Midway through the project, I ask students what they think of communicating via telephone.
"I think it's better," a girl explains. "We aren't confined by our own classroom walls. We can go anywhere that the operator allows. It's like being two places at once."
"I don't know how I feel about that," another girl points out. "I don't always feel present when I'm physically here. I wonder if it's a good thing to let my voice travel over the wires and into some other place. I'm not sure we're meant to be that way," she adds.
"I find myself making gestures at the phone. It's like I forget that our interaction isn't real. I mean, I could stick my middle finger out and the other person wouldn't see it."
"It's not real. I feels like pretend compared to the classroom," a boy responds.
"This class doesn't feel all that real, either. I mean think about it for a minute. They pack us together into the smallest space in a building designed like a prison. Maybe phones aren't natural, but neither is this room."
"It's not that phones aren't real. It's just a different kind of reality. I wonder if the physical separation actually allows me to listen better . . . or not better, just more intently."
I bring up mythology here and it gets dangerous. Not really dangerous. Pretend dangerous. Like war games or fire drills. We talk about the Babel babble of ongoing talk, unceasingly speaking across the globe, promising that we can solve the problems with a higher tower and more cooperation when the tower itself is preventing us to know to one another from our front porches.
We talk about siren calls and the intoxication media promising a relationship while silently dehumanizing us. We get into Prometheus and debate whether or not it is right to steal fire from the gods.
When it's over, the girl who first claimed telephones were better laments, "I liked this conversation and I feel conflicted. I wish this could have happened with my friends who are outside these walls. Yet I wonder if a telephone can allow for that type of interaction. Do we have to have close proximity to have depth?"
As I walk into the staff lounge, a teacher tells me, "I wouldn't get a phone in my classroom. They're too dangerous."
"I know. My students just had a great conversation of the implications of audio-only communication."
"Did a kid call the police or something?"
It has me thinking that in our push to be relevant and practical, we miss the larger philosophical dangers of technology. When it is simply about the immediate liability management, educators are less likely to see the long-term dangers. It's like focussing on the need to avoid choking on one's food while ignoring the clogged arteries that will someday lead to a heart attack.