Thursday, May 5, 2011

Screen The Modern Family

Surfing the internet is good for so many things, and worse for so many others that I can't even begin to start rationalizing my own addicted behavior, or judging others for their ipadding or conversely their holier than thou alternative choices like running or reading or Rastafarianism. I read an article in the times not too long ago about the modern family and its development(?) under the influence of technology. As I did, I felt weird inside.

I grew up in a house where watching television was demarcated as a waste of time. It was stupid and poisonous, and even though I found ways to watch some of the drivel around, and certainly spent my fair share of Saturday mornings doing a weird vaudeville version of karate in tandem with the power rangers, I was always aware that this was merely permitted as a direct consequence of “picking your battles”, not condoned. TV on weekdays was as forbidden as soda, except for the half hour of Wishbone which went down like warm raspberry seltzer – picture my face.

If television was the scourge of early childhood, soon my parents were faced with the blight of screens in general. The computer, game boys, cell phones, all took away from family time and apparently turned children bad. I wasn’t the only person to have this kind of life, but most people didn’t. It’s as if my parents raised me to suffer in the modern world. I am no longer equipped to live my life around normal people without being frustrated by the increasing prevalence of technology. Every time I go to a restaurant and see people on a date both with their phones out I cringe. When I go to a lecture (and I went to one given by US Secretary of energy Steven Chu last week) and see people with their laptops out it legitimately riles me up enough to have trouble concentrating. What could they be doing that is so important? Why are they at the lecture if they are on facebook?

But some modern thinkers believe this is all a good thing. The world is evolving in their eyes and two heads are better than one is changing to the Wikipedia philosophy. The new way to connect is not through eye contact, but through screen contact. Twitter allows friends to constantly know what one another are doing, without necessarily engaging in conversation. On facebook today, and this is morbid, I found out through vague postings of sad songs and quotes that a high school classmate had died. Would I have learned of this otherwise? Where do we draw the line between connection and information? I do believe this is a subjective choice, one that will evolve with further changing of morals and concepts of friendship/society.

I blanched at the NYT article because it was saying that constant screen contact may be a good thing for a family in that it allows for time spent together. Some families gave examples of situations where in the past dad would have gone downstairs to watch the game while mom stayed upstairs in bed reading, and now that they both have ipads, they at least sit next to one another as they do their separate things. A further consequence is that family members are able to share with one another instantly the things that they like – YouTube videos being the most obvious example. This is supposedly a good way for people to get to know one another and for families to bond. At first glance these seem like valid points, but quickly, the nausea. I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of it, so here’s my attempt:

The logic is faulty in that usually if the partners are doing separate things, separation is understood, and then perhaps next time they will try to make this time up. Sitting next to one another while both playing on the internet is hardly making any kind of connection, but even worse, it doesn’t blatantly demonstrate a lack of connectivity, and thus it seems like there isn’t a void that should perhaps be crossed next time.

The second point distresses me because of the way the culture of media sharing works. A mother interviewed in the article said she reads on her ipad while her son plays video games, and when he does something good she is there to praise him, even though she admits she has no idea what it means to collect a new skulltulla or whatever. The problem behind this is that there is no understanding between the two participants, sort of like if you try to listen to a whole Nas album with your mother. The relationship suffers from a vacuous attempt to connect on a plane that only one member is on. The idea of compromise has disappeared. The mother can show her son the unfunny cartoon in the New Yorker she is reading and although now both participants in this scenario have gained a minimal insight into the tastes or personality of the other, it just seems so empty and weak compared to a face to face conversation. Don’t even get me started on the fact that it puts the childrens' undeveloped aesthetics on an equal footing as the parents’.

For all that smoke, I have to pan out and realize that it’s just a matter of opinion. I am old fashioned and a product of my parents being old fashioned and so on. The article does point out that a hundred of years ago many people were equally appalled by the comeuppance of my beloved friends – books – who pilfered family time and stuffed it in their hoary jackets. I think the values that are truly disappearing are patience, self discipline, and compromise. But who’s to say these are valuable any more? If we all can instantaneously have whatever we want all the time (it is painfully obvious here that this is a ridiculously good problem to have.) Why not? My stomach doesn’t like it. I’m gonna go drink some seltzer.


  1. I'm with you Dan. I think the effects of technology on human interaction in general are pretty scary. Interesting that the NYTimes article you read seemed to be supporting the benefits of technology for family time. Check out this NYTimes piece that came out, only a year ago, with what seems to be a completely different argument:,%20family&st=cse

  2. I don't think it as easy as calling things good or bad. I mean some people use blogs to reach out to their friends and connect to the world at large....

    While I don't think technology is our saving grace, I don't think it is the destruction of our society. At its worst it isolates, manipulates and distorts, but at its best it can educate, facilitate and help individuals search for meaning and truth. It depends on how it is used....

    Like most things in our world, its affects are product of what we do with it....our prisons are of our own making.