High-Tech, High Touch

An alarming rise of childhood obesity. Chat rooms. Speed dating. School violence. Longer work hours. Disconnection from neighbors. Availability 24-7. Everything faster, constant, now. Technological advancements are linked with both positive and negative community trend lines.

An exploration of the societal impact of humanity vs. technology is the crux of futurist John Naisbitt’s 1999 book High-Tech, High-Touch: Technology & Our Search for Meaning. In this collaboration with his daughter Nana along with Douglas Philips, Naisbitt’s High-Tech, High-Touch outlines the influence of society’s use and abuse of technology on the slipping concept of community, among other topics.

High-Tech, High-Touch also asserts possibilities exist for society to balance technology with humanity, and offers models that allow people to utilize technology to bolster actual (not virtual) communities and face-to-face social interaction. Naisbitt’s credentials as a futurist are well-established, with credits including his 1994 book, Global Paradox (England's World Review Award for The Best Book of The Year), the best-selling Megatrends series and his latest book, Mind Set!, published in October 2006. The people behind Bicycle City drew from Naisbitt’s High-Tech, High-Touch model in order to instill both modern technological conveniences and a strong sense of community into the development concept.

Potential Problem
“An ‘a-ha’ book of the first order” High-Tech, High- Touch provides “valuable insight into important technological, social, cultural and artistic developments… blurred by an ever-accelerating world of our own creation,” explains Carl Goodman, Curator of the American Museum of the Moving Image, in a description of the book.

High-Tech, High-Touch questions the insidious potential side-effect of technology: namely, had increased ability to maintain “contact” virtually created a regressive, introverted people that have simply forgotten how to interact with each other? Think about the last time you walked down the street and actually made eye contact with a complete stranger and said hello. Would you feel apprehension or even fear if a stranger initiated such ‘innocent’ contact? Perhaps relying on a car for transportation to even nearby locations is due to foreboding potential existing on the street. Air pollution, noise pollution and a lessening respect for the environment don’t lend to the urge to walk or bike from A to B.

Naisbitt focuses on these topics and others that he feels are stripping away humanity in High-Tech, High-Touch such as the well-documented effect of violent video games in desensitizing children. But it isn’t all gloom; the New York Times best-selling author of 1982 Megatrends seeks to balance technological abilities with sociological needs. “Naisbitt’s goal is to motivate and inspire his audience to see the future as something we can have access to, if we deliberately develop mindsets as a tool to see and evaluate the seeds and signs of change, which in time will build the future,” Naisbitt’s biography notes.

Naisbitt believes the time is now to see the development of our cities and towns in their true light. While the path of least resistance to keep rolling with the trends, Naisbitt broaches no question of the natural (and unsavory) progression for our communities if we do not seek to make conscious change.

A shift in the way we design our communities and view the world around us is one method by which Naisbitt believes we can stop the downward spiral of our environment and society. He asserts the ability to have the best of both the technological world designed in a natural social city environment is found in a responsible balance between the two.

Balancing Act
Leave it Disney to find the ability to blend humanity and technology. Naisbitt dedicates a High-Tech, High-Touch chapter to the unique ability of technology to more closely connect communities. He cites the community of Celebration, Fla., founded in 1994, with “a commitment to community, education, health, technology, and a sense of place,” according to the community website.

Celebration serves as a roadmap of Naisbitt’s theory. The town has a 1930’s ambience complete with quaint homes and small-town-appeal, but is fully-wired and Internet ready for all residents and is equipped with state-of-the-art facilities and amenities. Yet its core values lie in the town’s ambience and feel, including outdoor activities, social gatherings and an overall sense of communal and environmental responsibility.

Each Celebration resident receives access to the Internet and a password to a local “Front Porch” Intranet to keep up-to-date on community events and happenings. The community includes a state-of-the-art hospital campus as well as biking and hiking trails, community pools, golf and parks.

The town was created to provide residents the best of both worlds, with access to technology as well as downtown meeting areas, roads lined with benches and cozy, custom homes from several renowned architects. Currently accepting new residents, Celebration, Fla., shows how planners can utilize technology to focus on enriching people’s lives.

Naisbitt’s tech-to-touch theory is also applied in academic settings, including the University of Arizona’s new McClelland Park building, as outlined in Arizona Land and People, a publication of the university’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, (Susan McGinley, Spring 2006)

Due to its rapid growth over the past decade, overcrowding is prevalent at the Norton School at the University of Arizona. The building’s design additionally lacks common areas, so does not allow for gathering of faculty or students. The new building, funded entirely by private donations, will offer 70,000 square feet of high-tech auditoriums, classrooms, lounges and outdoor plazas, allowing for access to both the latest advancements in technology and the ability for social interaction and relaxation.

Access to technology like videoconferencing, wireless networks and multimedia, will allow instructors to present their material in the most effective way, the article notes. The various meeting and common areas will allow students and faculty to exchange ideas, conduct research and make professional contacts. “Stepping in off the street, the lobby area will impart a neighborhood business street feeling — corporate, yet friendly,” Soyeon Shim, the Norton School director, says in the report. He explains that the building’s entire first floor layout, which encompasses then outdoor Lakin Family Plaza, is designed to foster place for social, professional and academic interaction, tying into dual family issue and retailing emphasis of the building.

The University of Arizona applied the concept of High-Tech, High-Touch to design of the Norton School building, using the technology as a tool for learning. The technology is utilized to enhance the schools environment, while at the same time the building allows ample space for social interaction, indoors or out.

Strong Potential
Technology and education can go hand in hand when “technology is used strategically,” notes a paper by Jamie McKenzie of the Educational Technology Journal exploring technology use in schools.

McKenzie employs the High Tech, High Touch concept, and stresses the importance of the key word ‘strategically.’ McKenzie focuses of the administrations roll in both employing and assessing the effects of the use of technology in the classroom. Do scores improve? Is more research and development necessary? Is students learning time being utilized to its best ability? Does the staff have the knowledge necessary to answer students’ technology questions? By keeping a tight rein on the uses of technology, McKenzie feels that it can be used to the benefits of both the students and the school district.

In general, academia supports the use of technology as a strong tool for communication and access to information. Use of technology is a way to foster contact between students and educators, Gustavo Pellon, a Spanish professor at the University of Virginia, tells the school’s monthly A&S Online magazine produced by the U of Va. College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences (March 2002, by Lisa Corell Auerbach).

The University of Virginia is one of many universities and colleges to utilize an on-line “Instructional Toolkit.” This toolkit allows technological support of classroom teaching as well as online registration, class changes, major updates or graduation verification and other administrative tasks and informational uses designed to aid both students and faculty.
Pellon reports students’ use of email for communication with him as well as in classmate collaborations has increased their ability to learn and to use their knowledge outside of class. He likewise notes that use of email acts as a spring-board for student learning, prompting follow-up-discussions in class and accelerating hands-on-interest in the subject matter.

Another positive application of technology in education is the use of the Internet for distance learning. Until recently, the only way to acquire a college degree or even to complete a GED for high school was by physically attending classes on a campus. With online classes, it is possible for students to complete some or all of their credits via the Internet to obtain certifications or degrees. Considering the extended workweek faced by much of the U.S. population these days, the ability to continue education online makes higher education possible for those otherwise able to attend a ‘traditional’ school due to scheduling constraints.

Community Environment
Strategic uses of technology can be applied to city or community environment. Tempered use of available technology and a continual assessment of its benefits or detriments to both the society and environment could help society get closer to Naisbitt’s model.

In High-Tech, High-Touch, Naisbitt prompts the reader to act on the information by examining the technology-driven changes in our society. In short, he demands readers accept that we, as people, are responsible for these trends, to understand that it is within our power and to our benefit to take action to find balance in our lives. While technology is the tool, it’s how we wield it that matters.

The questions Naisbitt presents to his reader provide a roadmap to how we can find a better way of life. We have the backdrop for a more beneficial way of looking at the design, both environmentally and socially, of our cities and towns. Architects are beginning to widely employ these ideals with the support of private, corporate and institutional clients. If we keep in mind that the ultimate goal is the fulfillment of life and emotional contentment, it should be possible to find a way to integrate technology and its powerful tools to the benefit of the local and global community.

Lou Schuler, Amazon.com book reviewer is among the legions who believe ”the reader will probably take some sort of action after finishing High Tech/High Touch: switching off the cell phone for a few hours a day; permanently locking away the children's violent Nintendo games; maybe even booking a vacation at the most remote location possible. Anything to get away from the constant buzz of a wired world.”

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