A few weeks ago, during a family Monopoly game, when it wasn't my turn to roll the dice or pay my son the rent I owed on Park Place, I used my iPhone to research an article, texted my cousin in North Carolina and checked Facebook updates. All the while, I believed I was fully participating in the game with my kids. I routinely cook dinner while texting or streaming a cooking show. I'm not addicted to technology, I tell myself; I'm just a great multitasker. Besides, that wasn't really a panic attack I had when I lost my phone a few months back. I was just, you know, wondering where it was.
Books and articles have come out recently addressing the growing concern that our relationship with personal technology may not be all that helpful or healthy. "Hamlet's Blackberry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age," by William Powers, and "Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other," by Sherry Turkle, are thought-provoking and entertaining examples with contrasting viewpoints.
"Hamlet's Blackberry" downplays the dangers of technology, reminding us that Socrates claimed reading and writing would weaken our brains and 15th century scholars worried that Gutenberg's printing press would mean the end of scholarly writing.
In Shakespeare's time, a new type of erasable writing tablet became every merchant's must-have gadget, as indispensable as smartphones are to businesspeople today. Powers, a former Washington Post writer, emphasizes that people have always been troubled by new technologies, yet so far none of their great concerns have come to pass. He says that what we need is balance. There are positive aspects in being digitally connected and there are positive aspects in not being digitally connected. Powers believes that with some reflection, we'll eventually find a way to balance these connections.
"Alone Together" is less optimistic. Turkle, a clinical psychologist and professor of the social studies of science and technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, describes technologies such as smartphones and Facebook as psychological traps in which we shape our lives to suit the technology, rather than the other way around.
Turkle begins the book with a discussion of "social robots," evoking images of a spooky future in which people don't visit their elderly parents but send android surrogates instead. That may sound far-fetched, but Turkle accurately observes that we often use technology as a way to mask our imperfections and avoid relating to people directly.
The second half of the book focuses on our daily preoccupation with email, texts, social media and the like. She interviews teenagers who understand that texting while driving is dangerous, but say that they just can't help it. Many also claimed to dislike speaking on the phone or in person because they don't want to deal with the immediacy of human interactions. Turkle doesn't offer much hope, seeing our society as increasingly distracted and isolated by technology.
After reading "Alone Together," I decided my family would take a day off from technology just to see what happened. This meant no phones, computers or electronics of any kind.
My husband, who works in the tech field, liked the idea but claimed a professional hardship waiver for himself. My 10-year old sobbed briefly as he handed over his Nintendo game console, while his little brother gleefully surrendered his Nintendo and has yet to retrieve it.
Sure, I missed my phone a bit, but the experiment prompted some lively conversations with friends, the sort of face-to-face human interactions both authors encourage. Besides, that wasn't really a pang of desperate longing I felt when the telltale beep of a new text message sounded from inside the dresser drawer. I was just, you know, wondering who it was.
Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.