• العربية
  • کوردی

Balancing Technological Support and Personal Endeavors

Policy Briefs Testimonies

5/8/2024 9:07:00 AM

  Sarwa Azeez / Kurdish poet, translator, and academic.

Numerous jokes are circulating within my family about my grandparents or their siblings when they were first introduced to the radio or other technological devices. Some of them might have been exaggerated with elements of truth narrated by different witnesses pieced back together to give a complete picture. My great grandmother, for instance, once wondered if the man on TV reading the news could see her. When she was told “no,” she questioned, “Then why does it seem like he's staring straight into my eyes?”

Despite the rapid and extensive advancements and transformations in technology across various fields, warfare can render these devices inaccessible to people in war-torn regions. Such circumstances had profoundly detrimental effects on those areas' health, education, and learning systems.

In the aftermath of the first Gulf War, our region faced a severe shortage of electricity and gas that persisted for several years. Adding to the challenges wrought by the conflict, the United Nations Security Council enforced a comprehensive economic embargo on Iraq in August 1990, a response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

This took a lot of work for elementary students. We needed to rely on the flickering light of Kerosine lanterns for homework and activities. We also lacked sufficient kerosene for heating our schools, homes, or cooking, leading us to depend on wood for these basic needs. Sometimes while going to school, our teachers were asking us to bring a piece or two pieces of wood with us to make the class warm since they used homemade wood heaters.

During our childhood, we ingeniously found ways to normalize our atmosphere, infusing life with joy and excitement. An old radio became our source of endless amusement when we discovered we could record our voices onto our father's cherished music tapes and play them back endlessly. My father had a thing for classical Kurdish music, known as dengbej, and he'd become visibly upset upon realizing our penchant for using his favorite tapes. We attempted to negotiate for the tapes he no longer used or listened to.

One wintry day, amidst the snowfall, the small economic Asian Model Aladdin kerosene heater emanated warmth in our room. That day my uncle was visiting. In the living room, my parents and uncle savored tea while my siblings and I engaged in our amateur voice recordings, assuming roles like aspiring actors in a separate room. Armed with a children's short story, we each took on characters, replaying scenes until satisfied. Laughter ensued at our bloopers, prompting us to start afresh.

We wanted to ensure the accuracy of our lines, so we rehearsed them two or three times before proceeding to the next recording. In one particular story, I portrayed a strict male teacher, while one of my siblings took on the role of his wife, and the others portrayed the students. As the plot unfolded, the students devised a secret agreement to either scare or torment the teacher. Following the greeting of "Good morning," each student had to inquire, "You don't look good," "Are you alright?" and "Oh God, what happened to color your face?" When revisiting our roles, we couldn't help but laugh at the mistakes we made. In Kurdish, "deng" means voice, and "reng" means color. It turned out that my younger brother asked, "What happened to your voice?" instead of referring to the color of the teacher's face, leading to laughter so contagious that tears rolled down our eyes. But our laughter had a short-lived existence. In an unexpected twist, my youngest brother, still laughing, inadvertently backed into the Aladdin heater, causing it to topple over. The flames surged wildly. Miraculously, my brother sustained minor burns, while our quick-thinking uncle swiftly enveloped the heater with a blanket, extinguishing the fire.

My father hid the radio from us for the rest of winter. But we carried on our acting without recording.

Then our school introduced us to Arabic and English, I delved into the exciting world of learning new languages. Unfortunately, we lacked essential tools like dictionaries or exercise books to practice our vocabulary and conversational skills. Despite this setback, I discovered that the radio became my beacon of inspiration and hope. Throughout my elementary and junior high school years, I tuned in to stations such as the Voice of America, BBC English, and BBC Arabic. However, there was a challenge: these stations broadcasted on AM frequencies, and their reception was optimal around 11 PM and midnight. Given my early bedtime, accessing these stations was difficult during the weekdays.

Nonetheless, I made it a weekend ritual to stay awake until these channels had a clearer reception, allowing me to further my language skills.

As our region grappled with the aftermath of war, accessing books became an arduous task. Every so often, purchasing textbooks was a luxury, leading students like us to rely on borrowing school books from peers. I vividly recall the moment when I encountered my first dictionary. While I was still in elementary school, my elder brother, newly enrolled in high school, returned home triumphantly clutching a sizable book, announcing, "I've purchased a dictionary in Erbil city."

With eager curiosity, my siblings and I eagerly received the book from him, taking turns examining its pages and asking him about the significance and advantages of a dictionary.

The concept of scarcity often dominates our thoughts when considering important items like books, stationery, and technological devices. However, upon reflection, I find myself occasionally substituting the term "scarce" with something more profound—something almost sacred.

While it's undeniable that everyone should have access to books and basic learning tools, an excess of these resources can sometimes lead to a loss of appreciation or a detachment from their true value. I recall when borrowing a book from a friend or relative held immense anticipation for me. Each day, I eagerly awaited the continuation of a novel's plot or the resolution of its characters' journeys. Additionally, tuning in to a limited number of radio stations typically broadcast once a week around midnight, offered a unique opportunity. I would hear unfamiliar individuals sharing their lives in their native language. Despite my beginner-level grasp of English or Arabic, their accents and nuanced use of grammar were incredibly pleasing to my ears. These instances provided a unique and cherished glimpse into varied lives and linguistic nuances.

In 2003, the embargo on Iraq was fully lifted after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime. This transformative shift sparked a technological boom in our region. We found ourselves inundated with a myriad of technological devices, often struggling to keep pace with their rapid advancements.

In those days, we felt privileged to be part of the expansive sea of rapidly advancing innovation. Books were readily available and affordable to purchase. Gradually, a significant number of households in most cities began purchasing satellite TVs. The advent of mobile phones and computers marked a turning point; everyone, especially students, clamored to possess these devices. Amidst this abundance—books, phones, iPads, iPods, and more—the challenge of maintaining focus on reading and emotional balance amidst competing priorities became daunting.

As I write this article, my mind pulls me toward distractions like watching a movie or checking my social media accounts. There are moments when I dream of an environment that limits access to just one or two devices, restricting the use of various apps and social media platforms. But then I wonder, can’t we create a set of guidelines that align more closely with our essential responsibilities and needs?

Reducing the distractions brought on by today's technology-driven world might seem achievable, yet it's far from simple. In professional settings, staying connected through email or social media platforms is often crucial for updates from bosses or colleagues. Likewise, for students or those pursuing a degree, daily email checks are essential, ensuring they remain informed and engaged in broader discussions. Failing to do so might leave one feeling out of touch during conversations about current events, be it political disputes or celebrity news, among peers.

There have been numerous embarrassing situations that have arisen due to my lack of knowledge on certain topics. Consequently, I've found myself seeking information to avoid these uncomfortable moments, yet I rarely find further use for this acquired knowledge in my daily life.

I still can't forgive myself for the day I mistook Godzilla for a novel while discussing character creation in a story with a student. As I was teaching creative writing, I could clearly see the disappointment in his eyes when he realized I had zero knowledge about Godzilla. When recounting the incident to my younger brother, he teased me, saying, "Sister, you are still stuck in cave times"

It was hard to explain to my student and my brother the amount of information I have consumed throughout my lifetime. Even though I immerse myself in a diverse range of books covering philosophy, history, and literature every day, it seemed irrelevant to them whether I was familiar with concepts like absurdism, Dasein, modernism, postmodernism, posthumanism, and a plethora of other 'ism' terms.

I think nowadays the overwhelming influx of pop culture content, facilitated by platforms like TikTok and other social media platforms, adds to the already extensive array of information available. This abundance has the potential to distract individuals from meaningful learning experiences, as the constant barrage of trending topics may overshadow educational pursuits. The allure of quick, entertaining snippets on platforms such as TikTok can contribute to the devaluation of deeper learning, especially if the content does not align with one's default interests or preferred routes of engagement. As a result, the challenge becomes discerning between the allure of popular culture and the importance of fostering a genuine interest in diverse and substantive knowledge.

As a teacher, it is I sought to avoid appearing uninformed or unintelligent in the eyes of my students and friends. To do so, I made an effort to familiarize myself with pop culture information and data that wasn't necessarily aligned with my personal preferences.

Last year, I taught ESL Intermediate Level at a Community College in Salt Lake City. On the first day of class, I provided the students with several popular podcasts and apps to assist them in improving their English skills. They eagerly installed the apps and explored the recommended websites with enthusiasm. Initially, I was pleased by their apparent passion for delving into these valuable learning resources. However, as weeks passed, none of the students appeared to be actively engaging with the podcasts I had suggested. The apps and podcasts were really brilliant tools such as the VOA Learning English APP, You Have A Way With Words, BBC 6 Minute English…etc. Still, the students preferred to talk about their favorite TV shows and current trendy activities on TikTok. Rather than feeling disappointed with them, I empathized with their situation, recognizing that we are all ensnared in a world full of distracting devices and abundant entertainment resources.

Before ChatGPT reached everyone’s ears, I got a message from my cousin Hawkar who has been a technology geek since his childhood. In his message, he wrote a poem and told me that from now on I have a competitor. I read the poem it started with these lines:

End stage lung cancer, a difficult road to dread

But with strength and hope, we can overcome the dread


And though the end may be near, we must hold on

For every moment counts, and should not be gone

So let us hold on tight, to those we hold dear

And face end stage lung cancer, with hope and cheer.

The poem was crafted to offer hope to someone battling advanced-stage lung cancer. Ironically, during this time, my closest friend was also diagnosed with stage 4 Non-small cell lung cancer, unbeknownst to my cousin. Despite being distant from the realm of poetry and emotional expression, my cousin perceived this piece as poetic due to its adherence to traditional rules of poetry with stanzas, rhymes, and rhythms. When I inquired about the author, my cousin amusingly responded “AI” along with a laughing emoji. As someone passionate about poetry and literature, I found the lines to be clever and impressive but lacking in depth; they failed to transport me beyond the literal words. When I shared this sentiment with my cousin, expressing that "there is no soul in it," he seemed to perceive it as jealousy, failing to understand my viewpoint.

The news about launching ChatGPT was exhilarating for everyone, from individual users to large organizations and tech companies. However, it held an even more profound significance for language learners, granting them a newfound sense of liberation in their learning journey.

As someone learning and teaching English, I incorporate tools like Grammarly, ChatGPT, and other AI aids to proofread my essays, emails, and, oddly enough, even my conversations with native speakers. Do these tools save me from embarrassing situations? "Yes." But do they significantly enhance my English skills? "I'm not entirely certain.

Before employing these proofreading tools, I exerted considerable effort searching for synonyms, adhering to proper grammar rules, and mastering common phrasal verbs. However, now I find myself wondering, "Why invest effort in learning to swim when my artificial fins effortlessly handle the task for me?"

As I reflect on my journey, I'm confronted with this paradox. While these tools undeniably streamline aspects of language learning and communication, they also beg questions about the necessity of exerting personal effort. The analogy of artificial fins effortlessly aiding swimming elucidates this dilemma. It prompts introspection, compelling me to question whether leaning too heavily on these technological crutches could hinder the organic growth of my learning skills.

In essence, while AI tools unquestionably offer indispensable support and enhance the quality of communication, they prompt us to ponder the delicate balance between convenience and genuine learning effort. My journey, transitioning from the radio's static-filled late-night broadcasts to the cutting-edge assistance of AI, has instilled in me an appreciation for both the resources that facilitate learning and the inherent value of personal effort and perseverance.

In Franz Kafka's story "Metamorphosis," the protagonist Gregor Samsa undergoes a profound transformation, finding himself transformed into a colossal insect. Despite his physical metamorphosis, Gregor yearns to engage in his usual daily activities, grappling with the dichotomy of being a human soul trapped within an insectoid body. There are days when I resonate with this sensation of undergoing a metamorphosis, feeling constrained from carrying out my regular tasks or being physically active due to my obsessiveness with my electronic devices. This ongoing transformative phase has become a daily challenge for me. To break free from this entrapment within an insect-like existence, I recognize the importance of establishing balance in my life. While I leverage various AI-driven tools for information retrieval and processing in my personal journey, I also place a high value on hands-on learning, critical thinking, and continual self-improvement through personal initiatives and unwavering dedication.