and enjoy the big blue skies above them.

And maybe an unplugged world would be a breath of fresh air for us all. In our local coffee bar, you can see business types and homeworkers tapping away on their laptops, using some kind of online wireless connection.

No doubt our school will eventually start to look at a wireless network.

But this raises big questions. Will access to information on the move become like an electronic tag, never letting us switch off? Or will it be something that lets us cut off all those irritating computer cables and be where we want, when we want?

For learning, what will it mean for the shape of a school, if people can be studying alone anywhere? Is such flexibility practical? Is it going to be a case of another solution looking for a problem?

My ideal would be that it will start to make the technology invisible (and I don't mean because someone has nicked it). I mean that we're no longer aware we're using technology. When my colleagues flip open their phones, they don't think that they're using technology; they're just checking their messages.

I'd rather the technology fitted in my pocket than feel that I was in the pocket of the technology.

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