This summer I introduced an occasional feature I call “Throwback Thursday.” This is where I find a blog post from the past–raiding either my own vault or someone else’s–and throw it back out into the digital world. This might be an idea or book that is now relevant again, or a concept I’d like to think about more, or even “an oldie but a goodie” that I think needs a bit of spin time.
I wrote this post three years ago when I was thinking about the opportunities and consequences of our so-called “digital native” generation. I was writing government policy for higher education and workforce development at the time. I found myself skeptical of the two easiest messages to cling on to. Though I think parents do damage to their kids in protecting them (see here), I utterly reject the “kids these days” apocalypticism that imagines Millenials as a whiney, entitled, moronic zombies mudding up the economic waters. And I was skeptical, on the other side, that somehow innovation and integrity have been gifted to a generation of digital natives who can intuitively use their knowledge to create a robot revolution for good. I have great confidence in this generation, and though I detest the language–I was coding before DOS but don’t own an iMac, so what does that make me?–I hope that digital natives can teach us a lot. But I also think we sometimes underestimate the trade-offs in our iManic race for tech-utopia.
I have talked about this before, writing “sabbath unplugged” for Geez magazine and tagging into C.S. Lewis’ “Instructions for Avoiding God.” This amphibious post, though, keeps coming back to my mind, especially after teaching a course on technoculture last spring. And though I’ve tweaked this piece a bit, I still want to be a Digital Leopard Frog.
Imagine digital technologies as the creatures that live in the Reptile Room at your local zoo or aquarium. I think there are three types of technology creatures in our culture zoo today.
Technology Turtles are our reptilian luddites. They withdraw from technological advancements into their hard shells whenever they are threatened. This could be the invention of a new social media platform, or it could be a social revolution like the move from script to type, from paper to digital, from desktop to handheld technology, or from tech as separate from our bodies to tech that is laced into our fleshly infrastructure.
Digital Hardbacks may be classic luddites in that they resist the revolution because of some important principle. More often, however, they either love the old ways—and so resist the new ones—or they have been hurt in the dangerous world of digital Darwinism. They thought they lived in a certain world and now discover they are digital refugees. Once Bitten Twice Shy Technological Turtles rarely peak their beaks out in a digitally rich environment. Turtles move forward, but very slowly.
I have no desire to become a Technology Turtle. Who would want to miss the great things that new technologies and social media have to offer?
At the other side of the enclosure you will find the Connected Chameleon. The tech-savvy Chameleon is on the cutting edge of every social media moment. They don’t merely use technology. They adapt to it. They are able to spot a new creative environment and they quickly find a way to blend in. They are so adept at tech access that it is soon difficult to tell the user from the technology. Connected Chameleons disappear into their digital environment as digital natives comfortably inhabit the land they are designing.
Although I love tech talk and new inventions, I don’t want to be a Connected Chameleon either. I think too often our generation’s identity is lost in the tools we use.
Instead, I want to be a Digital Leopard Frog.
Leopard Frogs live double lives. About the size of a child’s fist, these little soldiers have adapted to life in water and on land.
In the technological world, Digital Leopard Frogs are also amphibious, able to live in the world of script as comfortably as the world of type. We love print books, but pick up an eBook with ease. We admire inkwells and classic typewriters in the antique store, but pound out our thoughts on keyboards or thumb-tap them into a smartphone. We can pick up social media, but set it aside when it is time to chat with a friend or play outside. Digital Amphibians can fall in love with a tablet or curl up with a book beside a glowing fire.
Digital Leopard Frogs live the double life of the old and the new, finding our way in the world with past-forward spirituality. We might be digital immigrants or digital natives, but we always find a home.
Besides a take-it-or-leave-it approach to technology, Leopard Frogs also teach us another thing about culture. Frogs are canaries in the mine when it comes to natural environments. The North American Leopard Frog has been decimated in population in the last 50 years. In their own creaturely way, they are telling us about the poisons in our natural world.
Because Technology Turtles shelter themselves from culture, they cannot tell us of its subtle dangers. And because Connected Chameleons are so skilled at blending in, they are often too close to see when the digital environment is poisonous.
Digital Leopard Frogs, though, are close enough to know the best, but far enough away to see the worst. Our amphibious ways give us a prophetic view of the culture around us.
In all these ways, I am Digital Leopard Frog.
Where do you live in the Reptile Room of Contemporary Culture?