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Reasonable People Disagree about Connectivity

Text messages at the breakfast table, conference calls on family vacations, emails from bed, Facebook in class. Is technology’s power to connect bringing us closer or rending us apart?

Dalton Conley and Natalie Jeremijenko are experts with different views on that question. To Conley, our gadgets and online identities are prying away our attention from meaningful exchanges, while popping the all-important bubble of private space. To Jeremijenko, technology can make the world a better place, if we’re strong enough.

Did we mention they’re married? Yup. With two kids.

Technology Is Pulling Us Apart

by Dalton Conley

Dalton Conley is Dean for Social Sciences at New York University and the author of Elsewhere U.S.A.: How We Got from the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, BlackBerry Moms, and Economic Anxiety.

In most cases, technology is pulling families apart. People are increasingly distracted by their gadgets—texting under the dinner table isn't uncommon—and meaningful exchanges are harder to come by. Thirty years ago, even if people didn’t have a conversation, they at least watched the same television show in the family living room and made a comment once in a while. Now, everyone’s immersed in their own individual social or entertainment media; there’s no common totem in the family hearth.

These same technologies do enable folks to be in touch throughout the day via text messages or phone calls. Today, when your kids go off to school you stay in touch with them. Before you just sent them out into the ether and hoped they came back. But this doesn't necessarily bring us closer together. In order to be intimate in the way that families should be, you need alone time. You need to let go and cut the electronic umbilical cord before you can reconnect. It’s only during the alone time that we’re able to internalize, process, and retain the social interactions of the day.

Also, the more that we’re on stage (posting on Facebook or Twitter, or otherwise broadcasting our daily states and moods), the less of a backstage there is. The boundary between public and private is increasingly blurred. I think of intimacy as selectively granting passes to your personal backstage, where you let certain people see your grumpy side, or get the update on how you’re feeling at 3:00 in the afternoon. But if you’re using social media as a soapbox to post one-to-all, then there’s no backstage anymore.

In my house there is no such thing as people sitting down for family dinner and talking, unfortunately. I know my kids can observe good manners—like clearing their plates and keeping technology off the dinner table—because they do it when we go to other people’s houses. But in our home the phone rings for Natalie and she inevitably takes it, I’m texting or emailing on my BlackBerry, and the kids invariably want to be online because they’re screen addicted. And we're lucky if we’re even home at the same time, which is unlikely.

I’m not going to say technology creates these disjointed schedules and competing demands on attention in our household, but it is the catalyst, the enzyme that makes them possible.

I recently tried to have a no-screen rule for a month because our son, Yo, who is 10 years old, was misbehaving in school. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when I caught Yo updating his Facebook status during school (he’s too young for Facebook, but lied about his age to set up an account). I wrote back asking what the hell he was doing on Facebook during school. “Oops,” he replied.

A no-screen rule is difficult to enforce because we, the parents, need to be on screens ourselves. Short of unplugging and going to a log cabin in the woods, I don’t know how one can balance it. As a parent, I do think the month without screen time, imperfect as it may have been, had a positive effect in our family—on behavior, on homework, and on intimacy. But as a social scientist I know I was going in with clear biases, so I really can’t be sure.

Technology Is a Tool, We Can Use it How We Want

by Natalie Jeremijenko

Natalie Jeremijenko is a tech-obsessed artist and engineer who invented the word “thingker” to describe herself. She directs the xDesign Environmental Health Clinic at New York University and runs Her recent work includes the Strap-On Flight Simulator (she’s Imaginary Air Force Squadron Leader), and rhinoceros beetle wrestling.

Is technology eroding families or bringing them closer together? It’s doing both at the same time. We can use technology to connect with one another or to disconnect. The question becomes: To what extent do we exercise that agency? And why don’t we feel more in control of it?

My position is that we have more agency than we often exercise.

In my household there’s clearly a polarization on the issue, though. I agree with Dalton that it’s important to “cut the electronic umbilical cord” on a regular basis in order to process and reflect. I don’t find it terribly hard to carve out and create the alone time I need, though. We’re the authors of our own lives—we’re not under the remote control of our technology. If people don’t seek out that quiet, contemplative time, then they probably don’t need it.

Raising children certainly does bring up some interesting challenges. Dalton got mad at Yo for using Facebook during school and tried to cut off his screen time for a month. But I say bring it on. First of all, Facebook is the kind of thing a kid could use to get a homework assignment that he missed, or do other practical school-related things.

But more deeply than that, much of what kids learn at school is how to function socially and draw on the sense-making that comes, not from a textbook, but from interacting with other kids who are responding to the same information. That’s what makes it a rich learning environment, and that's why kids go to school rather than learning at home. School is social, and a social technology like Facebook can be a worthy partner.

In fact I’ve been encouraging my kids’ school to give them more socially connected software tools. They started on Powerpoint (eek!) for class presentations. At least now they’re using Google Docs. Still, I advocate a more conceptually powerful program, Prezi, which lets people share ideas and visual strategies. Most contemporary education at that age is based around group work, so why wouldn’t he be using social technology?

Yes, there’s going to be mischief and misuse of technology. But kids aren’t evil. They’re just quick to experiment with technological tools. They’re going to explore all sorts of uses, good and bad. To explore people’s reactions they’ll experiment with jokes—maybe even racial slurs. This is part of their process of making sense of the world. They need a way to experiment.

Yo recently got ahold of my Twitter account and sent a message to my several hundred followers. He said: “This is Yo so fuk of.” (Yes, he’s still getting a handle on the art of spelling.)

To Dalton, this episode is proof that social media pulls families apart. But kids have always made bad decisions. I hijacked my parents’ car and drove on the freeway at age ten (and I would rather Yo hijack my Twitter account to explore social limits than hijack a deadly technology like a car). Like any child, Yo is experimenting. He is exploring his agency with technology in the social world. He watches how we make sense of his actions, how we respond, and figures out how to respond himself.

Incidentally, the Twitter hijacking left Yo with some remorse. Before being caught he followed up with a second tweet: “Sorry about that last message everyone. I posted it by accident. I meant to say: carrot guy screams, I want my veggies!”

Jacob Gordon is a Nashville-based freelance writer and the host of TreeHugger Radio.

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