October 11, 2013
I grew up in the 1970's and '80's when electronic technology was just starting to exit the highly specialized environment and entering the mainstream. I remember when Xerox machines replaced the mimeograph machines that our elementary school's newspaper was copied on, and when VHS machines replaced the reel-to-reel movies we watched during assemblies. I remember the wonder of the cassette tape and how blanks could be purchased and recorded on to make the fabulous custom mixed-tapes of my generation. I had a friend who was lucky enough to own an Atari game system, and I spent many quarters in an effort to perfect my games of Pacman and Donkey Kong down at the mall arcade. Personal computers did not enter my classroom until high school when I took a course in Word Processing. 'Computers have a language that is completely based on logic,' our teacher told us. If memory serves me right I did not do particularly well in that class, computer logic was indeed an uncomprimising new language, but I learned a lot. The '80's were a time of major development in technology, but as we now know, it was just the beginning of a brave new world of gadgetry previously only thought of in Science Fiction.
I heard a story the other day about a dad who decided to ban from his home for a year all devices that were invented after 1985. He claimed that smartphones, ipods and laptops were taking over the life of his family and causing them to lose the ability to communicate. As a result of the ban he said his family now talked to each other, had more fun and got more exercise. He decided to embark on the experiment in order to get his children to appreciate their family more and keep their digital devices in perspective. When my kids were little we participated in a 'no TV for a week' event annually, which was great, but I'm not sure I would want to force my family to go cold turkey on post '85 technology for an entire year. Mind you, none of my kids have had their own computers until they entered their last year of high school or their own cellphones until they were old enough to sign their own contracts. I did ban video game systems from our house until my kids were teenagers. They could play video games on the computer, but the time available to do so was limited due to all six of us sharing one computer for many years. My youngest daughter inherited an ipod Touch last year from her brother and she began to spend a lot of time on it. One day I found her playing a game on it in the bathtub. After lecturing her about how electronics and water do not mix, I took the ipod away, put it in a drawer where we both forgot about it. I found the ipod months later and gave it back to her, but she didn't want it anymore. Perhaps separation did not make the heart grow fonder in her case. I suppose the aforementioned dad is hoping his experiment will achieve similar results.
As I sit here at my desk, writing this piece on my Gateway PC with its beautiful big high definition screen, I am inclined to think rather favourably of the digital age I am living in as an adult. The other night, my husband and I drove to Vancouver to hear our son play in his first concert with the UBC symphony orchestra. The Chan Centre was packed with people, and I am willing to bet several of them had heard about the free concert via social media. I, myself, had spread the word on Facebook and by email and so, beside and behind me sat several Vancouver members of my family. The concert was being recorded and transmitted by livestream audio. Across the province in Nelson, my mother was listening to the first half of the concert on her computer before she went to bed. She would listen to the rest of it the next day. She sent a message to her grandson via Facebook to tell him how proud of him she was and how much she enjoyed the concert. Some day we will take this sort of thing for granted as our children do, but I still marvel at such magical invention.
I am continually amazed at the rapidity with which we humans are changing our world, and I believe it is a good thing, for the most part. Certainly we are experiencing growing pains. When I see all those people with their heads bent over their smartphones I cannot help but think negatively about spending all that time with a device which both connects them to the world and isolates them from their neighbour at the same time. On the other hand, my sister, a journalist, delightedly uses her phone on the job to take photos, type text and send the story instantly to her editor. I have also heard plenty lately about how ipod earphones are hurting the ears of an entire generation, but my husband certainly enjoys listening to his playlist while he rides his bike. Facebook has recently been proven in one study to cause happiness and in another, feelings of isolation and loneliness. Youtube has a lot of garbage on it, but the site is also home to thousands of helpful how-to videos on everything from the various methods of cutting a mango, to the correct way to wrap a sprained ankle. My violinist son learned many techniques from masters on the internet, which aided him immensely in learning a difficult Bach fugue. My own 77 year old dad is beginning work on a series of instructional videos featuring his unique and proven method of teaching music. Filmed in the comfort and convenience of his home studio, he will be able to share his research with anyone who has access to the internet.
I suppose the key to technology is to use it, not let it use us. Perhaps like the dad who has taken his family back to that age of relative technological innocence, we all need to take a step back - okay, maybe not all the way back to the 80's, but you get the idea - and assess our own relationship with technology. Scientists are now questioning the health of our airwaves and the effect on our brains in this Wi-Fi world, but their findings have not lessened sales of the newest $700 smartphones. Thinner gadgets are more difficult to repair and must be thrown away more often. Even the recycling of electronics is not without controversy due to the heavy metals used to create them. And those are just the physical effects. The effect on the psyche can be just as serious. I once had to back off Facebook for a good long while. I was starting to engage in conversations and even arguments (with people I never saw in person) that were making me miserable and taking far more energy than they warranted. I no longer 'go there' on Facebook. I now see Facebook as a 'take it or leave it' sort of thing, and I am much, much happier. I know that if I wanted to make a career out of blogging I would have to spend hours a day networking and whatnot, and I am not, at this stage, prepared to do so. The relationship I have with the world wide web is rewarding and figures largely in my life, but it is not dominating. That being said, as a child of the 70's and 80's I am often tempted to think that I, not to mention my children, spend far too much time looking at a screen as it is. However, as much as I can relate to the motivation behind 'back to the '80's dad' I would much rather embrace the future and make it work for me and for my family if I possibly can.