I just got very excited about a New Yorker blog post I stumbled across. The writer, Casey N. Cep, is specifically addressing the “National Day of Unplugging,” in which participants spent a day without technology, and posted photos of themselves holding signs about what they did with that free time. She dismisses the idea that this movement is truly meaningful, and cited different ways in which technology enhances our lives, and why attempts to “escape” it are ultimately unsustainable.
Citing statistics regarding relationships forged online or the Pope’s perspective on the validity of online identities, Cep argues that the concept of a “real” world versus a “virtual” one is an inaccurate binary. She believes that, in its essence, turning off technology is just an extension of the age-old journey to find a “core” and escape “the hustle and bustle of life.” Here’s one quote I found particularly provocative:
“But how quickly the digital age turned into the age of technological anxiety, with our beloved devices becoming something to fear, not enjoy. What sex was for the Puritans, technology has become for us. We’ve focussed our collective anxiety on digital excess, and reconnecting with the ‘real’ world around us represents one effort to control it.”
I do understand this sense that technology is out of control, and needs to be somehow regulated to curb a feeling of over-excess. I’ve felt it myself sometimes when I’m sitting with facebook, twitter, my email, a homework assignment, some syllabuses, etc. etc. open on different windows and tabs on my laptop; my eyes start to blur, and I begin to day-dream about how simple everything would be if only technology would just go away.
Cep has an alternative solution in her article. Instead of an over-excess of technology, or rigid nonexistence, we should consider ways to make technology work for us. How can technology function in ways that aren’t overwhelming and socially isolating? How can people be in front of screens and still be healthy and happy? She says, “[b]ut let’s not mistake such experiments in asceticism for a sustainable way of life. For most of us, the modern world is full of gadgets and electronics, and we’d do better to reflect on how we can live there than to pretend we can live elsewhere.” Taking a break from technology is never forever; people participating in the National Day of Unplugging have no intention of going off the grid. So what’s a sustainable, practical way technology can be improved as a permanent fixture of everyday life?
I recently had a conversation with my mom about this. She was saying that while watching tv with me, it feels like we’re doing something together. Like, I’m watching tv, she’s watching tv, we’re watching tv together, almost as if there are three people in a room all having a conversation. However, in the case of laptops or phones, it feels like I’m communicating with the screen while she’s trying to communicate with me. Three participants, but no well-rounded conversation. This may be because of the nature of internet-related activities vs. television viewing (the former active, the latter passive), or it could be the ergonomic superiority of one over the other.
If so, how can a computer screen be enhanced or tweaked to become a better fixture in living rooms, dining rooms, etc? How can it have better manners (excuse my cheesy personification) and not hog or interrupt social interactions? It’s not unreasonable for us to desire these improvements, but it is unreasonable for us to assume they can’t be made.
Of course, decisions about technology usage are subject to personal preference and need. But, specifically referring to the use of technology in literary studies, I think proactive, optimistic attempts and improvement are certainly more useful than rejection and denial. Keep in mind that if the Pope has 3.81 million followers on twitter, there’s definitely no turning back from the digital age we live in!