Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Is Technology All Good?

As a child born in the mid 70’s, my generation has witnessed a pretty radical lifestyle shift due to technological advances.  It is a transformation that will no doubt continue to insert itself further and further into our lives with the development of each new “must have” gadget.  It begs the question – are these things really “must have” items?  I grew up with a hand-me-down walkman, and my first one speaker boom box with a shoulder strap (which I thought was the greatest thing ever!) wasn’t bestowed upon me until the 5th grade.  After saving babysitting money years later, I purchased my first CD player in 9th grade.  My parents didn’t get cable TV until we’d all moved out, so my childhood television viewing was limited to VHF/UHF, and we had a giant antenna in the attic that my father would go up and adjust while the chain of kids would yell up from our remoteless, knobbed TV in the living room to give the OK that the reception was clear.  Do I feel deprived in the least?  On the contrary, I think we were quite fortunate.  I do not necessarily believe that we as a society are better off with all of these techno toys.  I’m sure many would disagree, but I feel like for children it encourages the slow death of imagination, and for some, it can drastically alter their abilities to seek information and formulate intelligent thoughts without pushing a button first.  Most importantly, all of these technological accessories that have infiltrated nearly every aspect of our lives can take away dramatically from family time.  The compulsion to equip each family member with every electronic “necessity” is contributing to a society where parents spend far more time working, and causes an increasing economic struggle as more and more “required" items enter our lifestyles.

I believe some of the driving forces behind the incessant pursuit of all the latest and greatest devices are celebrity worship, and/or the almost obligatory American desire to acquire status symbols.  In the 80’s, only the wealthy could talk on seemingly unattainable car phones.  With global corporate expansion and sweatshops abound, we now have an affordable means for the middle class to connect to the upper class.  The school teacher with a modest income may not have a million dollar home, but now they can have the same iPad as someone who does.  It’s a morsel of luxury and status thrown out for the rest of us to enjoy.  (Insert celebrity here) has XYZ smartphone, and I can have one too!  But now my husband and son need one, and the kids need iPods, and no respectable member of the middle class could be caught with an old tube television, and of course little Janie is on the computer all the time, so I guess we need a second computer, maybe even an iPad, and let’s not forget cell phone plans for all of those smartphones, and the multi-room DVR cable package for all of our TV sets.  When will it be enough?  What cost are parents and children really paying for all of this “connectivity” and convenience?  Who are we really connecting to? 
My husband and I have no desire to own a smartphone, and at least once a month I question whether the two of us even need cell phones.  I realize there are probably quite a few professions out there where there is an expectation that you must stay connected by all means possible, and in that instance, I’m sure a smartphone could almost be deemed a necessity.  But does the 20 something barista at my local coffee shop or a 10 year old child need to maintain that sort of connectivity?  It pains me to see people dining out with friends, and everyone at the table has a cell phone in their hands, rather than engaging in conversation.  I wince even more when I see parents do it around their children.  Every time I see a toddler in a doctor’s waiting room playing games on mom’s phone, my heart sinks deeper and I begin to wonder what the world will be like when my daughter grows up.
Well meaning friends and family have given our daughter their phones to play with on a few occasions, and we usually oblige because we’re not that concerned about a handful of exposures.  However, it is simply not built into my instincts to reach for my phone to entertain her no matter where we are, and the same can be said of my husband.  Our goal is to try to inspire her to create, imagine and play freely as much as possible.  We live by a pretty strict no plastic unless absolutely necessary policy in all aspects of our lives, but particularly when it comes to our daughter’s toys.  There are a few silicone teethers and a rubber duck made of natural rubber, but beyond that, no plastic.  This means she doesn’t own anything that plays tunes at the press of a button with flashing lights and eye catching moving parts.  However, she does have tons of musical instruments, and she loves to grace us with performances.  She has cars that move if she makes them go, and she delights as they race across the floor.  She adores dancing, and will even take her “babies” for a romp on the dance floor, but the only movements they perform are those that she does for them, not the other way around.  At 21 months, I have watched as she continues to “invent” little games, and these are the things that most often induce uproarious laughter.  A few months back, I was upstairs when my mother was babysitting and heard my daughter’s shrieks and giggles echoing through the house.  I came down to find the source of the commotion was that she had taken a water bottle and turned it upside down on a spoon handle, and was shaking it back and forth to rattle it.  Another time I came back from the bathroom to find her standing at her table, blissfully entertained while spinning her baby that was draped over a bowl.  A few days later she and I spent quite some time taking turns rolling a ball around inside a bowl as fast as we could until it flew out.  That unexpected moment the ball would fly out cracked her up every time.  I realize that many toddlers are completely satisfied with simple items like boxes, and perhaps many would do the same as she had.  And yet, I can’t help but wonder if she would’ve been so utterly happy and captivated during any of these instances if she had spent the last year and a half inundated with toys that do everything for her. 
My intent is not to shame parents about their plastic toys or for using smartphones.  I think every parent makes the choices they think are best for their children, and everyone has different things that are important to them.  As long as parents love their children I respect those decisions, even if it includes giving them all plastic, animatronic toys - just as I’d hope they’d respect my decision not to.  I don’t know their situation or their reasoning and I don’t pretend to.  I’m also not trying to say that all technology is evil, or the internet is bad, or computers are bad, or even smartphones.  I realize that many of the things I’ve spoken of have their merits, especially when it comes to accessing and sharing information.  I don’t think that all kids should be limited to the 1963 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia when in the confines of their home to do school reports.  Information is fantastic!  But learning in the process - having to read through pages to find what you’re looking for, and having the ability to access that information beyond pressing a few keys is extremely critical.  Beyond that, imagination is even more valuable, as is human interaction - especially in families.  It is the excess with which our society has begun to cling to all things technological that concerns me.  The implications of it all on our children…on ourselves…. How many people are struggling that much more to maintain a lifestyle of data plans, service contracts and continual upgrades on their futile quest of keeping their devices from becoming obsolete?  Is the economy the only thing to blame for the diminishing middle class?  Or is it the inevitable result of a society perpetually striving for just too many material objects - objects that didn’t exist 5, 10 and 20 years ago. 


Post a Comment