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Article: Digital Technology and the Sacred Cow

Updated: Jan 6, 2020

by Lisa Thauvette

Chart of Interdependencies used in the 6 - 12 classroom with the supranatura represented by the grey circle in the middle.

In the Montessori elementary curriculum there is the Chart of Interdependencies, which introduces the concept to the students that all things in the universe are interconnected and dependent on another. The final layer of interdependence is that of supranatura. This is the layer of nature that is dependent upon human activity, systems and input for survival. The domesticated cow is an example of supranatura. Cows lie between the natural world and the human world. The cow can now no longer survive solely on their natural instinct. A feral cow is a dead cow given enough time. Cows have been bred and ‘built’ by humans to serve a specific purpose for humans’ needs and now exist only with human input. Less obvious are other acts of nature such as the teeming of rivers, blooming of flowers, and migrating of monarchs. Conventional wisdom would say these are wholly natural and are not conducted by humans but conversely are impeded by humans. It’s true, these functions of nature have indeed been altered by humans, but with careful conservation efforts, the un-damming of rivers allow rivers to flow as they once did. The transplanting of honeybees to certain regions beckon the blooming of flower buds once again. And the easement of migratory corridors now allows monarchs and other animals unburdened access to instinctual migratory passages. Supranatura is a dominate force in the world, maintaining human civilization and life.

Millions of monarch butterflies migrate from southern Canada to Mexico each year. Conservation efforts, like encouraging the growth of milkweed (monarch's favorite plant), allows the butterfly to complete the long journey successfully.

Where does Digital Technology fit into this Lens of Supranatura?

Digital technology sits in the ranks among the two grand matriarchs of supranatura, being language and mathematics. The spoken and written utterances of humans to represent ideas, needs, and emotions, and the scientific capturing, measuring , and quantifying of our world through mathematics are the fundamental means that humans have successfully (and in some cases, tragically) used to alter nature for sustaining and propagating human civilization and life. In the example of legislative easement of migratory corridors, this was all first dreamed, calculated, communicated, documented, argued, revised, measured, assessed, and surveyed using the technologies that are based in language and mathematics. Butterflies traveling from southern Canada to Mexico are impeded by human activity, and yet are enabled by human’s counter-activity. This is the push and pull of supranatura.

Neurological synapses are formed from repeated sensorial experiences. The greatest growth takes place between 0 and 3 years old. Synapses eventually prune away when experiences are not repeated resulting in less synaptic connections in adulthood than in toddlerhood.

Self Constructing Superbrain

We now face another push and pull in interruption of one of nature’s pathways and that is digital technologies’ effect on children’s development. The natural pathway for human development is housed in the adaptable and malleable human brain. The child’s brain is built to adapt to any point in history and culture it finds itself. An infant born in the arctic region during the Viking era will take on the language, customs, dominant dispositions, religion, and outward styles and manners of the surroundings. Likewise, this same infant born in the dry landscape of today’s Dubai will have a language, demeanor, manner, and spiritual enlightenment molded by the unique surroundings of this time and place. This uniquely human ability to adapt to the time and place is due to the human brain’s self-forming architecture. This has allowed people of one era to build upon ideas from the past and bring civilization and technology to the next plateau. As Newton said, "I stand upon the shoulders of giants.” Self-wiring is the human brain’s super power and it relies on cues from its surroundings to be successful.

Surrounded by Others

Use of digital tech pulls childhood attention away from its real surroundings to an abstracted reality, that is just an elbow’s length away. Nearsightedness is on the increase, and has been attributed to children having less exposure to using their vision for distances (Richard Louv, "Last Child in the Woods"). Using extra ocular muscles to focus and re-focus through a forest of trees to spot a detail in the distance is both a physiological and neurological exercise. Optical and neurological systems develop only with use. Use it or lose it, and unfortunately many humans are losing it.

Infants seek eye contact with their carer and search their face for emotional cues, practicing and mimicking expressions along the way.

The many gross and fine motor skills that are not happening regularly in childhood due to the ubiquity of digital tech is plentiful, but when it comes to supranature, I will focus on a different set of skills—the skills associated with social and emotional development. When looking at and interacting with a screen, children are not engaged with their surroundings, in particular, the people in their surroundings. Holding eye contact with another human being, reveals a treasure of social and emotional cues that take a lifetime to learn all of the intricacies. The path for social and emotional development is a tricky and steep slope to begin with (look to the psychology and therapy sectors for evidence), but as digital tech becomes a norm for young children, school-aged children, and adolescents (spending an average of 5 - 7 hours per day), then time spent interacting with other human beings is diminished. It takes humans to become human, as paraphrased by Silvana Quattrocchi Montanaro.

Teens enter a hyper-self-conscious stage of development which leaves them vulnerable for isolation and loneliness. It is a time they need to connect emotionally and spiritually with their peers, as they are also naturally detaching emotionally from their family.

Which age is social emotional development most critical? All of them

To be clear, the physical presence and interaction with another human is the key factor here. An infant instinctively seeks eye contact. This is their signal of safety, connection, love, and expression, and is the basis of their self-worth. The toddler reads cues of the adult’s actions, words, and tone and seeks to do the same, while testing limits of what is socially acceptable and what is not. The young child of three to six years old lifts their gaze further afield from the immediate family and reaches out to the social cues and nuances of children their own age, and even more interesting for them, older children. The elementary child immerses themselves in the community and dynamics of a group. They assess who is friends with whom? Why and how does one make a friend, be a friend, keep a friend, and bring a group of friends together harmoniously? The adolescent reverts slightly to the toddler disposition of self-interest, with a deep-dive into self-examination, and identifying their unique contribution to broader society. The teen is socially vulnerable at this age as they naturally push away from their family and as a consequence leans on peers to catch them. These same peers are also going through their own isolation and vulnerability. This dynamic of mutual instability among teen friendships is precarious, tenuous, and very important for teens to experience and to navigate. All of these stages are critical, require many successful and unsuccessful experiences, need to happen in the physical presence of another, and are uniquely human.

Digital Technology is Here to Stay—And so are We

We can recognize that digital technology is already a main post in the tent of supranatura. Human and natural life depend on these technologies for survival on many fronts including civil, societal, economic, and medical infrastructures. Digital tech will continue to grow in its importance in our everyday life. Its greatest contribution so far being the advancement in human productivity. However, while the adult’s role is to better the world, the child’s role is to better him/herself. A child’s natural progression of development cannot be ‘run more efficiently’ through technology. Human development follows a scientifically proven progression of stages that remain consistent from generation to generation. (It’s fun to imagine Mozart, King Tut, Joan of Arc, and Queen Elizabeth, all with gummy toothless grins at the age of six!) The critical component for molding and forming the brain is a child’s interaction with people…old people, young people, obstinate people, weird people, lying people, smart people, emotional people, and stoic people. And what to do when there are no people around to interact with? To sit in...Silence. Reflection. Exuberance! Sadness. Boredom. Creativity. And stillness. These are all important experiences too. Being alone and comfortable with one’s thoughts is a skill that is developed in childhood.

Unstructured, unscheduled, and uninterrupted blocks of time, alone, are important moments for social and emotional development.

Healthy emotional and social competence takes millions of experiences in childhood to properly wire the brain’s synapses. This takes place over the course of many years…24 years to be exact. Twenty-four is the universally recognized age for full brain maturation. During these 24 years, live, dynamic, and profound social interactions must take place.

Reaching for Humanity’s Full Potential

Humanity’s ability to engage and connect with others should not go the direction of the cow. Our human emotions and ability to socialize and empathize need to remain feral and not require technological intervention to cope (such as medications and treatments). Domestication of our emotional intelligence is the wrong trajectory for humankind. Instead, digital tech can be viewed as having the same potential as the two other main tent posts of supranatura, being language and mathematics. These two technologies have enhanced humanity’s ability to connect, engage, and relate. These two technologies have lifted humanity’s capacity to connect the past and the future. Digital technology has this potential, but we must tread lightly and intentionally as it relates to our smallest consumers of digital tech. We must truly understand and emphasize the child’s compulsion for real and human interactions to realize humanity’s full emotional and social potential. Empathetic thinkers and actors in society are not an antiquated relic, but are the hope for a better, more harmonious, and peaceful society.

Precision, perseverance, and collaborating with another, in real-life and real-time, is the most effective and efficient means for properly building the brain for maximum social and emotional health and functioning.

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