Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, wrote Arthur C. Clarke. And magic was what it seemed to me to be.
I was sitting on my father’s lap steering the car. Too young and too short for my feet to reach the throttle, I still sensed the thrill and promise of auto-mobility!
Miraculously, the garage door in front of us opened. I didn’t know how it did so, but I had seen on TV a programme about telepathy. Perhaps Dad was using it.
I later discovered he had a small wireless transmitter in his pocket. It saved Mom or one of my siblings the hassle of jumping out of the car (too often in the rain) to wrestle with the overhead door. The discovery made life no less miraculous for me.
Nor did such technological advances make it less so for Francesca’s grandfather, who, years later, I met in a flat overlooking the Vatican.
It was a boiling August morning in Rome and I had been travelling through Communist Yugoslavia, Greece and Italy.
Filthy, tired and nearly out of money, my best mate and I had had the unlikely experience of bumping into someone he knew in the coastal resort of Anzio.
Walking along a street, Jeremy spotted a red car. He knew its owner. And sure enough she arrived shortly after. Francesca’s mother.
She was everything a high school boy dreamt of. Fantastic hair. Fantastic figure, beautifully dressed and outrageously Italian. Her car, a red Alpha Romero from memory, was a soft-top. We raced along ancient, beautifully treed streets in it. Somehow, I didn’t mind the terror of her driving. It seemed appropriate to the setting. We stayed with her and her daughter for several days. She wouldn’t let us into her apartment until we had destroyed our shoes and most of our clothes, which admittedly stank.
But it was a boiling August morning, when we entered the Vatican City and parked down one of its winding tiny streets. We walked up steps, and eventually found ourselves in a really beautiful top floor residence—a gift to Francesca’s grandfather by the Pope or the government for reaching 100.
I think he was 101 when I spoke to him, maybe older. It was a miraculous conversation, though needless to say he did most of the talking. He was articulate, humorous and thoughtful. He had lived an expansive life and his memory served him perfectly.
Born in the late 19th century, he had witnessed not only some of the most gut-wrenching events in history, but also its most extraordinary technological advances.
As a child he had watched birds and flown kites. He had dreams of flying like Leonardo da Vinci. A decade later the Wright brothers were in the air.
He survived the First World War and World War II. He had seen biplanes transform into jet fighters. He experienced nuclear warfare and the birth of the nuclear age. He had been at home when it was wired up to a power grid. He had seen telegraphic transmission vanish in favour of radio communication. And then the same invisible waves had brought to his living room images on a ‘television’. He had read with disbelief plans to put man on the moon.
He had seen the advent of refrigeration and frozen gelato becoming available from anyone’s kitchen. He had got to use microwave cookers, mobile phones and to hear about organ replacement and heart surgery. Every technological advance seemed a miracle. Zippers, PCs, escalators, antibiotics, safety razors, aerosol deodorant, and of course the car. Bugattis, Ferraris, Maseratis.
He doubted that if I lived to his age I would see such a plethora of impacting inventions. I doubted it, too. But now given the rate of advances in ICT, and in medicine, I’m not so sure.
One other thing he said to me remains fresh. It concerns changes in attitudes. Cultural changes. He told me when he was a child, women always wore long dresses. On one occasion he had seen a really beautiful woman’s ankle while she was cycling. Like Dante Alighieri he was overcome. He laughed at that and then reminisced about changes in dress, charting the fashion of the 1940s, 50s and 60s (and the advent of the miniskirt), and into the 70s. He linked changes in fashion to politics and social mores.
I never saw him again, and shortly after I boarded a train to Switzerland. But I have often thought of him, Francesca and her mother as she flashed through the traffic of Rome dizzily turning her head while giving us an account of its history.
I look with envy at the technology available to teachers and students today.
When I began teaching a photocopier was a rarity. A printer non-existent. Personal computers, only very few. An Internet, and access to information on the web? None.
And if you asked me what I thought the single most useful enabler in education is today, I might be inclined to say wireless technology. It expedites so much that is beneficial.
Wireless allows the seamless access and transport of information from one source to another, with increased mobility; limiting the need for paper, whiteboard pens, heavy textbooks (always a burden even when they are carried in a backpack) and a library. It allows us to collaborate and work together more effectively, and connect to people and information we need when we need it.
While I acknowledge the ‘What?’ factor in technology and education, i.e. what apps? What software? What educational value does this programme have? I think these are all secondary concerns in relation to the simple and elegant genius of wireless. It is a very powerful conduit for news, information, monitoring health, information on stocks, entertainment, film and the arts.
And further one of the most exciting advances I think Ed Tech offers us is its capacity or potential for feedback. A really up-to-date report on how we are doing as students or as teachers that highlights what we know or can do, and where the gaps in our learning or teaching lie, in the long run will prove to be really helpful.
It won’t simply be the access our PDAs give us to primary reading material or to that math program and those history games. Nor will it just be the mental gym apps like Lumosity. It will be the increasingly accurate capacity technology gives us to gauge our performance, and give us feedback, wherever and whenever we want it to do so.
For some this might be a threat. And indeed it can be. But, if we think about it, feedback has always been vital for growth. If you want to stop learning, pull back, disengage and don’t try to measure how much you know.
It seems that with any technological advances there are risks. Early rockets crashed. Modern ones do, too. And wireless technology might present health risks.
The Australian Radiation Protection And Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) in its Fact Sheets tell us not enough research has been carried out to determine the exact health effects of radio frequency and electromagnetic energy absorption by the body.
It notes that ‘Although health authorities around the world, including the World Health Organization, remain of the view that any harmful effects are unproven and unlikely, the public anxiety, itself, is an important issue.’ And it cautions people to use headphones with mobile devices, to text rather than talk or to use speaker mode. It also canvases keeping wireless routers a suitable distance away from where we gather to work or play. Better still to use ethernet cabling.
The Swedish Radiation Safety Authority, the European Health Risk Assessment Network on Electromagnetic Fields Exposure and other agencies are carefully assessing the data available.
The two areas of concern, cancer and infertility, and radio frequency electromagnetic energy are under-researched, but there is some evidence from small but methodologically robust studies that say keeping a notebook or an iPad on your lap for extended periods of time decreases sperm count.
Obviously more research by reputable people or organizations should be commissioned and quickly. Depending on the findings, we can develop strategies to deal with any health risks associated with wireless technology. ARPANSA notes that moving a notebook, for instance, or an iPad, onto a surface such as a desk and away from the lap will mitigate any hazard. This seems simple enough to do whether it’s in a classroom or at home. It might also be possible to develop some sort of mat or insulation for the back of a device to limit its effect on the body (if there really is damaging effect).
My point is wireless technology as it is developing offers us remarkable opportunities. Not a new invention. But just magic. Not simply in terms of supporting communication, but in facilitating streaming, quantification and monitoring. There might be health concerns we need to address and the earlier we do so the better. Vital for our kids and theirs. In the long run, however, wireless might be as big a story as the automobile. It might even offer us as much fun, too. But then thinking about Rome and Francesca’s mother, I’m not so sure.
Take away points: New technologies have teething problems and carry risks even after careful trials. Wireless technology might possibly pose health risks. Agencies and universities are undertaking research to determine the effects of radio frequency electromagnetic energy emitted from various devices on the human body. ARPANSA offers precautionary advice on the matter. Due diligence and good practice will reap the rewards of wireless living.
Research: ARPANSA, general introductory comments: http://www.arpansa.gov.au/science/rf/index.cfm
ARPANSA Fact Sheets on risk mitigation: http://www.arpansa.gov.au/RadiationProtection/Factsheets/is_Wireless.cfm
ARPANSA literature (research) surveys, monthly publications, international reviews:
Journal Article: Use of laptop computers connected to internet through Wi-Fi decreases human sperm motility and increases sperm DNA fragmentation: https://www.andrologyaustralia.org/journal-articles/use-of-laptop-computers-connected-to-internet-through-wi-fi-decreases-human-sperm-motility-and-increases-sperm-dna-fragmentation
Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks. 1483-1486. Oil on panel. 199 x 122 cm. Louvre Museum, Paris, France: http://shows.we-envision.com/aa/2big/LEONARDO%20da%20Vinci/2virg_p.big.jpg
And commentary to provoke some initial thoughts on da Vinci’s work: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/renaissance-reformation/high-ren-florence-rome/high-renaissance1/v/leonardo-da-vinci-the-virgin-of-the-rocks-c-1491-1508