Thumbs Up for a Balanced Life?

Might electronic devices -- if left to their own devices -- erode human communication? Maria Shine Stewart ponders.

October 21, 2011

I. A memory.

“He stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plum and said, ‘What a good boy am I.’ ”

I never quite understood what that meant despite my fondness for plums and an emerging appreciation of thumbs. 1960.

I re-encountered this miracle of anatomy with fresh eyes while scrutinizing my son’s ultrasound pictures. He had a delicate span of fingers moved dreamily toward his mouth, and the thumb led the way, about to complete an ancient and timeless loop. 1992.

II. Clog dancing with stiff fingers.

I have finally stretched my own thumbs to their own two-inch potential—not including nail. I have learned to text on my aging phone. No fancy keyboard. Just tap tap tap. Tap tap tap tap. And my favorite one: tap. Those are the easy letters. 2011.

III. Spanning time and space…

And just in time, so I can connect with my son – a bird in flight now, a freshman in college. Electronic umbilical cord? He doesn’t need one; I do.

His generation didn’t invent texting but they became fluent in it fast. It connected them, angst-to-angst, more closely than I felt was healthy. But what do I know--I’m still learning to press the buttons.

The balance of machine-to-human time and human-to-human time…well, regardless of age and technological ability, we are all working on that. Technology affects civility, kindness, collegiality. It can both promote these values or habits – and erode them. The elusive and shaky thing called “balance” is not an instantaneous achievement. And that’s a tough truth, when so much else is achieved--and seemingly so fast—by pressing a few buttons, the good kind.

IV.Phone as accessory at Campus A.

A young woman had a bright red phone in class, which she stroked as if it were alive and which she displayed on her desk proudly, sitting up front. Many of her peers could see it and I certainly could. It reminded me of a candied apple; I wondered if flavored, scented phones might be next. Dressing and moving like a model, the student made slow exits on very high heels to take important calls. She couldn’t help but be dramatic—other students would shake their heads as she began to talk before quite reaching the door. 2010.

V.Unopposable thumbs at Campus B.

I was alarmed at the passivity of the last row. “They are so pale under the fluorescent lights,” I thought. “They are disengaged, looking down.” How can this be when I am at the height of eloquence? Instinctively, I moved to the back of the room to investigate. Not all five students doing that at once! (Yes, the no-texting policy is on the syllabus.) Behavior is, was, will be: contagious.2009.


 “An animal species is said to have opposable thumbs if the thumb is capable of bending in such a way that it can touch all the other digits on the hand,” Wikipedia proclaims. “Most species do not have opposable thumbs … [which] played a large role in the ancient humans inventing and using tools.”

Yes, thumbs made things with which we use thumbs.

VII.“I’ll have what she’s having…”

A colleague shared that she had observed a student surreptitiously shopping repeatedly in the computer classroom; finally, my colleague decided to cut in electronically with: “order a pair for me.”

Are we so plugged in that classroom time has become an annoying interruption to the more pressing tasks of electronic socialization, surfing or shopping? I wonder. Or as a cousin asked me while discussing the economy and joblessless: “Has technology become a replacement for ourselves?”

The late psychiatrist Gerald May wrote often about the intersection of psychology and contemplation (Care of Mind, Care of Spirit; Addiction and Grace; The Awakened Heart), suggesting we are all attached to things—some more than others and not entirely to our detriment. However: Addicted … to electronics … is a sobering thought.


And these tools save lives.

A pager was critical to my peace of mind in the classroom during years when my son was frail and in others’ care while I taught, 1992 and on. Drivers across four lanes showed the exponential power of kindness when they pulled out their phones in synchronization when my son went into seizures in the carseat in the backseat of the car and I stopped and placed him gently on the ground. A grandfather stopped his car, knelt beside us as we waited for help. EMS arrival: Under two minutes. 1996.

IX. A fruitful discussion at Campus C.

“Are there any controversial topics you would like to discuss?” I asked one class at the beginning of the persuasion unit.

“Texting,” said a voice from the last row.

“Texting is not controversial,” offered another.

“Texting while driving,” said another student.

“Yes, that can be dangerous,” said yet another.

“There has been legislation in some states,” I added.

As we built momentum, a young man texted as we talked, near me.

“We could take this topic in another direction, too,” I suggested. “We could talk about texting in class.”

“May I say something?” the texter shot back, thumbs clicking. “If you weren’t so boring, I wouldn’t have to text in here.”

“What if ‘put away all electronics’ is on the syllabus?” I asked.

“I don’t read the syllabus,” he replied.

So, I segued into the importance of Rogerian common ground when trying to persuade. On he texted. Returning papers after class, I found there was no project to return to him. He had missed the assignment of last week altogether.

X. Balance?

Drawn to the East when the West stuns me, I think of the mudra. A graceful mudra gesture is thought to direct energy and may represent aspirations, like hospitality and compassion. I saw a beautiful depiction of mudras at Bharatanatyam, a classical Indian dance coming of age ceremony. Leaping conceptually -- if our hands get so clenched in technology’s grip 24/7 – so clenched  that we forget the power of a handshake, a compassionate tap, a thumbs up -- we are in peril.

            Our minds, our hearts can get clenched, too.

In Boston in 2007 I heard Sherry Turkle, M.I.T. sociologist, at the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism, a formerly annual event sponsored by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. I wondered if she was an alarmist when she posed questions about what could happen to relationships, particularly with the young or the elderly, if we surrender too much of their care to technology. Upon reflection, I have decided that she was not an alarmist; rather, I had been living in a cave. Turkle, Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT, and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, holds a joint doctorate in sociology and personality psychology as well as being a licensed clinical psychologist.

After her talk, I posed a question to her about the online rage on listservs and  comments after a news story; her reply was that social cues and nonverbals we read face-to-face – and that may lead to a degree of restraint – are absent in an online environment.

XI.Power tools?

Perhaps devices -- if left to their own devices and guided insufficiently by our own individual and collective wills -- may reduce the need to talk with our hands the old way, gesturing and building rapport. Research is emerging in many places but no quick answers seem in reach. As technology matures, we can hope to adapt and mature with it -- and, hopefully, not regress.

In a graduate course in education I took, phones flickered like a meteor shower when word of Michael Jackson’s death broke. So that’s what people mean about the displacement of mainstream media -- finally felt in my gut as students exhibited the reflexes and assurance of reporters.

Entering the room, our professor looked around and asked: “Does anyone here watch TV any more?” A barely audible murmur, then shuffling, followed by silence.

XII.The tipping point?

I recently texted at a social gathering rather than excusing myself from the dinner table. It was my first time I texted in this context, and an older acquaintance looked at me with disapproval.

After finding out if anyone at home had, in fact, fed the dog, I stared at that problematic artifact in front of me. Had I officially entered the realm of the tactless? Or was I just keeping up with the times?


Maria Shine Stewart teaches writing on three campuses and works as a contributing editor/writer for a northeast Ohio business publication. This is part of a column, A Kinder Campus, that explores human relations in the academy. It offers anecdotal and research support for the idea that when we work kinder, we work better. Workplace morale, civility, and collegiality count. Goodwill is free, so stock up and spread it around. Topic suggestions are welcome. Contact [email protected].


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