I didn’t even see the guy looking at me, probably because my head was gazing down into my iPhone. We were in Concord, NH, last Thursday, having just watched Food, Inc. at a local indy theater, and I was pulling up the nearest geocaches (our new favorite sport) for my kids to peruse, hoping to set off on a hunt before heading back to our connectionless retreat on a hilltop in the woods.
“You’re a technoslave!” the guy yelled across the square, and I looked up to see him hurrying along with an angsty expression on his face. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my kids wheel around, too, Tucker stopping dead in his tracks. “It’ll ruin your life! Throw it away! Just throw it away!”
And he was gone, zipping around a hedgerow and then disappearing into a bookstore as my wife turned to me smiling and my kids gaped open-mouthed, struggled to figure out how to react. I, of course, just shrugged it off, saying something brilliant like “Yeah, whatever” while brushing him and the idea away with a half sweep of my hand, the one not holding the iPhone, of course.
But as we picked through a tick-infested field adjacent to a Dunkin Donuts parking lot to find our third ammo can cache of the day, the “technoslave” charge turned in my head. Am I a slave to all of this? And if so, is that necessarily a bad thing? This all on the heels of spending a week with bandwidth (I just typed “badwidth” which would have been appropriate) that maybe reached half a bar on my Verizon stick when the wind was blowing in the right direction and I held my computer at exactly 32 degrees. (Think aluminum foil and tv antenna if you’re old enough.) I think I Tweeted like three times, maybe, and even those were wistful dispatches from nature that felt almost strange in the making. (As in “Why am I Tweeting how nice it is to watch this thunderstorm roll in without all the usual distractions?” Hmmm…) I tried to answer a few e-mails, but I think I just managed to make people angry. And I did get to scan the front page of the New York Times site after the 30-minute or so download most mornings. But that was about it.
Except, of course, for my iPhone, which served us well as we crawled through the claustrophobia-inducing caves and caverns at Lost River Gorge, snapping decent pictures of our trek (though not of the point where I got stuck), or while being strafed by mosquitoes while watching the new Harry Potter movie at the local drive-in letting me sneak an update on the Cubs game. And, when we started finding those caches. In fact, that may have been the highlight of the trip in some ways, the “doing something fun out in nature with the family” aspect of going around trying to find these little hidden treasures while avoiding the eyes of curious “Muggle” onlookers, reading the logs of people who had found them before us and feeling this weird sense of connection to a community of people online AND in real space that we had little sense of before.Â Facilitated solely by technology.
So, yeah, in many ways, I’m a slave to all of this. And I’m ok with that. I like being reminded how good it is to get away from the network from time to time; the world doesn’t end when the connection runs out. (Gasp!) But the connection is just a part of me now that at times may lead to distraction and a sense of overwhelmedness but on balance, adds a richness to my life that that angsty guy doesn’t get and probably never will.
Gardner Campbell says
A nuanced close reading of a complex issue. I’m grateful. It comes at a particularly good time for me, as well.
Jeff Nugent says
I continue to think that intentionally disconnecting from time to time will become ever more important to maintain balance. Wonder if we’ll see growth of dis/re-connect events in response. Thanks for sharing you experience…
Ewan McIntosh says
I had a holiday in two parts this year, separated by 40 hours for clothes washing at home (a quirk of booking something last minute). The change in scene helped me not get bored, and gave me a reason to finish the Will Self novel I spent the first week chortling through, so I could devour something smaller in the plane trip home.
Both weeks were techno-free, completely, and I’ve never read so much analogue stuff (like, real books) because the only (welcome) distraction was playing with my daughter in the pool. The mobile phone was off, but I really enjoyed making a long list of catchup calls I had noted down while I was reading people’s books, thinking about old friendships and people I should speak to more. I’ve never been so delighted as making an unexpected call to a pal in Boston who I hadn’t spoken to in a year, just because I had a thought about them in the zen of being disconnected.
I am currently very aware of the fact that all my online reading outside my 8-6 day takes place against a backdrop of my wife not being paid attention to, my daughter potty-training without my assistance (this is *hugely* dangerous), or the dinner burning.
Which is why I’ve not lived online outside the office hours for nearly two years.
Ironically, it’s now that my wife is on holiday and we’re seeing each other more than normal during the working day, especially when I’m working at home, that I’m taking the luxury of commenting on a blog on a Sunday afternoon.
I’ve come to planning what I want to do online more avidly, letting Twitter be my serendipity tap, and believing that if anyone urgently needs to get in touch with me (they never do) then they would surely know my cellphone number anyway.
I’m enjoying having my technology be MY slave. It enriches my life, though may well be guilty of not knowing what I do not know, all those things that I miss because I’m not sucking at the overflowing teat of “did you see this” and “I’ve discovered how a new tool could be totally transformational” in “21st century learning”.
But the hours I used to spend finding the wheat in the chaff of online one-upmanship in the bloggerverse have been spent, instead, on making stuff that might change the stakes and spending time with the people I’m making that stuff for.
Arguably, though, my wife has been equally fed up when I’ve not been dressed and ready to go for wont of finishing off “just another page” before heading to the hills of Tuscany for some adventure and ice-cream. So, maybe the vices are just the same, the consequences just as grave (melted gelato) but the device easier to appear enslavened to.
Ewan McIntosh says
And on time, from an incredibly clever programmer and entrepreneur making something with me right now:
Monica Plantan says
So often I read my exact sentiments in your blog regarding 21st Century Skills, technology enriched classrooms, etc. And now, the real crux of basic shared beliefs: It really is all about the necessity of knowing the Cubs score! Carry on with the good fight, Will.
Steve Ransom says
Thanks for telling this probably all too common story for many of us, Will. No, I don’t geocache…yet, but this idea of trade-offs that we all make is one that I also think about all of the time. Neil Postman described it as the faustian bargain. But life moves on, “progress” happens, and one can either become a societal “hermit” like perhaps the man you encountered, or try to embrace the good, the empowerment, the potential for great(er) things. This is not to say that there are not great(er) things sans newer technologies. I think it is an excellent practice to disconnect once in a while, as it is easy to forget what life was like “way back when…”. I think it is important to expose our kids to what they may term, “the olden days”. There is a great deal of enjoyment and satisfaction to be learned/gained. In the end, I hope such types of exposure with my own children help them understand the importance of finding balance in life – that not checking their Facebook/MySpace page for a few days, not sending/receiving texts or answering their cellphone is not actually a national crisis. Perhaps even some kids may appreciate that they actually can have uninterrupted attention from their usually technology-tethered parents.
Thanks for describing this event that probably characterizes what many of us [should] think about at times.
David Walker says
Hi Will. Nicholas Kristoff waxes similarly philosophic this morning. It’s never one or the other. Part of the “transformation” we were talking about is that we must do both, get out and stay in. Searching for geocaches (we will be successful) or hiking or surfing or biking or whatever may make our “technolives” richer.
A friend asked me last weekend if I could go without my iPhone for a day. I’ve always found that question odd. “Sure, I could, but why? I replied. It’s not the technology that I’m a slave to. If it were just technology, I wouldn’t use it. It’s my connection to friends, to peers and colleagues, to people who make me laugh, make me think–it’s a connection to society. Why should I want to do without it for a day? Human beings are social creatures. Ibeing in society should be a good thing. It just happens to be a piece of technology that mediated this connection.
Don Watkins says
I am a technoslave or something akin to that and I’m proud of it. I use my Blackberry, laptop, netbook and I enjoy sharing my life with others who have a similar bent. Just this week a picture taken with my Blackberry of a labyrinth got posted to Facebook by me and this invited a conversation which eventually saw me read, “A Whole New Mind.” Now, if I hadn’t had the Blackberry, and hadn’t taken the picture I wouldn’t have become a bit more learned and enlightened. It’s good to spend time in quiet and I do for parts of my day. I don’t listen to cable news nor do I listen to much radio either. I do listen to books on my iPod and I love to share pictures of flowers on Facebook and FlickR and get in an occasional Tweet on Twitter.
Laura Deisley says
In the end it really is all about balance, isn’t it? And the only person who can do anything about the balance is the individual. It’s different I suspect for each person. I’m struggling with it, and I can really relate to Ewan’s disclosures. At times it feels like an insane addiction, and I’m trying to identify what I need to do so that I’m not enslaved by the hyper-connectedness and the “hyper-need-to-be-in-the-know” (it’s not just about the technology). It’s up to me to manage it, because it will always be there, it will always be “on”-unless I choose for it not to be “on” for me.
Part and parcel of all of this, and Ewan conveys this quite well, is how do we balance all of our interests, learning, connections, distractions (empowered by technology or not) and be truly PRESENT to those around us-be present to our first life environment-versus spreading that attention to include everyone and every piece of information just because it is possible. We’ve got to decide whether what it adds fully compensates for, or is better than, whatever it displaces. We have limits. I don’t want to get to the point where we’re becoming a society of clinically depressed people who don’t know how to be present, how to do one thing at a time, how to live without a constantly flowing adrenalin port of information, ideas, and…
Masters not slaves is a good route to go, Ewan. Let me know when you get it all figured out, OK? 😉
Thanks, Will, for raising the question.
Laura Deisley says
For further consideration, as we think about ourselves, our kids, and our students:
I read an article on Friday about students and their connectedness and it’s impact on their sleep and their subsequent ability to learn: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/464/story/855872.html
Sent it to everyone in my family and noted my own culpability.
On the same day I read that accidents are 23 times as likely to occur texting, 6 times as likely while talking, versus no phone use while driving. Shared that one with everyone as well…and again noted my own transgressions.
Obviously I don’t have it figured out yet…but awareness is a first step.
Are you only a slave to something when it feels unwelcome?
What do you call it when you no longer notice? What happens when its existance has so altered your thinking that it feels like you chose it, or at least would choose it today?
That’s part of what Orpheus asked Neo, right? Be an unwitting slave, or fight as a conscious one?
Can I live a day without my iPhone? Sure. That’s easy.
Of course, living without my iPhone *and* without my computer? That’s harder. For whole week? Nearly unthinkable.
Of course, why would I want to?
I am not anti-technology at all. But I could really do to be a lot more aware of how many decisions I make differently because it its ubiquity in my life.
I cook from scratch more, but truly experiment less. After all, it’s easy to find a few recipes to base my vague ideas on.
I probably don’t read any less, but I read far fewer novels and a lot more essays and non-fiction.
I write a lot more, but probably a lot less carefully.
I am far more imformed, but probably a bit less pensive.
And those are just the thinks I am consciously aware of.
How much Stockholm Syndrome is going on here? How much Matrix-like blindness to how technology shapes our very understanding of the world and society?
sylvia martinez says
Don’t listen to nutcases who yell at families. Problem solved!
Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach says
As I read through each response noticing how each waxed so poetically I couldn’t help but bust out laughing as I read Sylvia’s response. So simple– but so true!
Beth Poss says
As I quickly finish up reading emails and blogs before I head to the beach on my vacation I read this with a smile:) I think I will have to check out geocaching as a family activity when we get home, before school starts–sounds like a great way to tie in 21st century skills with old fashioned fun. Bah to the Luddite!
Diane Main says
You’re a geocacher now too! I’m so proud. (Been caching since November 2006 and love it.)
So, like, this nut ball who yelled at you without even knowing you . . . he’s just jealous of your iPhone. They all are. Shake it off, man.
Wow, talk about the unexamined life.
If someone criticizes you and your lifestyle — not a euphemism here — then s/he must be jealous. There’s not reason to stop and think about whether s/he might be right, or if there might an important kernel of truth in what s/he says.
Those who disagree with you are wrong, so there’s not need to turn your eye inward. Why waste time or energy reflecting upon the decisions you have made?
That way surely lies……oh, whatever. Who cares?
I just received your entire summer’s worth of posts in one wallop in my reader — no idea why. But I sure am enjoying these reflections and ideas.
Reading this one reminded me of a concept I came across a few weeks ago, Albert Borgmann’s device paradigm. To paraphrase (badly, I’m sure), he sees technology making many things easier, and many of these things are very attractive to us because of their ease and comfort…but that those experiences may not actually be that meaningful to us if we really reflect on them.
The classic example would be tweeting with “friends” all over the world while ignoring your neighbour and realizing you haven’t seen your close friend down the street in weeks.
Borgmann suggested the pursuit of “focal experiences” — places and practices requiring focus, grounding us. Music, gardening, cooking and eating together, running…I see the wisdom in this advice, although I question the differentiation between tools (gardening tools, musical instruments, good runners) and digital devices…need to think on that some more.