One of the more interesting debates of recent times is whether or not smartphones – the increasingly ubiquitous devices that have embedded themselves into much of (post-)developed life within the last decade – are having a positive effect on public space. Advocates of trendy glowing rectangles maintain that reality isn’t reality unless it’s augmented: Googling South-East Asian restaurants on the fly, competing to become ‘mayor’ of a local shared office space and Citymapping the optimal path from A to B is the new-and-improved Über-normal.
Those arguing from another perspective point out that urban areas which were already starkly deficient in social capital have been enslaved by screens to a degree that first degree murder on public transportation – let alone other, less obtrusive crimes – can pass unnoticed until the point of execution. Indeed, the degree to which anyone can be said to be truly present when they are consulting (or even in possession of) a smartphone is a highly contentious subject given that viewing a smartphone display can reduce the effective field of vision by around 80%.
However, this vital debate does not seem to have penetrated the education sector, which – notwithstanding its generally privileged access to new technologies – is remarkably sluggish when it comes to figuring out how to respond to them, let alone what projects involving these should be actively pursued. Beyond banning electronic devices in exams – and depending on the jurisdiction and level of education, in lessons – educators seem content to allow technology to define the rules and praxis of their institutions, including communal spaces.
Universities in particular can be accused of almost entirely missing many of the most important consequences of technological penetration. The basic connections that students may potentially make with each other in social settings are profoundly impacted upon by communications advances of the twenty-first century. But the higher education institutions that are even thinking about these issues – which are already seriously affecting the networking and knowledge transmission activities that the more visionary universities regard as their unique selling point – can probably be counted on the fingers of one hand. Concrete, well-thought-out policies are virtually non-existent. And while this remains the default position, no educator who cares about the long-term future of their institution should be sleeping well.