The Winter of Our Disconnect: Chapter 8

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“Let’s face it. From a Digital Native’s perspective, pulling the plug on a person’s screens is pretty much pulling the plug on life itself.” – Susan Maushart, The Winter of Our Disconnect

The final chapter of Maushart’s book is aptly titled “The Return or the Digital Native,” focusing on the family’s return to their beloved media. But I think I disagree with the quote I pulled out above—even Maushart admits to having unhealthy dependencies on technology, and I’d argue that many jobs and industries (as well as many adults in their personal lives) would also claim such life-threatening ramifications of unplugging.

However, I get her point—those born into and immersed in it have a more challenging time separating from it; likely because they’ve known (and therefore had no reason to desire) anything different. It seems, then, this tight grip some of us have on “the good old days” is the key force behind our discontent with the present state of (and exponentially changing) media landscape. I held tightly to this torch of discontent when I first ventured into the unknown depths of media ecology. In my Media and Culture course we learned of technology such as Google Glass, at which I balked. Other types of media were trash, and books should always prevail! And I meant real books; ad-filled and link-laden e-books or online reading would always pale in comparison! But as I’ve opened my mind (yes, I can occasionally be stubborn) and my brain, I’ve learned that *gasp* not all media are bad! And P.S., self—books are media, too.

Anyway. Overall, I like the idea behind this family’s great disconnect. Though I’m typically not one for dramatic alterations in behavior, I think in this instance it worked well. Completely unplugging from everything long-term is not very realistic in our world, but for a certain amount of time could serve to shine a spotlight on just how strong our dependencies are. The drama could be exactly what we need to truly see what we are doing. Especially since so much time online is non-purposeful, I think it is easier to blur our perception of our behavior.

But as Maushart points out, “Even Thoreau left the woods eventually.”

I think this circles all the way back to the name of this blog. The way we analyze media use shouldn’t be driven by a desire for the days of old, it should be driven by a desire to simply question our advancements with a skeptical lens and think about how we use them.

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The Winter of Our Disconnect: Chapter 7

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“The low-level gratification of binge snacking was clearly the perfect accompaniment to the low-level gratification of binge connectivity.” – Susan Maushart, The Winter of Our Disconnect

Despite being near the end of the book, this chapter focuses on how connectivity affects the arguably most important habits of our lives: eating and sleeping. Maushart begins her query by analyzing her children’s grazing habits. She notes that the demand-feeding that was popular during their infancies has persisted. Instead of eating scheduled, balanced meals, they snack and graze throughout the day. Her daughter even noted, “I’ve never actually been hungry.”

But statistics show that family meals matter: they are “consistently correlated with positive outcomes for children.” Maushart cites all of the examples of the benefits–and there are many! Among them is the fact that demographics do not matter when it comes to the importance of breaking bread together: “Rich or poor, middle class or underclass, highly educated or barely educated, families that eat meals together are dishing up a smorgasbord of advantages for their kids.” And even more interesting is the fact that the meal itself isn’t a make-it-or-break-it factor; whether it’s a homemade meal or fast food, the togetherness is what matters. And many experts (apparently) say, it’s the opportunity to “visually assess” kids that is the real secret sauce to the family meal’s acclaim.

Maushart’s thoughts made me think back to our meals growing up. Almost every dinner with my mother and brother that I can remember was spent watching Wheel of Fortune (I’m the reigning champ!… though my mom beat me recently and will never let me live it down) and Friends (we’ve seen every episode. Twice. At least.) Home-cooked or fast food, we almost always shared dinner time together. But though we spent some time catching up on our days’ happenings, a majority of dinner was spent furiously yelling out Before & Afters or laughing at Joey. And I may be biased, but we turned out pretty freaking awesome. Just saying, there’s some anecdotal evidence for you.

Maushart goes on to address the facts around kids having TVs in their rooms and how it affects their lives. It’s fascinating!… but a lot of factoids for one blog post 🙂 She also talks about the effects on sleep <insert more interesting factoids>, but I liked her anecdotal summary best: “… it soon became apparent that the less we used our technology to ‘chill,’ the more rest and sleep we enjoyed.”

But my favorite analogy was the term “blobbiness,” meant to describe our increasing shift toward having no boundaries. Maushart likens this to entropy, or a tendency to move toward randomness and the decrease of differentiating parts. Basically, our sleep patterns, time management, moods and more become fluid and less defined. And, I’d add, that we become less defined in the process. Akin to the pancake concept from last chapter and Carr of spreading ourselves too thin, I think the danger lies in losing ourselves without even realizing it. I know that sounds dramatic, and I do love a good hyperbole, but think about it.

The Winter of Our Disconnect: Chapter 6

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“The information paradox–that the more data we have, the stupider we become–has a social corollary, too: that the more frantically we connect, one to another, the more disconnected our relationships become.” – Susan Maushart, The Winter of Our Disconnect

I took a Media and Culture class a few years ago (I’ve mentioned it here before, including a showcase of my final project) that completely opened my eyes to major media shifts over the years. I don’t know why, but I had never really thought about it before. From one-to-one and one-to-few, to one-to-many, to many-to-many… I had never really considered how a networked communication structure opened up so very many lines of conversation. It just… happened.

I had email and AIM relatively early and used both frequently, but I remember when I first heard about Facebook, the networking holy grail and game-changing way for young people to interact (let’s pause for a second and mourn my apparent passing from that category, as noted by my use of the term “young people”. Woooow, Abby.) A boy I was pining for asked if I had heard of it. “You haven’t heard of Facebook?!” he asked incredulously. Yeah, I get it. I’m out of the loop. Please, continue… “I’ll send you and invite. Just wait; you’ll see. It’s awesome.”

Fast forward a few years, and after Facebook and I have had some ups and downs in our one-sided and occasionally obsessive relationship, I now use it as free, scrolly entertainment between tasks. And intermittent vacation picture posts. And a few conversations with long-lost or long-distance friends.

But I digress. Maushart spends this chapter alternating anecdotes about her children’s connections and modern research on the subject. The theme is the similar to one of Carr’s that I noted in this post: our transformation into “pancake people” who are spread wide and thin (the term first used by Richard Foreman). We seem to be trading connection depth for connection breadth. But the strange thing is that most of the people in our “network” are not in our actual network. Let me explain. An Oxford University anthropologist named Robin Dunbar found that our capacity for a circle of “friends” is about 150. This includes all levels of friendship, and applies to other primates, too. Cameron Marlow, Facebook’s resident sociologist (at least at the time this book was written), found that our Facebook core network tends to be smaller still. Though an average user might have about 120 friends, he or she only communicates with about 7. And for users with more friends, such as 500, they tend to only interact with about 16. But we still push out pictures, articles, likes, and comments to our circle of acquaintances. And the News Feed structure continues to widen the circle of what we see, like friends of friends’ activity.

I have a few friends who’ve dropped their accounts and don’t seem to miss them much. One such friend finally rationalized that any true friendships could (and would) be maintained offline, and everyone else fell off the radar. I’ve dreamed about cutting the social cord myself, and about the time I would get back each day, but in the end I haven’t done it. I guess I always come back to this: is it better to completely disengage, or to knowingly participate while exercising some self-control and self-awareness?

For me, I always end up at the latter. Whether it’s because I’m in the advertising field and feel like I should be constantly immersed in social media, or because I’m a small business owner who needs all the leverage she can get, or simply because I’m a glutton for spying on people’s lives… I’m not sure. All I know is I have a couple notifications and messages to go attend to.

the winter of our disconnect: chapter 5

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“Having too many facts at one’s fingertips ‘without proper instruction’ was dangerous, too, leading people to be ‘filled with conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom’.” – Susan Maushart, The Winter of Our Disconnect

Chapter 5 of the book largely reviews the topic of multitasking: the theoretical pros and cons, the idea of younger generations surpassing their elders in this area and the issue of whether multitasking is even possible. Maushart’s children claim that they can easily complete homework while multitasking online with multiple active windows and conversations. Though this section covers both sides of the debate, Maushart sums up early on that “the fact is no one’s brain is different enough to make constant interruptions, distractions and task-switching an optimal environment in which to function. No one’s.” Neuroscientific research continues to show that there is no such thing as multitasking, but when it comes to task-switching children are actually worse than adults. The region of the brain that “toggles” is located in the anterior prefrontal cortex and is one of the regions that is “last to ripen” (p 159). Studies done by David E. Meyer, the director of the university of Michigan’s Brain, Cognition, and Action Laboratory, show that Digital Natives took at least double the time to complete tasks when multitasking and their number of errors increased significantly.

Don Tapscott, author of Grown Up Digital, discusses how today’s youth “grow up interacting and collaborating, thinking and organizing, scrutinizing, having to remember things, managing information”, and that this affects the wiring of their brain. Though today’s media environment undoubtedly alters some functions, Tapscott’s claim that it alters the “actual wiring, synaptic connections and structure of kids’ brains” (p 146) is a bit of a stretch (especially considering he is not a scientist). Yes; they are great at seeking and gathering information, and their visual acuity (among other skills) surpasses their elders, but evolution clearly proves that there’s no way a definitive cognitive change such as an ability to multitask could occur from one generation to the next (or the next, or the next).

Media have also drastically changed since their first introduction. For example, Maushart remembers when watching TV “had not yet become the soundtrack for family life–the not-beautiful, not-useful wallpaper lining every household’s personal space; the visual cud on which the entire culture chewed” (p 145). Though I know quite a few people who opt out of cable or television including myself, I still find this poignant and relevant for the majority of situations. It’s as if we’ve been conditioned to only be able to pass X amount of minutes without “visual cud” before needing another hit. To further my point is this staggering fact: American teenagers spend 7.5 hours with media a day, and that number raises to 10.75 hours a day when assessing total exposure (separating times when more than one device was used).

Though this chapter largely discussed multitasking and a plethora of other facts and ideas not discussed in this entry, I also want to circle back to my introductory quote. I find the second part of this quote to be particularly interesting as I think it hits the nail on the head in terms of our personal wisdom–we have outsourced our knowledge, and our brains now serve as incredible indices for this information, knowing where and how to find things, but not knowing the things themselves. I am also consistently interested in the sheer amount of information in existence and our need for more of it. Maushart quotes Walter Ong on page 169, “We are captives of information, dangerously adrift in an information chaos that means nothing and takes us nowhere.” But I’m not sure we are adrift as much as we are paddling furiously toward some unforeseen shore. We’ve created a virtually (har har) boundless knowledge bank, yet we still seek to reach some optimal, yet undefinable, state of enlightenment.

the winter of our disconnect: chapter 4

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“Once untethered, I experienced such a heady lightness of being. There really was nothing to crave… as much as I loved the sensation of carrying the world around in my pocket, I’d forgotten how heavy it could get.” – Susan Maushart, The Winter of Our Disconnect

In this chapter, Maushart talks about her obsession with her iPhone and with constant connectedness. She quotes Tony Norman from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “If you ever want to know what was going through Frodo Baggins’ mind as he stood clutching the evil ring over the lava pit of Mt. Doom in The Return of the King, buy an iPhone.” Maushart’s personal account of her iPhone addiction is hilarious, but she relates her experiences to our culture’s increased need to be connected. We respond to message dings and email notifications as if we were Pavlov’s dog; that’s probably an exaggeration, but we have been conditioned to find these cues fairly unignorable. It’s always hilarious to me when I call my mother and she answers (after presumably searching frantically for her phone) in the middle of the checkout, proceeding to tell me in a stressed, slightly-elevated tone that she’ll “have to call me back!” (and yes, I’ve done it, too). Why do we feel compelled to answer? There’s this crazy invention called voicemail that can help us in situations such as these. I imagine many factors, including our conditioning, are at play; I also suspect it has something to do with the instant gratification we’ve come to know and love.

The chapter also briefly delves into the subject of how technology affects us. “So many of our standards–of normalcy, of effectiveness, of propriety, of safety–are consequences of our technologies.” Maushart supports this statement with examples like “the yearning to produce whiter-than-white cuffs and collars” because the latest clothes-washing technology makes it possible (therefore, it becomes the new standard). If you think about it, this applies to virtually all of our  conveniences.

She also describes in her own words the common notion of viewing our phones (and other media) as extensions of ourselves. We personalize them by giving them names (her iPhone was deemed iNez), buying them jewelry (which I still don’t understand) and accessorizing them with wallpapers and ringtones. Maushart had a friend who was still toting around a phone from the nineties, saying that he “doesn’t care”. This claim serves to reaffirm what Maushart is trying to say – we use these devices to, among other things, send a message about the kind of people we are.

This chapter also has some interesting commentary on parenting in the current technological environment. I won’t get into this topic now, especially since I’m not a parent and can’t truly relate, but she definitely makes some interesting points about the benefits and downfalls of increased connectivity in relation to parent/child relationships.

the winter of our disconnect: chapter 3

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“Quite obviously, boredom is all about perception. It’s a self-diagnosis, pure and simple. If you don’t realize you’re bored, you’re not.” – Susan Maushart, The Winter of Our Disconnect

We text at stop lights and play Angry Birds in waiting rooms; we’re constantly updating our statuses and “checking in”. We fend off boredom with a shield of digital devices. “The human capacity to be seduced and sedated by bright, shiny objects should never be underestimated” (Maushart). When Maushart decided to make her family screen free, she knew boredom was an inevitable byproduct of removing their distractions.

Maushart discusses boredom’s origins and analyzes our current culture’s view of it. First of all, she notes that the word “boredom” and its counterpart “interesting” did not even exist until the 18th century. She expands on that point, but right now we’re focusing on today’s environment – one filled with constant stimulation.

I know I’ve experienced battles with boredom. Similar to the avoidance of silence, I find myself feeling literally uncomfortable sitting still and doing nothing. I don’t mean sitting on the couch staring at the TV; I mean doing absolutely nothing (and for you smart alecks, I know you can’t literally do nothing – you know what I mean!) So where did this discomfort originate? What’s so bad about staring into space every now and then? Maushart thinks that her own “experience with boredom also suggests a connection to a loss of control”, and I think that is spot-on for many of us. “Sitting in a trapped classroom, or at the laundromat… may be labeled as ‘boring’–but it’s really frustration borne of powerlessness”.

She also contemplates the busyness of our chaotic lives (which is quite ironic considering our plethora of technologies are meant to make our lives easier). Maushart also points out our culture’s blurring of the line between work and leisure and the fact that our digital devices only blur the line further. I think the constant mixture of the two has led to a true misunderstanding of what leisure should be. Maushart mentions that she used to brag that she was “never bored”, to which I can completely relate. When someone asks what I did last night, I feel compelled to have a riveting answer, or at the very least a mildly entertaining run-down of the evening’s events. If I truly did nothing remotely productive, I feel guilty. Why?

I think that Thoreau provided a good warning when he said “our inventions are wont to be pretty toys which distract our attention from serious things”. And sometimes “serious things” require deep contemplation spurred by boredom itself.

the winter of our disconnect: chapter 2

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“The stillness was good–now that I’d experienced perhaps twenty minutes of it–but it was also, frankly, just a tiny bit spooky.” – Susan Maushart, The Winter of Our Disconnect

In this chapter, Maushart discusses the harsh realities of being without modern technological conveniences. Battling her teens disbelief, Maushart made the choice to disconnect largely for her children: “I wanted my kids to experience this… to enlarge themselves. To discover themselves. To become human beings more fully alive, in the Waldenesque words of Saint Irenaeus.” The current generation of children are the first to grow up truly surround by the buzz and glow of technology. Though TVs and radios have been around awhile, home computers and cell phones (especially for children’s use) weren’t popularized until the mid-nineties. Even these technological advancements were confined; internet use was restricted to a hardline connection and mobile phones allowed us to talk more conveniently, but that was about it. Total connectivity at all times was not an option, but it is now. Kids today don’t know anything else; most of them can’t comprehend true silence because they’ve never heard it.

Maushart references the book Born Digital, which uses the term “Digital Native” to describe “the first generation born and raised completely wired” (I don’t know about you, but this phrase stirs illusions of some disturbing science fiction thriller in my mind). This generation is “no more frightened by new media than they are by a new pair of running shoes. They just jump right in and start sprinting.” But they’ve known nothing else, so why would they act any differently? Why would they question a world without technology when they have only been swaddled in its comforting embrace?