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Arithmetic & Exponential Technology

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When I was an first-year college student–in the fall of 1989–it was a big deal that each of us received a laptop computer.  It weighed at least five pounds, and was really too unwieldy for dragging to class, but it was exciting nevertheless.  I learned to email, and sometimes to chat online, and began the transition from writing on paper to writing onscreen.

At the time it felt like such an explosion of change–and it was.  But now, almost twenty-one years later, I see it as only the narrow point of a rapidly expanding wedge.  And the expansion does not show signs of slowing.

The roots of the word technology mean something like, “the systematic study of practical skills.” Many of us have acquired an admirable number of technological skills, but fewer of us have taken the time to study these skills, to think beyond keyboard shortcuts and email etiquette.

I’ve been thinking lately about arithmetic as a metaphor for negotiating exponential technology.

Adding is one of the easiest skills.  We add Facebook friends, we add contacts to our email programs, we add new bloggers to our blog readers.  Adding is important.  It’s the hunter-gatherer within us, the shopper, the part of our brain that recognizes useful things.  There’s a lot of great information out there, and we want to add it to our basket.

Some people are afraid to add, however, because they haven’t learned to subtract.  It’s perfectly OK to trim our Facebook friend lists, weeding out those whose “friendship” doesn’t enrich our lives.  My Google Reader has included, at times, more than 300 blogs; every few months I revisit the list, trusting myself to delete those that have not fulfilled their initial promise.  Just this morning I spent some time with my email inbox, deleting many of the stored messages I had thought I needed to keep.

Multiplication is a magical part of living in our time.  With a simple click of the “share” button, my 172 Facebook friends receive a copy of today’s NY Times Op-Ed written by Bill Clinton, sharing the message that violence is unacceptable in a democracy.  Many of those friends will also click “share,” and the message moves on, gathering momentum, propelled by the power of multiplication.

But again, balance is important, and the balancing skill for multiplication is division.  Those 300 blogs in my Google Reader are divided into a series of categories, from “Arts & Crafts” to “UU.”  Many people divide their Facebook friends into categories as well; I have just two categories (limited and unlimited), but I do “hide” some friends whose status updates I don’t enjoy receiving. My email inboxes (yes, I have two email accounts) also have folders, and these help me manage all those messages that I feel compelled to save.

Adding, subtracting, multiplication and division:  important skills for managing technology.


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