Balance in our Information Age

by David Lowry
Head of School

Winter 2010

Before marriage and children, I lived in Hawaii for a year.  Around the corner from my dwelling was the WikiWiki Wash-o-Mat.  Wiki is a Hawaiian word for “quick” or “fast,” so when “Wikipedia” entered our lives, I got the meaning “wiki!”

When it comes to information these days, wiki is the best word to describe access; good, bad or indifferent, information and data from around the globe can be at our fingertips.  With email, it even comes looking for you.  Just think about your alma mater newsflashes or the EMS Wednesday Envelope, all dropped in our laps by Constant Contact or the like.  Add in the articles, jokes and YouTube videos that are forwarded on to you with little to no thought about quality, your possible interest, or much of anything else.  There are days that I feel it is “open season’” on my poor brain – I seek information and get more than I can use; others pour stuff in; I have to struggle to put together a defensive filter to maintain my focus.  Yet, I panic when our email and internet connections go down – how will I get my work done?

Some years after my year in Hawaii, I was the head of the Lower School at Friends Seminary in Manhattan.  While email had yet to enter our lives, the phone was still pretty active.  “Home-School” communication was almost as intense as it is now, except that the busy signal slowed things down and there was almost no voice mail.  Either you reached someone or you didn’t.  The receptionists would leave pink “while you were out” slips in our mailboxes, and calls were returned:  you reached them or you didn’t, and we occasionally left messages on the occasional “answering machine.” Cell phones were years away, so calls were only made when people were at home, not on the run.  

One fall day, the huge Bell Telephone switching station on the corner of 14th Street and Second Avenue burned to the ground.  The mechanical switches filled ten or more floors – no digital switching then.  What a sight!  We walked students out to Stuyvesant Park to watch the spectacle.  Pumpers, hook and ladders, police cars, sirens – I thought the kindergartners were going to explode with excitement!

And then, no phone service for almost five months!  Emergency payphone banks were set up on a street nearby, and every few hours someone from school would call in for messages that had been left at our sister school in Brooklyn.  Parents sent in notes with their children; the schoolhouse halls seemed so quiet without the familiar ringing.

A filter had dropped over our lives, both professional and personal – many of us lived nearby, so our phones were out, too.  We communicated through mutual friends who had phone service, and we didn’t want them to have to relay “trivial” information.  We became highly selective.  Since communication was slow and took real effort, everyone bothered only with essentials.  Time would pass and the emotion originally attached to a concern seemed to melt away.  The importance of whatever it was dissolved.  An unexpected peace came over the school and over our homes.

My plan for the New Year is to do a better job of constructing a filter for all the informational interferences.  Perhaps to turn wiki into lohi – Hawaiian for “slow” (full disclosure: I found lohi by going to a Hawaiian dictionary from Google; it took 3 seconds).  

Maybe what I am saying is that high-speed information access, some sought, some delivered without request, is here to stay.  It is part of what today’s students need to be able to navigate and use successfully.  They need to create some of it, too.  But, as in so much of life, a balance needs to be struck.  At The Elisabeth Morrow School,  we try to help bring that balance into young lives, giving time to experience, play, consider, reflect and move more slowly, be it on a field trip to the Hudson, in the cooking or writing clubs, or on the playground.

May the new year give each of us some balance to the frenetic pace of all of our lives.