Taz Morgan: I’m here with Jeff Harwell. He is our guest this month. We’re centering our theme around social media and technology. With any theme that we are exploring, we don’t just wanna say “Oh, this thing is all bad. Or this thing is all good.” We are interested in the nuances. This is a huge topic that we are trying to grapple with, but we’re interested in how both social media and technology in general are impacting our lives and our client’s lives. In prepping for this interview, I was thinking through episodes of Black Mirror that I’ve watched. [Laughs]. But why don’t you, Jeff, start with telling us about what you do for work?
Jeff Harwell: I’m the Chief Technology Officer at Fuller Theological Seminary…I’ve been in that role for about two years. Prior to that, I was the IT Director. I’ve been at Fuller since 2003 in various capacities within the IT Department. My undergraduate degree is in Engineering Physics and that’s when I got into computers.
I love to build things…I think the reason I ended up in management is because I love to build systems, build processes, build organizations. There’s magic if you can get people working together, believing in a cause and when all the piece are in place…it’s amazing.
[Edited out video due to tech issues with the sound!]
Taz: I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about how your role as a parent has impacted your understanding of technology, in general, and social media, specifically. I think a lot of the news stories I read too [about social media] are about teens and “digital natives.” Yeah, I think a lot more therapists are seeing [considering the implications of] social media being part of a teen’s life. I know a lot of…or I feel like I’ve read that a lot of teens….their dream job now is to be a YouTube star or to be a vlogger. What are your thoughts on all of this? (Laughs).
Jeff: I’m gonna throw a couple of things at you and then we’ll see if they cohere at all. And my soon-to-be teenage daughter is sitting here on the couch. I’ll be telling her…I’ll give her all my secrets. I think, oh,…she’s got headphones on, and she’s watching YouTube, so… (Laughs). But probably listening….
…I’m an adoptive parent. And I think one of the things that…being an adoptive parent does, especially being international when you adopt, when they’re older, it drives home the point that you’re not in control. As much as we want to be in control, as much as we feel like…I think there can be an illusion of control in a lot of ways in parenting…we’re not in control. (Laughs).
One of the really interesting effects of technology…and you see this facet of technology is driving a lot of [technology] adoption, like widely-used technology is so big in the financial industry because of this fact. Technology makes…you can make everything auditable. So, your phone knows where you, it knows every interaction you make, every email, every text, every place you visit, how many steps you take. I’ve got my FitBit. It knows what I eat; it knows when I sleep. All that information is going off to the cloud somewhere. In theory, if someone put the data stream together, they would know everything I do. Everything I read. Everywhere I go. Everything I eat. When I get up. When I go to bed.
Taz: And who are the people that you talk to the most. Yeah, it’s all trackable.
Jeff: And then once you combine other people’s phones, you know who I’m with; when I’m with them. So, that is incredibly alluring. We won’t get into the privacy debate or the Orwellian aspects of this. There’s a lot that is very concerning. And you combine that with big data.…and the kinds of things that you can learn from correlating things together can be very surprising and unnerving. But to the case in point, so, my daughter has an iPad. We live in L.A., so it’s not like she goes out and plays because (laughs) you know…somehow getting hit by a car is the least terrifying thing I can imagine. So, she’s either in the house with an adult, or she’s at school, or she’s at some structured social event. That’s how we roll in Los Angeles. Now, I can see all her interactions.
So, twenty years ago or more…I’m older now…more like thirty…my parents had nowhere near that much insight into my life. They didn’t know all my interactions. I’d go rode my bike; you’d get into all sorts of things. You know…talking to people you hear stories. Parents learn so many years later…(laughs) they would have totally freaked if they had known what we did and what we had gotten into. I think one of the really important things to realize when parenting in the age of technology is that there is a temptation to micro-manage because you can. We now have as parents in the digital age unprecedented insight and control that no generation has had before. I’ll tell you…when you look at growing up under a microscope, it’s pretty terrifying. This idea that…even when we look back at our own lives…when you’re out there on limb, when we got into situations that were hard, when we made mistakes, when we tripped up, there were consequences and that’s where you learn and grow.
I think the idea of parenting with the end in mind…that when they are turn eighteen, they will go out and have unfettered access to everything we’re scared about as parents. So this idea…Deprivation, I think, is not a good strategy. But I think that we need to kind of realize our own bias for control, realize the unparalleled insight that we have now, that we didn’t have before, and use that to offset….you know, there’s some serious stuff out there; some serious stuff could happen. There are things where we don’t know if the influence is good or bad. And there are some things we definitely know are bad. And we can’t protect them from everything. I do think that understanding technology and creating meaningfully boundaries…like my daughter doesn’t a phone. She’s eleven. She uses my phone a lot. She has an understanding that her mom and I have got all of her accounts, so sometimes we’ll drop in and look at what’s going in. When we see things, we’re gonna talk about it. But I don’t want to fall into the temptation to try to control everything. I want to keep an eye on it and then use things as teaching opportunities when they come up. And parent towards coaching them in how these interactions made them feel, what should they have done, what do they wish they would have done better. When they get to be young adults, they should be savvy. They should know what’s happening; know how to avoid the dangers
Taz: I appreciate the angle you took in answering this question. Yeah, thinking about how trackable this all is. And how alluring it could be to control…and how that would impact a child to be under the microscope like you said. I love that point that growth usually happens at the edge…when we’re taking risks, when we make a mistake and learn from the consequences.
Jeff: I think it’s really hard for parents. I mean, just personally to watch your child…and you can see they’re getting ready to step off the cliff. That’s where the judgment comes in. You always want to balance as a parent. You want the consequences to be enough that they learn. But you don’t want the consequences to be so great that it breaks their lives. I’m a lot more controlling about when it comes to looking both ways before you cross the street because you only get one mistake. You know, versus learning how to cook or something like that. It’s hard not to correct them every time they’re doing something that you know will lead them to a bad outcome. But you gotta let them run; let them enjoy; let them make mistakes; let them learn. Those are two really extreme examples of really drastic consequences versus almost non-existent.
Taz: But they are illustrative. And your comment about this illusion of control that any parent has [is illustrative, too]…Your kid is a whole other person. (Laughs).
Jeff: I think it’s really difficult as parents….This requires growth for us as parents. I think as parents we would probably tend to squelch the most promising learning opportunities our kids ever have if we could because they are gonna hurt so much.
So, if you can see those things coming…do you step in and rob the kid of the opportunity to grow? How do you judge how much difficulty they’re ready for? And I think the kind of wisdom and introspective…and the community it takes….I’ve found so much out of talking with older parents. Like, “Okay, this thing I’m so worried about, that I’m freaking out about - not that big of deal.” You can roll with this one and it’s fine. Versus “This is a thing I’m not really worried about…Oh, that doesn’t go well if you don’t address it.” Yeah, in generalities…but this idea that when we have this all power and control as parents amplified by the technology, it requires a lot more wisdom to know when to apply it. And I think it demands more of us as parents to be in community with people with more experience. The hardest thing about parenting is not projecting your self onto your child and making your child’s issues your issues. And as with everything else, technology just amplifies the tendency.
Taz: And that reminds of what you were saying before about the importance of awareness; having the dialogue around it; some kind of reflective functioning…not to fall into something.
Jeff: I wouldn’t want to minimize the real, significant dangers online…I mean, predators, child trafficking. I wouldn’t ever want to be heard saying, “Yeah, yeah, let them go online. It’ll be fine if they get solicited but they’ll learn from it.” That’s not at all what I’m saying. But I do think out of fear of that, we can really go in and…so, we can either say “This is uncontrollable” and let them run into dangers that we should protect them from; let them encounter things they’re not mature enough to metabolize or we say “Oh, we have all these controls and all these dangers, let’s clamp it all down.” I think that’s equally detrimental. So, that it is really a matter of finding that balance and being aware on both sides. There’s a strong draw to do one or either. I think you mess up as a parent if you do either of the extremes.
Taz: Well, I want to be conscious of time, but do you have any closing thoughts or things that you’d want to say? Anything coming to mind from the conversation, anything that makes you think like, “Oh, I want to add this point?”
Jeff: (Laughs) Thank you for listening.
Taz: I feel like so much has come up! (Laughs). Some of the reason that we like to interview people in different fields is that it’s so generative. Hopefully! And also for our community and for people who find our blog.
Jeff: I mean…I think it’s interesting that working with technology as much as I do as a practitioner, and then also as a manager and as an executive and as a parent…I do think the hardest parts are still the human parts. I laugh, you know, I can talk to my phone and it can write down what I say, which is this close to a miracle…and it does it so well now…it’s amazing. I can tell it “Open this app. Or open that app.” Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Which is interesting. I use Android. Maybe Apple has got this one. But what’s interesting about that is that it’s an integration problem. So, we’ve solved this massively difficult computer science problem of listening to speech and turning it into writing. Really difficult.
But integration is in the end…it’s the way that technology built by different groups of people can talk to each other. So, when I have this piece of technology and I want it to work with this other piece of technology and it doesn’t work, it’s because the people who built it had different ideas, they had different ways to approaching things, and they didn’t communicate well. They interpreted a standard in a different way. So, the idea that even inside your phone as you’re trying to use it - the things that it struggles with are a reflection of what’s so hard about being in a relationship; working together. I always laugh. I’ve run IT project after IT project - the hardest part is always the communication. How do I help people hear about what is happening? How do we solicit feedback? How are we responsive? How are we working together? (Laughs). You see that pattern over and over again. If anything technology can be a microscope or a magnifying glass that points back to the human condition and what it means to be human and what it means to relate to one another. I think I would always encourage us…when we see a technological problem, I think you can often and maybe always go one step deeper, and say “What is that telling us about ourselves? What does that tell us about what we want? What we need? How we relate?” And I think it can be very enlightening…and it becomes an opportunity to reflect on what our values are and how we want to be different in the world. And an opportunity to act on that in a very concrete way. I mean, it’s part of what I love about technology.
Taz: Yeah, it almost sounds like a mirror then.
Jeff: Uh huh, it’s not a perfect mirror, but it’s a very informative one.
Taz: I think I want to end on those points. Wow, yeah, it’s such a reflective relationship…technology and humans. Yeah. Well, thank you so much, Jeff. I really appreciate your time. It’s been very illuminating…this conversation has been illuminating.
Jeff: Thank you. I really appreciate the opportunity to do it. Thanks for taking the time yourself. I really appreciate it.
Jeff Harwell is Chief Technology Officer at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, and a PhD candidate in Information Systems and Technology at Claremont Graduate University. He has worked in the field of information systems and technology for over 15 years and has a background in Engineering Physics.
Taz Morgan, MA, is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist, IMF #99714, working under the supervision of Gabrielle Taylor, PhD. She has trained in Depth-oriented psychotherapy and works with adolescents, adults, and couples.