That photo, of students using computers during a break, turns out to be a Rorschach test for attitudes about technology, youth, and their norms.

It was posted on Google+ by Mark Simmons, a director of technology in a Texas school district that has given every student in grades 7 through 12 a Samsung Chromebook. I was so impressed with the fruits of the program that I reshared the photo. Then a fascinating discussion ensued about whether what we see there is good or bad.

I say it is good: young people engrossed in their laptops, learning and using technology. Not so Jonathan Hébert, who complained:

I am sorry but they should be doing something else talking to each other, play sports, socializing, etc. Chromebooks should be most of time in the classroom. Real life interactions and physical activities would help more people instead of looking like zombies.

I responded, defending the scene and the students:

But they are connecting with other people. They aren’t necessarily doing it face-to-face and that upsets us old farts who think that face-to-face is normal and digital is not. New technologies bring new norms. The future is theirs, not ours. So watch and learn before criticizing. That’s my advice.

Who’s to say that the person they may be conversing with via a keyboard is less important than the person who happens to be sitting next to them on the bench? Or as Paul Dickson said in a comment:

Online, they are not restricted to ‘socializing’ with the people in their classroom. They can have friends all over the world. Odds are, those might be a lot more interesting than the doofus in the next seat.

Benedikt Wegmann said it even more forcefully:

I’m sick of people repeating the mantra of “only face-to-face is valuable social interaction”. Have you actually gone out there and tried to interact with people or even just overheard their conversations? The world is awash with idiots, mindless sheep and hedonistic egomaniacs, babbling on about their uninteresting personal lifes. Who wants that? Go ride some public transport for a few hours, that will put your view about those “valuable social interactions” straight.

At Simmons’ original post, a similar discussion broke out. “I keep telling the teachers I’m going to go to walmart and buy frisbees and nerf footballs and start handing them out at lunch,” said Chris Knight. “Set up technology-free zones,” urged Daniel Baker, who thought I was had to be joking when I defended the students and so he declared, “When kids are outside they should be socializing and playing, not glued to a screen.” To which I replied, “You know what I’m doing right now? I’m interacting with you, a person, not a machine. I’m using a machine to do that.”

Back on my post, things got testy. W. James Hamel rolled his eyes at those who were tsk-tsking the kids, saying, “Don’t you just love it when someone else provides random directives as to what everyone else ‘should be doing’?” But others continued to tsk, leaving comments that said only “Creepy” and “That is sad, just sad” and huffing, “Creating a generation of social misfits. ”

Still more defended the students. Kourosh Farrokhzad wrote:

Computer literacy is going to be the single most important skill for students of all stripes to master. Don’t worry, most human beings can’t stare into a screen for hours on end — once the novelty has worn off they will go back to their fights, smokes, music lessons and sport activities. Nobody is going to be able to stop this revolution and if you want to worry about something, worry about the NSA.

Right. Even Chris Knight — the guy heading to buy Frisbees — observed that a year after giving out Chromebooks in his district,

the devices weren’t new anymore things returned to normal. Now there are only a few that sit against the wall in the shade playing on the Internet, and the devices being a classroom distraction has almost gone away.

Technology is a process. It will inevitably advance ahead of our norms and often our laws. But we’re smart. So are our kids. We catch up. We learn appropriate uses. We negotiate new norms. We did that with cameras and telephones and we’re doing it now with the internet and ubiquitous connectivity. To say that the technology changes us is patronizing and simplistic. We’re still who we are, as Kecia Wright observed:

This picture probably doesn’t tell the whole story. I’m willing to bet these kids are conversing with each other — swapping techniques, tips and tricks, maybe even homework solutions. I was a social outcast in school but sadly laptops didn’t even exist back then. All the same, I would do some non-social activity during lunch. My point is even without the laptops these kids may still be in the same spot doing some seemingly isolating activity.

The technology is just a tool. Kids will use it to play, to learn, to waste time, to build, to be alone, to converse — perhaps making it easier to talk with people than they find they can in what we used to think of as “real life.” There is nothing to say that the old ways — old folks’ ways — are the right ways. In any case, it won’t be up to old farts like me to decide. Those young people in that picture are deciding that for themselves. I, for one, trust them to do that.

Brandon Adkins summed up my view of the discussion when he wrote:

What I see in this picture is opportunity, and one that hasn’t always been possible. Opportunities to learn, share, and communicate in new ways. Opportunities to see what technology can provide for them.
Looking back towards my high school days, I wish laptops had been more the norm then. I would have probably been far more ahead with technology widely available instead of it confined to a “computer lab” or a home computer.

Your reaction to that photo tells more about you than those students — whether you are inherently fearful, not trusting technology and our children, or hopeful, finding opportunity and trust in the proprietors of the future. Of course, we don’t know which is right, but I’d rather err toward optimism and freedom.