Inspiration from 1841

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Henry David Thoreau, in his journal on 24th December 1841:

I want to go soon and live away by the pond, where I shall hear only the wind whispering among the reeds. It will be success if I shall have left myself behind. But my friends ask what I will do when I get there. Will it not be employment enough to watch the progress of the seasons?


(Thanks to Peter for this quote.)


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In 1981 the celebrated poet/farmer Wendell Berry sharply commented:

TV and other media have learned to suggest with increasing subtlety and callousness – especially, and most wickedly, to children – that it is better to consume than to produce, to buy than to grow or to make, to “go out” than stay home. (The Gift of Good Land, p. 156)


“We can get rid of the television set. As soon as we see that the TV cord is a vacuum line, pumping life and meaning out of the household, we can unplug it. (The Gift of Good Land, p. 158)

Berry writes about his struggle to raise his own children in the context of mass media, junk food and a culture that doesn’t honor the land, or the local. He laments that in 1980 many children came home from school to then watch 4-5 hours of TV per day: not necessarily because parents wished this, but because they themselves were often too exhausted to be with their children. At the same time he describes that it’s not easy to “deny” children something that is part of daily life. And, that doing so seems to often have the result of such “deprived” children being drawn to the television set or soda-pop like moths to a light bulb.

It’s perhaps fitting that the first Wendell Berry book I read was a gift from my father.

Growing up in the 1980s my parents were, as it seemed at the time, very strict about TV. Until I was 12 or 13 I was allowed to watch one hour of TV per day. And, I was only allowed to watch PBS, which had mostly educational programs. At age 7 I remember sitting on a stool in front of the clock on the kitchen stove for one full hour, literally watching the minutes go by until Square 1 TV (a kid’s math show) was on.

As an older teenager, I was allowed to watch TV more freely, but it was never particularly easy. The television signal at our house was weak, and my parents would never consider getting a satellite dish (“regular” cable TV simply wasn’t available). The picture was almost always fuzzy. And, for a time we had no picture at all, as the TV set had broken and my mother was in no rush to replace it.  During that time I sat and listened — as the sound still worked — to popular sitcoms like Friends or Seinfeld that would be talked about at school the next day.

Even though I suppose I felt like I suffered at the time, it didn’t take so long to feel that my parents — who very rarely watched television themselves — had done the right thing.

At age 16 or 17 I remember discussing a news show that I’d seen together with my mother about a family in Alaska that had no television at all. As part of the show the family was shown snippets of well-known news items from the past ten years such as OJ Simpson’s white Bronco car chase (I don’t remember what any of the “unforgettable” news moments were). One of the questions that the reporters asked the family, including their teenage children, was whether they felt like they missed something by not having a TV — wasn’t this absence, they implied, harmful for the children’s development and participation in nation and the world?  My mother wanted to know whether I felt like I’d been deprived of something by not watching so much TV as might be considered normal. Were there things I didn’t understand as a result? Did I feel left out?

I don’t remember exactly what I said then, but now I certainly feel don’t like I missed anything.

Today parents are of course encountering not only the question of how much TV their children should watch (if any), but also their use of computers, mobile phones, gaming devices, and so on. Is it right or wrong to set limits on a child’s media use? Will a child, for example, be disadvantaged at school if he or she hasn’t had the chance to learn to use a computer or a tablet at home? What if your child prefers to play computer games than to go outside?

The internet, like TV, gives us access to “the world”, but does it also suck life out of the home? Is it a place where parents retreat when they themselves are tired? And, how much more difficult is it (both practically speaking and psychologically speaking) to “unplug” a computer or a mobile phone than the television? Is that un-plugging in fact harder for most parents, than it would be for children? Would the choice not to have internet at home be more drastic than having no TV in the 1980s — e.g. to what extent would this deprive a child of participation in today’s world? Is it a valid choice to have a technology-free home?

(The authors of both Hamlet’s Blackberry and Winter of Our Disconnect consider questions along these lines — both books are written by parents.)

The average American watched 34 hours of television per week in 2010, or a little less than 5 hours per day. Reading this statistic I was feeling a bit proud that I watch quite a bit less TV than that. But, I do spend a great deal of time working in front the computer, perhaps 50 hours per week. And, how different is that? Perhaps I am “accomplishing” more things during my time with the computer, than with a TV. But, physically there’s not much difference, and studies show that extended perhaps of sitting aren’t great for our health. Outside of work I often spend time with other screens or devices, listening for example to a TED talk on my iPad, or watching a film. Yet, watching a film or reading a book are often no longer relaxing. By the end of the day my eyes are tired, even painful. Doing these things means using them more, and sitting still longer. And, I still often do them.

If the average American might spend roughly 84 hours or more per week or 12 hours/day  in front of either the TV or the computer (not counting mobile phone time), what are the implications of this? Is this what it means to live in a digital world?  Do we have a responsibility to integrate children into it, or to help them develop ways to stay grounded and unplugged?

Psychologist Aric Sigman argues on BBC that:

children up to the age of three should have little or no screen time. Then a maximum of an hour-and-a-half up to the age of seven, and a maximum of two hours up to the age of 18.

If at age 17 no more than two hours of screen time per day is recommended, then how much more can we healthily accommodate as adults?

Like Mother, Like Son?

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Last night on the train home I sat across from a mother and a seven or eight year old boy. As soon as the train started moving the mother took out her iPhone, and began touching the screen — focusing her attention here. She looked tired, maybe after a long Sunday in the city visiting a park or relatives or friends. The child sat next to her quietly for a while, looking around, then looking at what his mother was doing. Finally he said (in Swedish), “Mom, where’s my iPhone?”

The mother pulled a second iPhone out of her winter coat pocket (maybe her old phone?) and handed it to the boy, without really glancing up from her screen. The boy started playing what seemed to be a game on the phone, moving his body and making quiet noises. He kept looking up at his mother. But, every time he looked up she was intently focused on her screen. And, when she didn’t look at him he turned his attention back to his device.


snow storm

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A snow storm here in Sweden snapped the frayed, old telephone-wiring running to our house on Wednesday, which also carried our internet service. In the two days that the internet was off I worked on projects in very concentrated ways: re-writing a book chapter, and reading for hours.

I couldn’t stop being aware of the absence of the internet. I kept forgetting that it wasn’t there, thinking “oh, I’ll do this / check this / read this …” and then remembering a moment later that I couldn’t.

How long would it take for its absence to feel normal?


During the snowstorm I reflected:

I realize how much of a distraction it usually is to have the internet on my computer – I spend time checking my email, looking at Facebook, and the news – but also checking my various blogs and doing other random things online. But as soon as it [the internet] returns I don’t think I’ll be able to resist turning the connection back on. I find it a relief as well that we don’t have access to movies or TV, which we usually might watch online. For about eight years I did not watch TV. Now, with the internet it is so easy, but I don’t like how it makes me feel. Not having it [the internet] gives me the feeling of having more space and peace. Yet, when it’s there, and I’m feeling tired and lonely, the temptation is often too great….

This passage could perhaps have been written by many of us living now. What strikes me is what it’s not about. It’s not about the practical issues of being only semi-connected. I could still get online with my cell phone to check and send emails, but I had to reschedule a phone meeting, I couldn’t get the work done I’d planned to do, and wasn’t sure how soon I’d be able to. These practicalities certainly did give me some anxiety, but what I wrote reflects something else: a sort of underlying desire for more peace/concentration/quiet, constantly defeated with compulsive connecting.

It seems to me that this peace–compulsion dichotomy is something in and of itself. It is as though the experience of working and living with digital media is enveloped by these bigger behaviors (compulsions) and desires (peace). Objectively, we could participate in the digital world — just using these tools to get our work done without experiencing this tension. But, is that actually possible?

Re-reading the excerpts of interviews with this project’s NYC participants I was struck by H’s comment about being digitally connected:

So, you’re always on, but not present, so your mind is in another space. That’s something I want to get better at, being present.

She’s talking about this peace/compulsion conflict too, I think.

I feel this relates to what ethnographer and psychologist Sherry Turkle means when she talks about how technology itself is not bad for people, but we should be wary of the “habits of mind” it allows us to practice. In this very interesting TED talk she notes:

We’re letting technology take us places we don’t want to go” … “those little devices in our pockets are so psychologically powerful that they don’t just change what we do, but who we are” … “we’re getting used to a new way of being alone together [e.g. three friends sitting together in the same room texting other people] … people want to be with each other, but also elsewhere” …

And also:

We can end up hiding from each other [by doing stuff on one’s Blackberry] even when we are together” … “human relationships are rich, and they’re messy, and demanding — and we clean them up with technology and when we do we can sacrifice conversation for mere connection” … “that feeling that ‘no one is listening to me’ is very important in our relationships with technology … it makes us want to spend time with machines” … “we’re lonely but we’re afraid of intimacy”…

Near the end of the talk Turkle emphasizes the importance of learning how to be alone with ourselves — of feeling comfortable when others aren’t around and not immediately reaching for our devices for connection and distraction.

Or, could we look at this as a more complicated dilemma?

We desire to be connected with other people, so we spend a lot of time connecting with them digitally. These digital relationships which sustain, but do not necessarily nourish us allow us to “survive” mentally and emotionally with fewer physical, real-time relationships. And, so we in fact have fewer physical, real-time relationships. This can even be true if you work, for example, all day in a busy office. Most of your time, and most of your colleague’s time is likely spent not with one another, but alone together — each typing away and looking at the screen. The same can be true at home with one’s family, with everyone plugged into their own device, or attention fixed together at the TV screen — together but alone.

And, so if we “unplug”, what’s there…?

Space. Quiet. Ourselves?

We express a desire for this “peace”, but I also wonder, is the quietness that we do experience by disconnecting a lot more quiet than it would have been before all the devices we now have? In other words, by disconnecting are we dropping into the world where we — not too long ago — used to live all the time? And, when we drop in, do we see that this world become weak and thin compared to before? (in that, in it’s current state of few relationships or even daily habits, it alone could no longer sustain us…)

We do of course still have relationships, and do of course still live in the physical world. But, maybe differently and even not as fully as before? Did reading a book or listening to a story be told take us as “far away” as digital devices do?

I was talking a few weeks ago (by Skype) with a friend in New York, and I think that what he said referred to this. He said that he had a strong desire to not be so busy, not be so online, to clarify things and focus. At the same time, he said, the thought of stepping into that SPACE was also terrifying.

But still, so many of us seem to think that it’s important not to lose it whatever it is that is there.


Virtual Farming

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I’d like to relate a story, which made a strong impression on me:

Two or so years ago I was working on a market research project for a telecom company. The company wanted to know about consumer’s shifting media habits, particularly the relationship between different devices in terms of where they consumed media — e.g. when did someone watch a movie on TV vs. on a laptop, and what about media on the mobile phone?

Most people recruited to the study were heavy media consumers, with many devices. One, not atypical, was a young man — a college student in his third or forth year of school. I did not travel to meet him, but rather was watching and analyzing a video interview. The camera person moved around the student’s undecorated, yet rather full apartment taking close-ups of the large television propped up on a crate, a gaming console, the student’s laptop and desktop computer, an additional (broken) desktop computer stored in a corner, and a mobile phone.

The student talked about the TV shows he liked to watch, the games he liked to play, how he multi-tasked on his laptop, what the desktop was for. He talked animatedly, but seemed lonely. With all the time he spent with his technology when did he have time, I wondered, to do his school work, let alone see friends (in person)?

Near the close of the interview the interviewer asked the student whether there were any other tech devices he used. The student’s eye’s lit up. “Yeah”, he said, “I have a Game Boy” (a handheld gaming device I dearly wished to have at age 10, but which my parents never bought me — certainly worried that I would be playing games constantly if they did). The student disappeared to another room to get the Game Boy, which looked oddly low-tech.

He explained that he had an old Game Boy model even though he would like to own a newer one, because his favorite game only worked on old models. The game — which was the only thing he used the Game Boy for — was a farming game that he had been playing for many years. It was clear from his enthusiasm that this was something he really liked doing. The game was “very slow” the student said, and it mostly consisted of planting crops and waiting for them to grow. He found the slowness, simple actions and repetitiveness to be soothing and calming.

On my way home, eyes buzzed from hours of starting at the video screen looking at interviews with strangers about their screens, I couldn’t forget that simple moment. Why play a virtual farming game, when one could spend the same time going outside to garden ‘for real’? Has technology really made us happier when the thing we desire to do to relax and feel our best is a virtual approximation of what many of our our ancestors did daily for thousands of years (and what many people do everyday now)? What’s the difference for the body, let alone the psyche, when one farms virtually vs. physically?