Last week a group of us met for a mid-week dinner celebration in a lively local Tex-Mex restaurant. We were mostly colleagues who see each other daily, nodding a quick hello as we pass through the high school halls, but here, with the platters of chips and bowls of salsa to share and a spouse or two sprinkled between, we laughed over miss-steps and shared our stories. We remembered why we are friends while the revelry fed our spirits; back at school the next day our passing in the halls slowed a bit to allow for an extended greeting. Our table of 10 was adjacent to a table for 7, where a family was seated, mom and dad and their five children, ranging from pre-teen to teen. After getting settled and menu options discussed each member of this family pulled out an electronic device; several had iPads, others gaming devices, parents too studied their smart phones. No one at that table spoke. Even when their food came they kept to their solitary pursuits. The contrast between our experiences was visible and startling for while we all left our isolation and found community, this group did something quite opposite and gained what I wondered? What role does technology have in our lives, our families, our relationships, or our workplaces? Is there a compelling reason to embrace being plugged in over an equally compelling reason to not be?
Looking around my home now, there is a stark contrast to even one decade ago, never mind two… or three! This New Jersey girl moved as far north as possible and still be a US citizen living on the East Coast: I settled in rural Vermont. Here my children played all four seasons in their large yard, built snowmen and snow-forts and snowballs in winter, sailed bark boats in the cold river in spring, strolled to the general store with two quarters to get the biggest creemee imaginable in summer and hiked up the dirt road to feed the pony some apples in fall. Idyllic for little ones. Mud-pie creations occupied our afternoons and starry skies lit our nights; but once they reached double digits, they each in turn wanted an urban life and all that commerce might afford them in terms of education and career.
Over the years we went from a house with no TV to a home where now we all have a laptop or two, smartphones, iPads, iPods… we joined Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, have several Gmail accounts, maintain active blogs, and the list goes on… We have indeed fully embraced the digital world. We see our children thanks to FaceTime; we watch videos they post thanks to Facebook; we are part of their professional network thanks to LinkedIn; we laugh at their candid photos thanks to Instagram. Oh, did I mention that each one, upon receiving their college diploma, took the fast track to the opposite coast and are happy Los Angeles residents now? Technology is exactly how we stay a family. Often a text from any one of them is there when I wake or throughout the day to garner news and is often how I say goodnight. Despite the miles, as the Obama’s say, we are “family, first.”
But media sites and technology is bigger than just communication: revolutions are credited to modern communications. Paul Revere’s ride wasn’t any different if you think about it; his midnight run sounded an alarm far beyond his cloistered neighborhood, just as the 2011 uprising in Egypt alerted first a nation and then the world that change was in the air. Who didn’t watch as Pope Francis I first greeted the world via live streaming? Thanks to technology history is happening right now during every moment on this spinning small globe, and consequently we have evolved into members of a global community; as we ponder the planetary challenges of clean food and fresh water needed to sustain ourselves, these social media sites address real pressing concerns.
Facebook stirred a revolution of its own, with 800 million world-wide users, this networking site has united estranged childhood friends and made it possible to stay in touch countless ways, from forming group pages to private chats. Facebook is now how we organize events, share our vacation photos, and reveal our thoughts for the day. Before you think that there is something totally wrong with this fascination with the mundane I ask you to consider my friend’s status last week:
A friend said to me I don’t like Facebook because I don’t really care what my friends are eating for breakfast. I am finding that I actually do like to know. In fact it seems just as important as anything else. I prefer to think of this fascination as forming part of a tradition going back to Flaubert or Joyce that celebrates the ordinary or democratizes the stage, but am not sure this reading is still available to us. I fear my interest has to be seen more in terms of Foucauldian spaces and reality TV (the merging of the spectacle and the participatory) or just as yet another manifestation of the consumption that characterizes late stage capitalism. But then, who really cares? (Ed Pepe).
Yeah, what he said… but seriously, community has expanded, we have moved into the digital age, just ask all the parents of our active military, whose sons and daughters are overseas, yet who find via Facebook or Skype an avenue to know they are okay. More than simply a capitalistic urge, is the desire for community, the longing to make connection. Through this blog I read responses from folks clear around the globe who find meaning in my words, or delight in my photos, or unity in our shared vision. Quite remarkable. Celebrating the ordinary reminds us that each and every life is precious. Perhaps even divine.
Certainly the concern of children (and adults for that matter) not engaging with others isn’t new. According to Ozlem Ayduk, an associate professor in the Relationship and Social Cognition Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, said children sitting at the dinner table with a print book or crayons were not as engaged with the people around them, either. “There are value-based lessons for children to talk to the people during a meal,” she said. “It’s not so much about the iPad versus nonelectronics” (Bilton, New York Times), 31 March 2013). The New York Times essay voices concerns that many of us harbor, in terms of how young should we introduce these devices to children, and what are the long term effects; I think the same common sense that our parents used, that books be banned from the dinner table, that time was allowed for meaningful conversation, that children were given time to daydream, and perhaps even be bored, then electronics will only add to our sense of community.
Can our use of technology go too far? Can our devices take us away from our present lives and instead isolate us further? Well, the family I spied in the restaurant might want to reconsider mealtime; in fact, all of us might want to check in with our close friends and family members the old fashion way from time to time, face to face, learning from each other with our eyes and ears and heart. But let us also consider the power available in our present technology. Interestingly, when my dinner friends all arrived at the restaurant the other night, I asked the waitress to take a photo using my phone. I quickly uploaded to Facebook, tagged the individuals, and before we finished our meal, several others saw on the site that we were there and popped in to say a quick hello.