Rethinking the evils of technology

Posted March 28, 2010, at 7:36 p.m.

Who says that technology is tearing families apart?

Well, specifically, I said it several weeks ago when I wrote about bonding with my children over a game of Would You Rather during a power outage. In the absence of all distracting technology — no iPhones, television, laptops or iPods — our family came together in a way we previously had not experienced. I decided then that technology is the pariah of family life.

But now I’m not totally convinced.

As I was driving to the grocery store the other night, my iPhone, tucked in my pants pocket, vibrated. I had just received an e-mail. I parked and flipped open the case around my phone. On the screen, in bold letters — the universal sign for unread mail — was my son’s name: Ford Smiley.

Two years ago, I could check my e-mail only when I was at home and in front of the computer, a giant desktop thing with a monitor shaped like an old television. Ten years before that, I didn’t even have a computer. I checked my e-mail at the university library, on my way to and from classes. News from family and friends was downloaded in periodic chunks. Mom would send me an e-mail immediately after finding a snake on her front porch, for instance, but I wouldn’t receive the message until several hours later. Or Dustin, then my fiance and going through flight school in Pensacola, Fla., would send me a message, but I would talk to him on the phone — a cordless, land line phone (very high-tech back then) — before I ever saw the e-mail.

Now I was sitting in the grocery store parking lot staring at my 9-year-old son’s name on a computer that fits into my pocket. I had just said goodbye to Ford moments earlier when leaving the house. I felt like I had just stepped into my son’s stream of consciousness. What could have happened between leaving the house and now, I thought.

Also, the words “Ford Smiley” looked so strange to me. I remember when Dustin and I chose the nickname Ford (his real name is Henry Rutherford Smiley) when Ford was born. I remember writing his name on the birth certificate application and having it embroidered on a Christmas stocking. Now that same name had come to me in the form of an electronic message.

And the e-mail read (drum roll), “Hi.”

I wrote back: “So nice to see your name in my Inbox, Ford. I love you, Mom.”

So began the electronic dimension of my and Ford’s relationship. In fact, this could potentially be an important part of it. Have you ever noticed that children reveal more verbal information when they are busy coloring, or when they are riding in the back seat of the car? Without face-to-face interaction, kids open up. I suspect this is why the power outage caused our children to be so honest, too; they couldn’t see our faces. With e-mail, I might gain new insights into my son.

But the truth is, “darkness” helps me to be more genuine, too. This is why I fight with my husband by instant message, even when we are in the same house. I grab my laptop, stomp upstairs and begin an emotional dump on Dustin over Facebook chat. Dustin will play along for a while, then he comes to the doorway and says, “This is stupid. Can’t we just talk?”

“I’m not finished with you. Go back downstairs and get on your computer.”

One time, however, Dustin beat me at my own game. We were sitting across from each other, on opposite couches in the living room. We both had our computers in our laps. I was mad about something Dustin had just said out loud, so I logged on to an instant message session and sent him this: “Hi …” I was working on my next thought — something like, “How could you?” — when Dustin’s reply appeared on my screen: “Dustin Smiley is not available to chat right now.”

I looked across the room. Dustin was squinting at his computer screen, pretending to be busy, but he grinned at his own cleverness.

Still, excluding this one example, online chat has probably saved my marriage. Perhaps it is the forced turn-taking inherent in online messaging that makes arguing more productive. Or maybe it is the absence of face-to-face interaction. Whatever the reason, it’s possible that in the future (I’m thinking of the teen years, in particular), electronic communication ironically might bring me closer to my son and his thoughts as well.

Of course, there is always something to be gained from periodically shutting out technology in order to reconnect on a different level. That’s why, this morning, when I saw that Dustin had absentmindedly put dirty dishes back in the cupboard, I chose to fight with him in person.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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