Every summer, my sister and I, along with our two cousins on my mom’s side, gather together in Maine. Along with spouses, we spend time with my Uncle Tom at his cabin retreat. You read that right — my Uncle Tom has a cabin. And yes, as a kid, I thought the book was about him.
It’s always wonderful as we drive off into the woods and head down a bumpy and narrow trail. There’s a generator and a septic system now, but otherwise it’s completely ‘off the grid.’ Your cell phone runs out of juice, there’s available data networks, and at night, instead of TV, it’s exclusively Red Sox baseball on WEEI courtesy of a battery-powered radio. It’s a wonderful change of pace. After a weekend at Uncle Tom’s cabin, back home in Hampden Carolyn and I pretend to be off the grid a bit longer. We spend more time than usual on our porch; reading books and listening to the radio. But inevitably we find our way back to checking Facebook and watching too many shows on Netflix.
I have always been a huge fan of technology; put simply, it’s cool and I enjoy it. In high school I had a Palm Pilot (remember those?). I had the original iPad (clunky now by comparison), and we were early adopters of Blu-ray discs (man were those old players slow). I came of age using AOL Instant Messenger, and remember when Facebook first came to our college campus. I can’t remember life without a television, and our family had a computer when I was in diapers.
Except … I’ve started to have reservations about technology. Part of this has to do with reality looking more and more like science fiction. All of my high school friends walking around with their white iPod earbuds? They looked way too much like “the pill” placed in peoples ears in Fahrenheit 451. Our increased watching of television? That comes close to hypnosis, and the Wikipedia-ization of our information is just like E.M. Forster’s prophetic short story, “The Machine Stops.” And holy cow – have you watched “Black Mirror” on Netflix? Warning: the first episode is extremely graphic and likely to turn off most viewers. But otherwise, the show is eerie exactly because it shows how close we are to having technology fundamentally transform our reality and place in the world. We are probably there already.
I know I sound like a Luddite, but remember — I’m the techie! Half the time, when I visit a church member in their home, I end up troubleshooting their wireless router or their computer operating system. Yes, technology enhances our lives and benefits our society. But I’m increasingly aware of how it’s also begun to change the way I think and behave, and it’s not for the better. More and more I find myself distracted from the simple pleasures of living, the wonderful world around us that we miss if we don’t look up from the screen.
To remedy that, I’ve been trying a few simple things. First, I’ve taken the Facebook app off of my iPhone. It had become second nature to reach for my phone and scroll through status updates when I had a free minute. Now, I may strike up a conversation with a stranger or take in the beautiful scenes and settings in our community. I want to be more comfortable just “being” in the world again.
When it comes to news, I’m trying to read more substantive articles. Instead of scanning headlines online I’ve gotten back into reading The New Yorker. We live in a complex world, and grappling with it takes more than clickbait and brief, sketchily researched articles. This kind of reading is more challenging and demands dedication, but already I’m noticing the benefits.
Each of these things is making me feel more grounded in the real world. Are you also wanting that? To “be” more and experience things in more depth? Try leaving your phone at home when you go out with friends. Try allowing yourself to “wonder” instead of looking up answers instantly using Siri. I’m also finding those things helpful.
Yes, technology is great. I still love the latest and greatest gadgets. And yet—the best things of all? A good beer with a friend, facing each other and talking, eye to eye. Cooking something new and challenging with my wife, the two of us side by side. Taking advantage of an unseasonably warm day to get outside and feel the wind on my face as I watch a beautiful sunset.
The world was a lot different in the 80’s, but I think perhaps Ferris Bueller said it best – “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
Published in March 2017 in The Wilbraham-Hampden Times.