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The Calm Before the Post: Stalking my Inner Luddite

Paul Mayne via photopin cc

Photo credit: Paul Mayne via photopin cc

Consider this a pre-post. A teaser of sorts. Or a trailer, as they refer to it in the movie biz — though why they continue to call something they show before the movie starts a “trailer” still eludes me.

There’s a bunch of subject-specific stuff zooming around in the old noggin at the moment, but I’m not quite willing to generate a final post on it yet. It’s all still whirling — airborne, malleable, coalescing. I gotta wait for it to stop shifting and for the dust to settle on it for a bit yet.

What’s got me all in a lather? Kids and technology. Or, more specifically, I suppose, kids and their dependence on addiction to technology.

A couple of weeks ago I caught the tail end of a documentary on PBS that argued that being brought up with a strong connection to nature generally helps kids fare better later in their lives. The underlying theory, of course, is that having a reasonably sustained, direct exposure to the natural world — finding your way amongst the flora and fauna, appreciating the vicissitudes of the weather, learning how many tree trunks you need to nail that 2”x4” to before you can use it to support the floor of your tree-house, etc. — teaches you transferable, real-world, problem-solving-type skills that will be hugely valuable in your future life as an adult.

At this point, not pausing to analyze the premise too critically, I would have to say I’m in general agreement.

I stumbled upon the program when it was nearly over; when the teens in the show — urban and suburban kids who had been brought out to the “wilderness” to experience it first-hand for several weeks for probably the first time in their lives — were playing at ambushing each other with home-made bows and arrows, swimming in the the nearby streams and sitting companionably around the camp fire. Idyllic sylvan frolicking all around. Many of them were a little homesick, and a few of them generally thought the whole exercise was “stupid” and sorely missed the conveniences of their “real” lives, but these certainly aren’t foreign emotions to any kid who has ever left home for summer camp.

It was when the kids returned to the bosom of their families, however, that things started to go south for me. Upon returning home, one of the remaining challenges the filmmakers wanted the group to undertake was a “technology fast,” to see how long they could fare without jumping right back on the “virtual” bandwagon where they had left off. It was voluntary, so some agreed to go ahead with it and some didn’t. Those who declined to participate in the fast walked in the door of their homes and were soon once more stationary in front of one type of screen or another, once more cresting the horizons of their digital frontiers.

Of those who agreed to participate in the fast I’m not sure that anyone lasted more than a day (maybe two days, tops) without being overwhelmed by their addiction and having to return to their smart phones and computers in fairly short order. And it was one young girl’s “video diary,” after only a single day back in the “world,” that ultimately sent me reeling. This poor young thing, who, ironically, was one of the kids who actually seemed to have some fun out in the woods, was nearly trembling with withdrawal symptoms as she spoke into the camera about how she absolutely had to get back to her cell phone. That she just couldn’t hold out any longer. My heart nearly broke. This child — our children — have become literal technology junkies.

I remember experiencing a similar feeling of desperation about six months ago after stumbling upon a blog in which a mother was describing how upset she was at having to develop an arsenal of new strategies to talk with her young daughter about many of the things the daughter was seeing other girls post on Facebook relating to “cutting” themselves. I think the daughter was 10- or 11-years old. I can’t for the life of me remember what series of random clicks would have ever brought me to such a web page to begin with, but what I can remember thinking about at that point was what kind of parents would let their child have their own Facebook accounts at that age in the first place? Hello?

But here’s where it gets complicated. I’m a huge fan of technology — always have been. I love gadgets and gaming and blogging and essentially having the entire world available to me at my fingertips via the internet (though I hate texting and despise Facebook, but that’s probably fodder for a whole ‘nother blog). I couldn’t earn my daily bread without a computer and a cell phone (though millions of architects have in the past!) and, truth be told, I also frequently turn to technology to soothe my weary soul via streaming entertainment in some form or another.

But when it comes right down to it, my relationship with technology is probably very similar to my relationship with, say, booze. Like most folks, I enjoy a drink every now and then — maybe even several, given the right occasion and venue — but no one I know, by any stretch of the imagination, could ever call me an alcoholic. I’m an adult. I know when enough is enough. On the other hand, I think it’s damn near impossible these days to find a kid who’s not a “technoholic,” who even begins to comprehend what “enough” means.

Where I live the drinking age is 19-years old, and, for the most part, this limitation seems to do a reasonable job of preventing those who are still honing their emerging decision making skills from becoming mindless drunkards. Maybe we need something similar where technology is concerned. Maybe we need to establish an age of “digital” majority. All things being equal, maybe we’d be better off helping our kids learn to experience, appreciate and contend with real life before letting them escape down the rabbit hole of virtual life.

I dunno. Like I said at the start of this post, I got this issue stuck in my head and I’m simply trying to think / write my way through it. What I do know, however, is that pretty soon my son’s probably going to be the only teenager in junior high school without a cell phone and that any minute now my in box is probably going to start filling up with hate mail from every kid on the internet who thinks a digital age of majority is probably the worst idea since some sadistic old fart invented school in the first place.

Am I serious? I’m not sure yet. Is such an approach simply little more than a case of throwing the baby out with the proverbial bathwater? Might I actually be a Luddite in techie’s clothing? Your guess is as good as mine at this point.

Feel free to weigh in.

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7 Comments

  1. bronxboy55 says:

    Your analogy of alcohol consumption is a good one. As with most things, it seems to come down to balance. I look around everywhere I go and see so many people staring into “one type of screen or another,” all the while oblivious to their surroundings and fellow human beings. What will it be like in another twenty years, when today’s “technoholics” have teenagers of their own? Will anyone know how to have a face-to-face conversation? On a more positive note, maybe we’re just somewhere on the pendulum swing, and it will start to reverse on its own. I hope so.

  2. I, too, have watched that documentary. What struck me as ironic was the point raised that it is now the suburban students who play on cement playgrounds. When I was growing up, it was the inner city youth who led that life, making the statement a negative one. My how times have changed. And the sad thing is, those who live in suburbia really don’t seem to make that connection- their children are now the underprivileged ones.

    I am reading a book, Last Child In the Woods by Richard Louv (he was interviewed for this documentary). It is becoming my latest battle cry. In it Louv states, “We now live in a time when we know ‘about’ nature, but we don’t ‘know’ nature.” We understand about climate change, but because we are not in tune with nature, we don’t understand the full impact it is making on our earth. So, we print off worksheets for children on facts about Earth Day, but instead we should be taking the children outside to experience nature.

    All of that being said, I don’t think turning back the time on technology is the answer. What we need is to teach digital citizenship to our students. We need to teach students to use technology in a more constructive way. We need to get our students out of the classroom and use the outdoors as a classroom. We need our schools to be developed to have outdoor classrooms, and teach the teachers to use them in a constructive/instructive way.

    There are many preschool programs that do similar things. In Germany there is a strong movement towards outdoor preschools- children are outside all day, every day regardless of the weather. The Waldorf educational movement as well as early childhood programs from/based on the Reggio Emilia programs emphasize the natural environment over the technological one. What we need is a synthesis of the two in order to use technology in a constructive way that will benefit all of society.

    • Philster999 says:

      Dear mrsmarshallkd,

      Welcome to the “Gooseyard” and thank you so much for the elucidating and thoughtful response to my post. And thank you for the reminder re. the Louv book which I’ve been meaning to delve into for some time now and have finally gotten around to ordering from the library (again) this evening.

      It’s a complex problem, isn’t it? My “digital age of majority” rant was tongue-in-cheek, of course, but only partially so I fear. A kind of 21st century “Modest Proposal,” perhaps (but sans gin and infanticide if I remember my university seminar in Swift correctly). 

      Intellectually I know, as you suggest, that the answer is probably NOT “turning back the time on technology.” Yet at the heart of this post is the horror (hard to think of any other word for it) that rose up in me during that PBS special. The horror that kids now seem to have become physically addicted to technology in a way that, from my experience, limits them from becoming truly well-adjusted human beings.

      And that being said, I think your idea to promote some sort of “digital citizenship” to seek to combat this crisis is an excellent one. The only problem at this point, I would argue, is that we seem to be doing a crap job of instilling general citizenship or civic-mindedness in our younsters to begin with (see, a related post of mine on this issue — also mostly tongue-in-cheek, but not really — at https://philipjefferson.wordpress.com/2013/03/20/toward-a-civil-society-or-just-because-you-have-your-four-way-flashers-on-doesnt-mean-you-can-park-wherever-you-want-you-dick/), let alone adding yet another layer to the mix. Though I guess if we could somehow manage the former a little more successfully we’d be half way there already when it came to solving the latter.

      I’d certainly settle for a balanced synthesis of technology and nature and thanks for helping to point me in the right direction.

  3. Tom Marshall says:

    I spent 45 minutes composing a reply and then it was gone because I could not remember a stupid password for WordPress. It is so frustrating writing a response only to have it melt into cyberoblivion. Right now technology is useless, and down right frustrating. Yeah, watching birds or sitting next to a pond and watching the beaver skim across the surface while two mallard ducks circle round on the outside edge will always trump technology, even the ability to talk to my son in Illinois on Skype. Why? Because I never feel pissed off about a lousy connection or a forgotten password when looking at a duck, and I’ve always walked back to the house satisfied because there was something about the experience that goes way beyond what technology can do.

    Count me in with Keven Costner and Tom Hanks dancing round a fire in a primal roar of the infinite.

  4. Thoreau headed out into the woods deliberately, choosing to simplify his life, to discover it in nature (transcendentalism) for two and a half years. He was one of a group of writers in Concord, Mass. reacting against the Unitarian Church’s rationalism and the industrial revolution’s dehumanizing of workers into cogs within the machine, and the institution of slavery. They believed there was something to nature or in nature.

    Lascaux, in southern France, contains cave paintings of animals done in remarkable detail. There was intention in the artwork, and probably many nights planning sitting around a campfire. They wanted to capture nature’s essence, to picture it within a permanent context, that even today we can enjoy their handiwork.

    No matter one’s belief in a creation event or evolution it seems clear humans are tied to nature. Why would ancient megalithic cultures build large observation posts to time the seasons, and many cultures have connections to they cycles of spring, summer, fall, and winter? We are indelibly tied to it. It has shaped us and made us what we are from skin color, to culinary tastes, to other variables which make us all incredible and travel enlightening.

    Though, many today may not realize it, we need nature. I liken it to recharging one’s batteries. Grisham usually ends his novels on a beach, because it represents peace and rest after a difficult journey. Our creativity in making gadgets to occupy our time is amazing, but sometimes the biggest need is not diversion in our life but a natural tuning in to the life cycles around us. The foodie movement is to partake of food locally, to eat what is seasonal; to become accustomed once again to the cycles within our natural world.

    These thoughts are just as jumbled and I should write my own post on them. Something happens, a cleansing if you will, a rejuvenation, a reorganizing when people put away their gadgets and plug into nature. It has a healing quality.

    Last summer I sat on Deere Island and stared at the ocean, looking at the US coast in the distance. Day after day I sat there, not talking, just looking and listening, and it was rejuvenating. No phones, no interruptions, no computers. Just the ocean lapping against the shore, the wind in the pines, the gulls circling round over the water.

    Virtual is virtual after all, and a virtual tree will never replace a real tree like an oak and the shadows the leaves make when the sun shines through it, and the grass one lies upon at its base.

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