Finding a balance with technology

Posted Sept. 02, 2010, at 10:58 p.m.

I’m not really a Luddite. I don’t reject all technology. I love my cell phone and e-mail, and cannot imagine writing without being able to cut and paste. I am beyond the day when I refused to have a computer in my home because my job demanded I sit at a keyboard all day.

Yet I know every minute at the computer compromises my desire to be outside immersed in nature or engaged in physical activity. And so I am last among my peers to adopt new technology.

YouTube and MySpace elude me. EHarmony and Match.com have been out there for years, but I have resisted. I can count on one hand the tangible things I have purchased online. I still prefer dinner parties to social networking, and I have yet to take my laptop on a trip.

But I feel my resistance eroding. It began with boarding passes. I can’t imagine arriving at the airport without boarding pass in hand, even though they often are reissued because of changes by the airline. Then I received a subscription to Netflix for Christmas. I was hooked by the time the gift expired and had to start my own online account to keep the movies coming.

I joined Pay-Pal in order to register for a conference and — the ultimate — signed on to Facebook as a way to connect with other participants. Even though the conference, titled “The Future of Freelancing: Redefining Journalism, Reinventing Yourself,” included magazine editors and book publishers who affirmed the permanence of their professions, the grand prize winner in a raffle drawing went home with a new Kindle. I wanted it!

What is the significance of these technological intrusions in my life? Am I losing control? Am I a victim? Will I have time for what’s really important if I continue to give in? And I can’t forget news of the website for thieves that combined information from Facebook, GoogleEarth and a variety of other sites to inform robbers when an individual would be away from home.

I want as little of my personal information out there as possible, and it bothers me that I do not know what is out there. I was incredulous when a real friend told me I had invited her to be my Facebook friend. I had not even figured out how to access the page, let alone post anything on it or issue invitations. Then I received an e-mail with photo of my street from a person in Virginia trying to discover where I live.

(My cell phone just jingled with a text message telling me my Verizon Wireless bill is ready to view online. Which reminds me — I still pay bills with checks mailed in envelopes with postage stamps and reconcile my account with a pencil.)

So, managing technology in my life requires decisions about the time and privacy I am willing to surrender. What activity am I giving up to sit in front of a computer? At what point do I feel uncomfortable about the personal information I send into cyberspace?

I was nervous the first time I sent my credit card number out onto the Internet, but the anxiety diminished each time I used it for online transactions. Then hackers broke into the database of the grocery store where I casually swipe my card every week. Whether typing or swiping, the details get out there, and the convenience of plastic has taught me to accept the risk involved in using it. Would the banks dry up if everyone started to use cash again?

The first time I heard Diane Rehm’s deliberate voice on NPR say the word “Twitter” as a serious way to contact her call-in show I nearly laughed out loud, it seemed so incongruous. But I got used to it, and as freelancers at the Future of Freelancing conference Tweeted their reactions to each session, I had to admit to myself it sounded like fun. In the home where I was staying that week, we were joined for breakfast by an infant granddaughter miles away through the wonders of Skype. Now that was fun.

Outside of work, choices about technology are as individual as choices about clothing and food. Different devices and programs suit different people in varied ways. One person might choose a computer for recreation while another would play tennis. Choice is key.

So far, the computer has been an asset to my personal and professional life. As long as I can balance my time at the keyboard with life beyond the computer, I feel comfortable. I will try to resist memberships in multiple social networks — they might be addictive. And by the time I figure out Facebook it will probably be replaced by something new. BlackBerry? iPhone? What are those?

I think it’s time to go outside and commune with nature.

Kathryn Olmstead is a retired University of Maine associate dean and associate professor living in Aroostook County. She was the founding director of the Maine Center for Student Journalism at UMaine. Her columns appear in this space twice monthly. She may be reached by e-mail at kathryn.olmstead@umit.maine.edu.

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