Thursday, August 11, 2011

To Form or Inform: Technology and the Family

This morning, I sit quietly with a cup of tea. The back door is open, the screen latched open too, so that Gus, our gray gentleman kitty, can go to and fro and he pleases. Out the front window I can see the purple spires of the butterfly bush and all the green of our little ginkgo tree and the neighbors yard, soft and melty through the old glass in the picture window.

All in all, I feel at peace. I have projects and at least part of a day ahead of me. My dear neighbors have taken Kiddo on a hike with them. I'm grateful for this in two ways: first, that he has some good time out in nature with people who genuinely love him and second, that I have some time to think quietly and share a few thoughts.

Lately, I've been giving some serious time and attention to thinking about technology and finding balance in this area with my family. This laptop is a tricky device in that it promises a sense of connectivity, immediately. Access to the Internet, for me, is something that I have to be thoughtful, even careful, about. This summer has been a time of reflection in this regard.

Over the last year or so, I became rather engrossed with a parenting forum. I've written posts about the forum, about needing breaks, about how to post or answer questions there. During my time teaching preschool last year, after I said goodbye to the children, I would be craving adult contact, and the forum was always available. While my friends were picking up their own kids from preschool, putting their little ones down for naps, or working and unavailable, the forum was right there, virtually at my fingertips. I believe I gave some good parenting advice.

But what I also noticed, over time, was that being on the forum was having a negative impact on my own ability to be a good parent. "Just another minute, and then we'll...". I'm not proud of this, and truthfully, I'm a bit ashamed of it. After all, I did know better, right? It's not like I'm not smart enough to understand that my son needed me more than these parents with questions did. A week or so after my son's preschool ended, it dawned on me that participating in this forum was actually making me a lesser parent.

And so, I quit. I haven't gone back since. Our summer is better for it.

My desire is always to find balance, and with the convenience of the laptop, it takes more effort to ensure that technology is put in its proper place. I'm not a complete Luddite here, however my ideal role of technology in family life is not to form, but solely to inform. Would I throw out the Internet? Never. However, my ideal role of the Internet is that it helps us as a family without shaping us. I'm hoping that nature and a life of learning, of hands-on experiences in real time, do that shaping. For example, the role of the technology in regard to our upcoming family vacation, to me, has already been played out: we've found our lodgings for the trip. We will not bring the laptop with us. We will bring my husband's cellphone, but we will not be texting anyone or making a lot of calls. I could go online again before the trip to print out tide tables, but then again, if I do that, I miss that experience of getting a guide at one of the small shops and seeing the actual people that live in the area I'm visiting. I'm sure there's an app for that (tide tables), but we are sticking with our simple pay-as-you-go phones, and I am not sure that missing the human aspect of being in a particular place is attractive to me, anyway.

This summer, I have wanted to delve into some critical thinking about how, in my family's future, we will balance the informing/forming potentials of the Internet and technology. Over the last few weeks, I read "Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology Than We Do From Each Other" by Sherry Turkle.  This book takes the reader from through the author's concern that we, as a society, have gone from the idea that "technology is better than nothing" to the feeling that "technology is better than something". Confusing to consider? Turkle's book focuses on several aspects of the technological world: she explores the interactions of sociable robots and their ability for affect, which creates complicated relationships between both humans and these robots as well as these same humans and others. The human preference for the ease of 'relationship' with sociable robots, which demand nothing and yet perform the task of empathetic listening, is worthy of our concern. However, so is the downgrading of the human relationship, courtesy of the Internet, instant messaging and texting. I myself have found that my choice to opt out of Facebook has left me with a very impersonal email in-box most days. During a single day, I will receive perhaps four or five emails from actual human beings who know me, and up to twenty or so from various organizations.

Because I have chosen not to participate in Facebook, I think it is fair to consider myself out of the loop. While many of my friends expect that they are reading each others posts and being kept abreast of what's going on, I find myself longing for real-time phone conversations or nights out with these same people. I don't want to know the trivial, surfacey stuff fit for group consumption: I want to know the real person, the real you. And creating this boundary around technology in my life has had its consequences: I find out after others that people have their babies or that they got the job or that other things of interest have happened. No one just calls each other to talk anymore.

Perhaps we have forgotten how? Perhaps some of us have forgotten what it's like to have a good, meaty conversation with long pauses as we think of a reply, or wait until our own voice is clear enough to say "I'm sorry" to someone's telling of disappointment or to smile and giggle and cheer over the phone with them when the news is good. I have relatives who prefer texting these days, and it makes me sad, because I miss really finding out what's going on in their lives. I miss the richness of those "mundane" conversations, because before texting, I knew more about them than I do now. The end result, though, is that I don't text, and they've lost the desire to talk on the phone, which leaves us at somewhat of a social impasse, much in the way Facebook has.

What struck me, time and again, in Turkle's book, was the repeated assertion of interviewed teens and college students that they would someday have to "learn how to have a conversation". Historically, we humans first shared information through oral histories, storytelling, and conversation. There was a group history, a history within families, stories we referred to and understood collectively. I see that disappearing, the work to keep these traditions alive is considered to be novel. This should not be the case.

I'm still wondering about what my family stories will be to my son. What, when he gets older, I want him to remember about my own family. It's a complicated muddle, to be sure, but some of those stories are simple enough to tell him now. Both his mother and father were born on islands, far across the world from each other. My island was made from fire, from molten rock, and although I have been assimilated into the mainland white culture, the island is in my bones in a way that I cannot explain. The Pacific Ocean is part of me, part of my soul, in a way I cannot describe, the light on the water and in the sky so different than anything we can know here. My husband comes from a much tamer place, an island in the Atlantic, already part of the culture he would live in for the rest of his life. This is just the beginning of our stories...

I want to get outside, now, before my day disappears, but I will be coming back to this and linking this topic together in some way. Like the birds and the bees, there can't be just one conversation about the role of technology in our families, they must be ongoing, as needed, as we grow.

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