I’ve spent the last couple of weeks trying to think about my relationship to technology in a very focused way: what is it for? Which applications enable my work, and which get in the way? Why do I check e-mail so often, anyway? I am thinking about it today in part because of Janni Aragon’s recent University of Venus blog post about technology, in part because I saw The Hunger Games this weekend, and in part because my daughter is living at home this semester (stay with me — I think it will all make sense!).
First, my daughter. As I think I’ve mentioned before, she’s spending a semester on a “domestic exchange” program that has her here at my university, living at home and taking classes where I teach. (The money she saves is going to a summer trip to Europe — stay tuned for my envious blog posts about that!) Her relationship to technology is very different from mine; she’s grown up with laptops and cellphones, was a relatively early adopter of Facebook, uses the internet skillfully to find music and videos, and seems to have a text message (or four) every time she takes her phone out of her bag. She does not, however, have a smartphone, and I have the only iPad in the house. She seems to have no envy for it, nor for the Kindles and Nooks that are starting to become more and more common wherever we go. She’s a reader and a savvy critic of media, and her relationship with technology — which is on view to me daily right now — seems to be a big part of that. She may be a digital native, but she’s not consumed by it, as far as I can see.
The Hunger Games, of course, posits a world that is so technologically connected it no longer feels connected — or at least, such connection no longer feels worthy of remark. During the Games themselves, participants are tracked with pinpoint accuracy and displayed on-screen for all the world to see, but it seems clear that even outside of the arena, most citizens of Panem live most their lives on display (see the citizens of the Capitol for an obvious illustration). Privacy has become irrelevant. In such a world, an audience hungers for a display of “real-world” skills (tracking, hunting, surviving in the wild), but there’s also some technological savvy (especially, playing for the camera, but also the behind-the-scenes work) involved in the games themselves. Collins’s world is dystopian, yes, but it also tells us something about ourselves. I think the recent interest in craft beers and artisanal pickles, knitting and baking, is—among other things—a much milder expression of what fascinates the citizens of Panem about the Games: in a world where so much experience is virtual, we want to see people doing real things, with real materials. Sometimes we even want to do them ourselves.
So what about me? I am not, obviously, a digital native — my son is the family Photoshop whiz, my daughter the search star — but I can hold my own. Still, I feel sometimes like a hybrid. I’ve developed some skills but they haven’t become second nature to me yet. So I use my iPad to take notes but sometimes forget to transfer the notes to my computer; I use it to read, but haven’t quite figured out the Kindle interface for taking notes. I have citations scattered amongst various apps and I have never used a smartphone. Janni Aragon sounds to me as if she’s managing her technology better than I, but she still feels some guilt about it, and I do, too. I’ve spent the last several evenings “watching” basketball games in the living room with my husband with the laptop on my lap — neither the game, my husband, nor the laptop really gets my full attention.
At its best, the technology enables. I love that I have whole databases at my fingertips; I’m old enough to remember using the MLA Bibliography on CD-ROM and, before that, in bound volumes, and online is better. The online communities that have grown up around books and branched out into social activism (I’m thinking right now of the Harry Potter Alliance, but I know there are others) seem to me an entirely positive use of technology. Technology can even enable my “real-world” skills — I look up knitting patterns and recipes online, propping up my laptop or iPad in the kitchen or living room as I bake or knit.
But I still feel scattered, and anxious: there’s too much information out there, and not only can’t I manage it all (even all of it in the little world I inhabit), some of it is irrelevant, or wrong, or harmful. And the calls on my time—to take things back to the beginning of this blog post — have increased exponentially as the technology has exploded. Remember when we thought technology would save us time (and paper)? I’m not seeing it yet.
We’re not in the world of the Hunger Games yet, and I’ll never be a digital native: I can embrace neither the fully dystopian, nor the fully utopian, view of technology. So my solution, at the moment, is to try to do things one at a time, to slow down the media and technology consumption to the really valuable apps (research and knitting ones stay; Facebook is taking a back seat), and to get outside once or twice while it’s still springlike here in Virginia.