Technology and (In)sanity

It’s easy, obvious really, to say I’m glad I grew up pre-internet, email, cell phones, texting, social media. It is easy to say this as I sit here on my deck, cell phone nearby, tabs open to Facebook and gmail and Newsweek, where I just read this article, Is The Internet Making Us Crazy?

And it’s true that I am glad. But why, really? Sure, I remember spending hours on end in the record store in junior high, spending all of my babysitting money on my David Bowie obsession. I talked on the phone, twirling the cord around my finger, vying for time with my sisters and parents, who caved in and got us a “kids’ line” when my sisters were teenagers.

There’s something both tempting and dubious about romanticizing “the way we grew up,” as if the madness is a new thing, as if without the internet, childhood was any less complicated.

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,” begins Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, a beatnik rant that opens with people “dragging themselves” at dawn, searching for an “angry fix” of heroin. It’s not hard to imagine the alternative imagery today.

And it’s easy, too, to idealize the card catalogs and encyclopedias and what a big deal it was to fly somewhere on an airplane. To lament how sped up everything feels now, how Google has become a verb. (What generation doesn’t invent a whole new vocabulary?) To long for a return to some bucolic, imaginary village life where people sat on their porches in the evening playing banjo and breast-feeding. I suppose there’s a fine line between nostalgia and fantasy.

How do we separate out the true magic of sharing so many aspects of our daily lives and making connections we’d otherwise never have discovered from the screen becoming nothing other than another form of addiction, a place to escape into that can feed both narcissism and insecurity and leave us feeling lonelier and emptier than a walk in the woods or coffee with a friend ever would?

“[The internet] “fosters our obsessions, dependence, and stress reactions,” adds Larry Rosen, a California psychologist who has researched the Net’s effect for decades. It “encourages—and even promotes—insanity.”

This morning, I went to Mirabelle’s, and the owner mentioned she’d heard about my book from a mutual friend. I pulled a copy from my bag and she lit up. “Want to do a trade?” she asked. She said she had no idea I was a poet, though I’ve been going there for well over twelve years. I inscribed it for her in exchange for an iced latte and two raspberry scones for the girls, feeling grateful for “real life,” where not everything is “so two seconds ago,”as Aviva said yesterday about something else but summed up the internet-age nicely.

And yesterday afternoon, the exchanges were virtual, but no less real and personal. I received an unexpected and very moving email from a writer and mama who had just finished reading “Don’t Miss This.” The sense of kinship was so deep, so genuine. Then I read a review of the book on InfiniteBody and was beside myself with the twin sensations of incredulity and gratitude.

I also didn’t quite know what to do with myself next.

So I did the only thing there was to do: live life where it is actually happening–which is never, ever, on a screen. I made dinner, corn-on-the-cob and hot dogs and iceberg-lettuce with Italian dressing at Aviva’s request. The three of us sat down at the table, a meal that lasted all of five minutes. I washed the dishes and then mowed the lawn, walked the dog.

After dinner, Pearl ran up to the trampoline. Aviva was bored. She groaned. She moaned. She screeched. She clawed at things. She threw her body around my bed as I tried to read. She enacted her head exploding in the kitchen as I poured myself a bowl of cereal and attempted the crossword puzzle. She got mad for a minute when I said no, you can’t get Photo Gallery on my computer to post pictures of yourself on Facebook (she does not yet have her own account, but just lately started showing an interest in it).

What I learned in high school,” a kid named Stan told Turkle, “was profiles, profiles, profiles; how to make a me.”

Eventually, she asked if we could read in bed, which we did, and then Pearl joined us. We were all just doing our thing, in three dimensions, crashing around the house and the yard as the day grew dark.

Aviva is already asking if she can get a cell phone when she’s eleven. As a parent, I do not want to fall into a fear-trap, as if technology in and of itself it will somehow damage my kids. It will be a huge part of their lives–just as it is of mine. Will it promote true connecting and sharing and exchange, or feed insecurity and obsession and loneliness? All I can really do is look at my own relationship to it, which is to be sure something that needs tending, just like anything that starts to take up a lot of head-space and time.

“Technology can make us forget important things we know about life.”

In college, I didn’t have a TV. I’d take the train home from the city occasionally, always relieved to sit on my parents’ porch at night, savoring the quiet. And then sometimes I’d sit with my parents while they watched the news, and I remember feeling assaulted by the commercials.

Similarly now, when I’ve been in Phoenix visiting Mani–who does not have an internet connection at home but whom I originally “met” through this blog–I don’t miss it. At all. I don’t even really think about it. Life happens where it is, in the bedroom, in the kitchen, in the yard, at the table. And every time, every time I go for a stretch of relative unplugging, I feel saner. So that is good information.

Yes, I am grateful for the ways being “plugged in” enable me to connect and share–and there’s also the static, all the noise and distraction my mind produces with no help from technology.

Sometimes, when life feels dizzying enough all by itself, the sanest choice I can make is to write a little then power down. Take Bobo out into the woods. Eat a bowl of ice-cream with my housemate. Read a book, the kind with pages. Maybe jump in the lake.

And then sit and do the most glorious thing of all. Nothing.

6 thoughts on “Technology and (In)sanity

  1. Maya says:

    Perfect. This is absolutely perfect, J. And this is a vital piece for our times and the times to come. Now go on and submit this somewhere, please.


  2. Lindsey Mead (@lemead) says:

    I love this. I worry all the time about how to handle technology with Grace, and just as you say, fret about falling into a “fear trap.” My instinct is to limit it, to hold her back, but then I think about how she will be living in this world, and about all the ways in which technology can bring connection and joy to someone … I have to figure out how to walk that line. I look forward to discussing further with you!!


  3. happynik says:

    Thank you for these perfect words, once again. This has been resonating with me since I first read it. I am always working to find a the middle road, unplug, sit, and always look up. I am also grateful that I grew up in the pre-cell phone age. I carry my phone with me but I don’t sit on it when we are out; it blows my mind and breaks my heart when I see parents at the park on their phones and not paying attention to their kids. I wonder what the world will be like for my children, but all I can do is live through example. Now, to power down. :)



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