Sel de Tech: Salt as a Metaphor for Technology
Salt (aka sodium chloride) has always been fascinating to me, particularly since it’s something we in the modern age seem to take for granted – almost every restaurant and home table has a ample supply of the ubiquitous granular substance. But this wasn’t always the case. It can be said that salt or the lack thereof has made or broken societies, or – in the case of Napoleon’s army, military expeditions. The word “salary” comes from the economic use of salt (by Romans), as does the expression “not worth his salt”, referring to the trading of salt for slaves in ancient Greece. The salt tax was a major player in the French Revolution and of course salt played a prominent role in Gandhi’s resistance movement against British colonialism. I could go on and on about the various roles salt plays in the world’s religions, or how crucial it was in the age of Exploration, but this post is not really about the literal salt – rather, I’d like to use
salt as an analogy for technology,
and in particular the use of technology for learning.
Integration Trumps Isolation
Used in isolation salt is not great…who would want to eat salt straight out of the box? It is only when salt is mixed with food – when it serves the role of enhancer, that it is of value. I think the same about the technology we use for learning and for doing business…it is not stand alone. It is not, as Shakespeare said, “the be all and the end all here”. Technology derives its worth from the way it can augment, accelerate, and amplify what we are already doing in our school or work.
Context is Key
Imagine not knowing what things require salt and what things don’t? How do chefs learn the nuances of salting, the delicate balance between too much and too little of the seasoning..between bland and overwhelming? If we consider our use of technology (particularly when we craft a course), this serves as a great analogy. We need to critically assess if the technology is properly balanced with the analog. Screen time should be juxtaposed with face time (for dialogue and conversation) and hand time (for making and doing). (that being said, screen time becomes face time if you are, say, using Skype to chat with friends or colleagues across the globe).
Marvels of Melting
Salt is agile – it adapts to the user (there are so many different kinds of salt, for example, depending on preferences and needs). It also has the magical ability to blend seamlessly with the thing that is salted – veritably melting into its essence. Technology as a tool should be transparent and seamless – not an “add on” or a “special” but rather a McLuhan-esque “extension of the self”. I always say – “we don’t have ‘labs’ for pencils” (pencils being a technology we now take for granted as old hat).
Sodium is undeniably addictive. As this article explains, the more exposure to salt (especially in our processed foods), the more accustom we become and the more we expect and need. I recently had a friend share that his expectations for fast wifi connection had exceeded what was realistically possible (how many of us feel the same, whenever the connection is slow, intermittent or nonexistent?). As with any addiction, acknowledging it is the first step. I do think we need to create new personal and social etiquette for our use of technology. For example, some of my former students shared they played a game where everyone would place their phones face down at dinner, and whoever was most tempted to pick it up and check notifications would have to pay! I love what Howard Rheingold writes about “attention” as one of the primary 21st century literacies.
We’ve all heard the “rub salt in the wounds” expression and probably cringe at the thought. Yet, it is also said that “everything can be cured through saltwater: sweat, tears, and the sea”. I think it is important to realize that technology can both assist and undermine learning, depending on how it is executed. This is why training in how to leverage technology without succumbing to the inherent “distractions” is so important.
Preservation of Learning
Salt has historically been used to preserve food. Pushing the analogy, we can think of technology as helping to “make learning sticky” – whether that be because students are more engaged creators, (full media participants in what Henry Jenkins calls “participatory culture), or the user shares their work to a wide audience, thus getting what I refer to as “feedback fuel”. The process of making cements learning – something I’m currently exploring with Dan Ryder (@WickedDecent) that we’ve christened “critical creativity”.
You Can Never Go Back
My grandmother, who lived through both world wars, used to sing that WWI song “How Are You Gonna Keep Them Down on the Farm…After They’ve Seen Par-ee?” Well, actually she used to say it quite often whenever she wanted to express this “you can never go back” / “you can’t unsee” kind of phenomenon. Our technology- and in particular smartphones, I think, have, to paraphrase McLuhan “worked us over completely”. We are not going back. It’s like sitting at the top of a roller coaster…you can’t climb back down…there is only one way to go and that is forward. If the administration in an organization is defensive or reactionary, they will most surely lose. (it must be noted that part of the British strategy during the American Revolution was to deny the rebels salt). The only way to deal with this exponential change in the way we work and learn is to seek understanding and mastery. Otherwise, we become slaves to the dark side of technology – we use it only with frivolity and fail to really leverage it to achieve greater purpose.
Inspiration for Innovation
Salt triggered and facilitated innovation and even global exploration. Similarly, the thoughtful use of technology enhances our learning and performance and can often lead to serious innovation. Did you know that the famous Erie Canal (which debuted it 1825) was known as the “ditch that salt built” because the transportation difficulties presented by the bulky nature of salt help spur its development? William Henry Fox Talbot, known as the “Father of Modern Photography” invented the “salt paper process” which produced a much stronger and clearer image than what was able to be achieved prior. Innovation happens as a sort of chain reaction…new technologies build off of the old, or are hybrids or remixes of existing elements. When it comes to creativity, (which is in essence, dot-connecting), I always say “to connect the dots you must have collected some dots”. I like to play with ways in which our new technologies can be mixed with our old and create something even more enticing (check out my Digital+Analog resources). This of course may even be applied to processes- how might we remix this system with new technology?
A Careful Relationship
I’ve chosen the word “careful” very carefully here 🙂 We must be full of care when it comes to salt. Too little and we suffer (both in health and in pleasure); too much and we poison our bodies. The same is true with the technologies that have become – much like our familiar table salt- something we take for granted. They are not special – they are part of our daily existence and must be acknowledged and honoured as such (by not banning them from school or the workplace). And yet- they are special, in that they are powerful tools which if not used thoughtfully can be ultimately damaging to our physical and emotional health and relationships with others. Will there be professionals who help us “balance” our use of personal technologies just as doctors inform us if we are overdoing our sodium intake and offer us diets to cut back? Many have taken to studying mindfulness or practicing meditation, even incorporating it into the work day. I love this video from my friend Caitlin Krause (@MindWise_CK) :
I think I’ll go be mindful now and cook something tasty…oh – and please