Monday, July 11, 2011


I just wanted to stand up close,
shoulder to shoulder, heart to heart
with this, my friend. ~Gerhard Frost

Caryl and I recently spent a week with my sisters and their husbands at the  remote mountain cabin we share – our annual work week and “partnership meeting.” Although it is more common for us to use the cabin separately, we get along well and enjoy these times together. At one point during our week my sister Barb made an observation to the effect that “everyone seems to be on some kind of screen.” And she was right: one of us was doing a crossword on an iPhone, another was on the deck trying to get a cell signal, another was reading a book on Kindle, two others playing Scrabble on an iPad. All of this in spite of the fact that, by mutual agreement and technological limitation, we don’t have internet or wi-fi (or TV or radio) at the cabin.

My first response (a bit defensive) was to point out that we were doing the same things we’ve always done when relaxing at the cabin: working crosswords, reading books, playing board games. But upon further reflection, I had to wonder if there wasn’t in fact a kind of qualitative difference. Is it possible that one is more “absorbed” and isolated from others when reading a book on Kindle than when – sitting in the exact same easy chair – reading a bound book? Or is it that the electronic device erects a more off-putting shield than does a tattered-corner paperback book of New York Times Crossword Puzzles? I don’t know; thus my suggestion of an “interim report.”

Electronic screen time may be one of those areas in which we think of ourselves as the exception. Even the most hard-bitten cell phone libertarian who doesn’t want anyone to pry the phone out of his steering wheel-clutching hands tenses up just a bit when he notices another driver approaching with a cell phone to her ear. I think the reason for this is that we all know that when we’re on the cell phone we’re sort of “out of it” – we’re in that phone-zone. But we excuse ourselves, thinking we can handle it, even though we keep a wary eye on anyone else using the phone in the car. Likewise, when Caryl clicks to yet another round of solitaire Scrabble on her iPad, I may mutter internally, “What, another game of Scrabble?!” while I turn back to the neat new Crostics app on my iPhone.

There are historical reports of post-Gutenberg parents complaining that their children were spending too much time with these new-fangled “books,” and fearing the effect it would have on their brains. (The development of book-reading has, in fact, had an evolutionary effect on brain wiring.) Similarly, I take pride in how adroit my three-and-a-half-year-old grandson is with “Angry Birds” (not just his game performance, but the smarts to figure out how the whole thing works),* then I wonder just how long it is “good for him” to play the game in one stretch.  Some sociologists and brain scientists are publishing opinions that decry the effect of computer games, others that herald the technology as brain-enhancing. Interim.

A few weeks ago I joined some friends at a pub where another friend was performing on the small stage. We were never more than a handful of patrons, and at one point there were just two of us in the room when, in a coincidence of timing, my friend was texting his kids – checking in with them for some good parental purpose – and I was glancing at a text that had just vibrated to my attention. Something made me observe this scene from the viewpoint of our friend, the singer: looking out at the bare room, in mid song, he sees two of his friends, both with heads cranked strangely down toward their knees – certainly not looking at him. Having a personal policy against the use of cell-phones in these kinds of situations, we were both making exceptions for ourselves.

And we’ve all witnessed the disturbing scene of an otherwise caring parent bent intently over her device as her two- and three-year-olds scramble over her shoulders, vainly seeking mom’s attention.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer cautions us against that habit of listening “with half an ear,” while we’re actually preparing what we want to say.** (Listening with a switched-on device in our hand cuts that down to about a quarter of an ear – and pretty much wipes out eye contact.)

So I guess I’m musing over two issues here. One is the so-far ill-defined effect that this new technology has on our brains and our society, the other is the old-fashioned question of etiquette. Can we any longer have face-time conversations with our loved ones without our eyes drifting toward the enticing glow emanating from our cupped hand?

Who knows how this will all work out. In the interim, let’s keep talking, eye to eye and heart to heart.

It occurs to me that the game “Angry Birds” -- launching cartoon birds at goofy monkeys -- just may be an effective and harmless (?) way for a three-year-old to work out all of that “shooting” that he seems to want to do.

** Bonhoeffer makes this observation in "Life Together," his engaging small treatise on Christian community.


Warren Hanson said...

Random comments. I suspect that the essence of Barb's complaint was, "I'm being left behind." I don't believe any of you were doing anything wrong or insensitive. Yet Barb felt left out because she's not on the train.

But when you do a crossword in the newspaper, when you're done, you're done. On the iPhone, there's always another puzzle.

And when you surreptitiously looked at your screen while your friend was singing, you certainly were doing something wrong. It might have been a book or a newspaper that distracted you, but neither of those vibrate to get your attention. The new technology is demanding, and we too easily succumb.

I, too, am guilty. At this moment, I am with my wife and we are ostensibly watching something on TV together. Instead, I'm tapping on this screen. Must stop.

Anonymous said...

They call these devices "interactive" for a reason -- we interact with them (in ways that are not the same as with the printed page). I would argue that our attention and focus on others is not the same when we are simultaneously in a relationship with a screen. I propose we try a one hour, one day, or even one week moratorium from all things digital. Then talk about whether or not we experienced a qualitative difference in how we spent our time. My guess is there would be more conversation, more genuine interaction, giving one another more undivided attention. Jeff