We could all use a little time away from technology, right?
Colleagues of mine forwarded a link on Facebook today to a piece by William Major at the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "Thoreau's Cellphone Experiment." In it Major tells of offering an extra credit project to his students: giving up their cell phones to him for five whole days, the better to reach a more "real" experience of life, unencumbered by the "distractions" of their palm-sized technology.
Setting aside the privileged and paternalistic tone of the piece for a moment and setting aside the dubiousness of Thoreau's withdrawal to the "wilderness" of Walden Pond (which did not keep him from frequent, almost daily visits to the village of Concord, or from getting female family members to feed him and do his laundry), the whole aim of this article misunderstands the role of technology in our lives.
I suspect that while Major may have a smartphone, he doesn't use social media:
"Nineteenth-century America had its own version of Twitter in the penny papers of the day, whose allegiance to fear and gossip-mongering was every bit as real as our own."
It's always irksome to hear people who do not use a social media outlet criticize it based on things they have heard about it (i.e. the seemingly ineradicable notion among neo-Luddites that people on Twitter only talk about what they had for breakfast). But his words highlight a rather widespread perception of social media and technology as distractions from "real" life.
I realise that people still look at phones, tablets and ereaders as gadgets, but while individual items might indeed prove to be fads that pass, the technology isn't. Ebooks are here and will grow as a market share—without completely displacing books (they're still cheap, mobile and "rechargeable")—and small fully functional computers will become as common as televisions in the home (at least in middle class homes).
If you really want to "simplify" then go without your car/bus/train, your refrigerator, your cooker. Or go without plumbing, vaccinations and modern health care. These are all technologies keeping you from the "real" life—the life we have worked so hard all these centuries to get as far away from as possible. The wilderness is a harsh place: ask a wolf.
Yes, technology can be a distraction to folks with more time than sense. Be glad: in the eighteenth century, it would have been gin. If you're concerned about "these kids today" and their technology as a distraction, be more thoughtful about how you try to get them to engage with it. We don't need a temperance movement; we need to help people learn how to integrate the possibilities of instantaneous communication into a sane lifestyle, where technology serves the user and not vice versa.
K. A. Laity writes so much that she had to create some pseudonyms to keep her colleagues from thoughts of murder. A tenured medievalist at a small liberal arts college, she mostly tries to find ways to avoid meetings in order to write more . Find her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter to hear trenchant analyses and utter nonsense.
Image via Wade Morgan's Flickr