Thursday, January 26, 2012

Goodnight Gadgets Everywhere

“Goodnight iPad” by Ann Droyd came out just in time for the holiday season. I imagine it was a gift under many Christmas trees as it was under mine.  A fun book with great colorful illustrations and witty rhyming text, it parodies the children’s classic “Goodnight Moon” written by Margaret Wise Brown many years ago.

“Goodnight iPad” looks and feels very much like the children’s book it mimics except the large green room buzzes with iPads, Nooks, Angry Birds and screens of every type.  Father rabbit holds remotes in each hand while he lounges before a huge LCD Wi-Fi HDTV which extends across one entire wall. A warren of tiny rabbit children wear 3D glasses, text their Facebook friends and play video games at the same time.

All the while a mother rabbit rocks in a chair by the fire and sleepily watches the activity through her polarized spectacles.

“And the bings, bongs, and beeps.  Of e-mails and tweets. And a fed-up old woman. Who is trying to sleep.”

That’s it, she says. “Goodnight iPad. Goodnight remotes. And Netflix streams, Androids, apps, and glowing screens.” At the end of this story, she hushes her family off to bed, unhappily unplugged while she contentedly reads “Goodnight Moon” by flashlight to the cat.

Pulling the plug on technology might feel like amputation to most families today. When Australian mother Susan Maushart realized that her family was being torn apart by technology, she decided to pull all the plugs. “Torn apart” might be an exaggeration, of course, but dinnertime and family time with her three teenagers were constantly disrupted by text messaging, emails and Facebook updates. Ms. Maushart felt that technology had taken a toll on her family and so she finally said “no” to the iPhones, iPods, IMs and PCs. She herself slept with her iPhone and she knew that it was going to be a very difficult transition.  For six months she insisted that her family would have absolutely no access to screen entertainment or communication in their home.  This included computers, cellphones, PC gaming and television.

She began by rereading “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau, an account of his two-year experiment of solitude in the woods of Concord, Massachusetts and she ended by sharing her own story of survival, “The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her iPhone) Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale”.  It is the sometimes humorous, always personal tale of her family’s journey “unplugged.”

Some of us have been there in the same place and we can understand the need to “unplug.”  You’ve seen us in restaurants sitting across from each other with our eyes glued to tiny screens or our ears tapped into miniature speakers. In a desire to be always connected, it seems we disconnect from each other instead.

In “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other”, Sherry Turkle suggests that we avoid human contact by engaging with simulations of the people we think we are connecting with. Instead of closeness, we use tools that only give us the impression we are connecting. We’ve all heard the stories about teenagers or colleagues who IM each other sitting in the same room.  There are hilarious times when I continue to talk to my husband on the cellphone as I walk into the house where we see each other face to face.

“Alone Together” is the third in a series of books by MIT professor, Ms. Turkle.  “Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit” and “Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet” are the first and second books.  Whether it is simply a sign of the times or a new world of alienation from reality, technology is here to stay and we need to learn to keep our human connections alive. Reading these books might give us the insight to keep ourselves and our families healthy in a future of technology.

Brian X. Chen is the author of “Always On: How the iPhone Unlocked the Anything – Anytime – Anywhere Future – and Locked Us In.”  Who would have imagined that a combination phone, music player and handheld computer could become the gadget that it has. It’s indispensable to many of us, of course, but the negative implication is that it is nearly impossible to disconnect.  Even more negative is what Chen implies is the sacrifice that we have made in this connection that has taken away our privacy and the role that Apple has played in it.

Nicholas Carr is the author of “The Big Switch” (2008) and the Atlantic Monthly essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid.”  In 2010 he wrote "The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains”.  Humans have intellectually progressed through history accompanied by the marvels of technology.  Those amazing gadgets have included the alphabet and maps and such simple and complicated ones like the clock and printing press.  And now we have the Internet and computers and these new gadgets are shaping a new human history.

While “Goodnight iPad” was a gift for my husband Gerry, an iPad-addict himself, I definitely got the bigger kick out of it. As a children’s book-lover at heart, I delight in the multilayered illustrations and the not-so-subtle satire on every page. In our life of iPhones, Kindles, screens and keyboards it is welcome relief to turn the pages and discover something new on every one of them. Maybe someday, in fact, I’ll take its message to heart.

“Goodnight buzzing.  Goodnight beeps. Goodnight everybody who should be asleep. Goodnight pop stars.  Goodnight MacBook Air. Goodnight gadgets everywhere.”

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