Betty Duffy

Monday, June 7, 2010

Disembodied by Technology

When I was in college, everybody was bungee jumping, skydiving, doing triathlons, and any sport with the word “extreme” in front of it. Leisure activites were all about bodily thrills. But fifteen years later, the world has gone virtual. No more bodies bouncing through the atmosphere (at least not in my set). Static bodies sit unexercised and unimproved, behind the computer screen.

Went camping this weekend with friends, and late night campfire discussion turned to technology, and what to do with technology minded kids, boys especially, who have aptitudes and one-track minds for all things mechanical and digital.

I have first-hand knowledge of what technology does to a thirty-four year old mother with no aptitude for computers, who doesn’t work in the field, and never much cared for video games. She finds it quite absorbing. So much so, that often the important reasons for turning on the computer (checking email, for instance) have completely slipped from her mind by the time she turns it off.

And one of our camping companions, a liberal arts professor, who spends his summers attempting publication in academic journals, expressed a serious amount of distaste for all the women spinning their wheels trying to keep up a blog—something so transient, so inconsequential, so self-oriented. “What are your fans doing while you’re gone this weekend?” he asked, “Did you leave a note so no one would freak out?”

The question hit a nerve, because I do sometimes feel like I’m making a much bigger deal out of my “Writing Time” than it actually warrants. My kids see my absorption in the screen, even while I tell them that computer games will rot their brains.

They play Poptropica in their computer class at school, and the other day, they snuck my laptop up to their room to log onto their accounts now that school is out. I have made their leash so tight that they run away into the neighbors’ yard as soon as they can break free. They've taken to sneaking around behind my back.

Two years ago I started this blog because I wanted to develop the discipline of turning the thought fragments that occur to me throughout my days into fully realized ideas and opinions, and it seemed a nice compromise to writing in a hovel, producing material for a theoretical audience that might never come to fruition.

And so began a series of compromises, not so much related to the blog as to the status of culture in general, that what I really want is a living breathing community, but I will be satisfied with logging into some sort of online community. Naturally, I really want my writing to be material, something I can hold in my hands that has survived the filter of a distinguished publishing agency, but I’ll settle for a blog.

And with my kids, there’s that feeling of wanting to spare them the emasculating disembodied life in front of a screen, but gosh, who can support themselves without an online presence in this day and age? I look online for plumbers, carpenters, even, sometimes, my friends’ phone numbers. One compromise after another.

To say that technology got me through a rough patch in the witching hour of a Friday afternoon—and that’s why I do it--is not good enough. It’s not good enough to keep making excuses for myself and compromises, because I have a faith that makes no compromises, and that is perfectly equipped to handle the mental and physical complexities of my life. I always said that I could never profess a faith that ignored the body, that I need the Incarnation, yet I willingly commit hours of mindless devotion to virtual concepts that neglect the body.

If I want to keep my kids in my own yard, I’m going to have develop a culture and a community in our own family that makes them prefer being here to the greener pastures online or elsewhere. And if that culture can’t stand up to the completely overpowering beast that technology can be for certain addictive personalities, then hopefully it will be a reminder and an impetus for them someday down the road to think, life was pretty good before I was addicted to this soul sucking, body crushing garbage. Maybe I should go back to a culture more like the one we had when we were kids.

Our professor friend and his wife have an envy inducing familial culture of guitar playing and song singing, reading aloud, and outdoorsy activities, not to mention living on the edge of a college campus. I always thought that I'd one day have a Kumbaya Family, but that is not our family's charism. Our charism is loud. It's chaotic and a little antagonistic, and maybe I've let it become that way through my staunch prohibitions, and failures to provide them with other enriching experiences.

When my husband was in the hospital, the nurses kept pushing pain-killers, which my husband refused. They wanted to stay ahead of the pain, one of the nurses said, because if the painkillers wear off, many of their patients are miserable, and then they spend days chasing the pain.

I spend a lot of time chasing negative behavior, and not so much time preventing it. I’m in favor of a fair amount of free-range parenting, but a little guidance and structure is not going to stunt their creativity. And it might spare me the kind of defeat that produces public broadcast of my week's complaints. Loosening their leash with technology a little, maybe getting them a chessmaster CD, could cure their curiosity with the stuff, but it means tightening my own leash as well to provide better supervision and direction.

I want to have a familial culture, even if it's not a perfect culture, that appreciates each member of this family, body and soul, conflicts and gifts. I want to enjoy being with my kids, but to do so, I cannot be disembodied by my little hobby here. And my attitude towards my kids cannot always be an automatic "no," because that means I'm not listening to them.

Sally has written a post about an "embodied" day with her kids.


Elizabeth said...

Wow, thanks for sharing this! I very much needed to hear this today.

Jordana said...

When I mostly gave up the computer for Lent this year, I learned a lot about how much more I was there for the kids and how much more I got done when I stepped away. It was really a great thing and yet, given the freedom post-Lent to slip back into old habits, I've slipped. I don't want my kids to think the only word I know is "no" and that my face looks like a computer screen, and yet that world out there in cyberspace is seductive and hard to break from.

Jus said...

there are people on the other side of the world who consider you a friend, in body AND in spirit, and love to hear our inner workings. With people you have never met, never seen, never hugged than in some ways it becomes disembodied but for those who come here to hear the voice of a friend it is writing - like the writing my grandmother used to do.

remember. baby. bath water.

Lizzie said...

This is so pertinent to where I'm at - I was away camping with my son last week and there wasn't a single request for computer, tv, ipod. Utter bliss. I've been reflecting on how I don't model detachment from these things at all - "no, wait til I've finished checking something" is uttered far too often.
Last night, I switched off wi-fi so there wasn't even the choice of wasting time and we made a quick visit to the library before bedtime and chose such a great selection of books to look at over the next week.
It's hard finding the balance between 'un-parenting' and creating some sort of healthy stimulation - especially when our life is so busy and scheduled. I usually relish the chance to sit and watch tv, check out the internet but I'm trying consciously to be more creative and connect more to my son otherwise I'm scared I'll lose him to machines...
Thanks, as ever for your words.

Lizzie said...

Ooh another point. I'll echo Jus - please don't give up and chuck out that baby too... Sitting here in London, UK, I marvel at the fact that you're having exactly the same concerns and challenges as me even though your life, on the surface, is so different from mine. Maybe one day we'll meet, maybe we won't but each time I read, it's a concrete reminder of the communion of saints and the universal church.

mrsdarwin said...

And one of our camping companions, a liberal arts professor, who spends his summers attempting publication in academic journals, expressed a serious amount of distaste for all the women spinning their wheels trying to keep up a blog—something so transient, so inconsequential, so self-oriented. “What are your fans doing while you’re gone this weekend?” he asked, “Did you leave a note so no one would freak out?”

I bet your prof friend doesn't read your blog. For what it's worth, I miss you when you're gone!

And frankly, that's kind of a jerky thing to say. Does anyone read his articles?

Peter and Nancy said...

I have done a little freelance work editing for a professor who had articles published prior to tenure. I was thinking along the same lines as Mrs. Darwin -- the subset of people who read academic journals is pretty small. Hmm . . . kind of like blog readership? :o)

Suburbanbanshee said...

Sometimes I wonder what professors want. In my day, they were always crying and moaning about how newspapers didn't print poems anymore, and towns didn't have little literary journals, and nobody wrote for pleasure except the oddballs.

And now, when people do write for pleasure, professors complain about that?

This is not to say that the struggle to balance online life and realtime life is not a worthy one. But there's not that much difference between Victorians writing and reading a zillion letters a day every day to their friends, and having the mailman drop by four or five times a day in big cities; and people today posting and blogging and commenting and Facebooking. Give humans an excuse, and they will yak all day in some form, that's all.

BettyDuffy said...

I always feel sort of annoyed when people post self-righteous blogs about disconnecting from the internet to engage in real relationships--but I think my annoyance is a fear that the people I "know" on the internet might take those posts seriously and abandon me here. Like you, Mrs. D, internet ennui happens when the people I want to read haven't posted anything new, and I do sort of freak out in their absence, or at least get frustrated that I booted up my computer for yet another disappointment.

Other internet dependence factors: the onslaught of a low-grade depression over the past few months, whereby other labors like gardening and house-cleaning seem futile and pointless, and the internet, though also futile and pointless to some extant, provides just the tiniest bit of a buzz. Asking the chicken or the egg question though: does computer dependence spawn apathy towards other things, or vice versa?

I know at some point, I probably will leave the internet. When my need for it becomes less, or when my disgust with it increases, but I’m here for now, because it does meet a need, even if it is a compromise to my original hopes for my writing or my friendships. What feels urgent to me right now is spending some time increasing my involvement in other areas of my life that require more order and discipline.

My professor friend was trying and succeeding to push my buttons. I responded that I used to be anti-blog before I realized that it was much easier to get fifty thousand visits to a blog than it is to get fifty thousand readers for an academic journal (even if that’s a bit of an exaggeration of this blog’s popularity).

Sally Thomas said...

You know, for all that embodied-day post, I struggle with this all the time, and I never don't feel guilty about it. Just now my six-year-old was describing to me how she pretends to light a match -- really a Nerf dart -- on her foot, and I was saying, "mm-hmm, mm-hmm," and thinking about my response to this blog post. I get up in the morning and think about what I'm going to blog about. All this makes me more than a little uncomfortable with myself, let me tell you.

At the same time, even if I didn't have a blog, I'd get up in the morning thinking about writing something. And if I spent time writing it (as I also try to do), I still come out as from a long tunnel, blinking in the sunlight and uncertain how to communicate with the real world. So . . . it's not like getting rid of blog=instant there-and-with-it mama. I'd still be preoccupied and spaced out, and people would still have to repeat things several times before I heard them. I'm just afraid I'm never going to be a better person than that, no matter what I do.

I've also heard people recommend starting a blog over writing a book, because if you have a blog, you have a chance of attracting a fair number of readers, and nobody can remainder you. It's not bad advice.

BettyDuffy said...

"I'm just afraid I'm never going to be a better person than that, no matter what I do."

Yes. I know before the blog there were other reasons to be distracted. I always have been as a mother. Frankly, because there is something about this life at home with the little people that bores the pants off me. Wouldn't trade it, but my happiness at home depends on keeping my brain interested in adult things as well--so there will always be a split to negotiate, as far as how much self care is necessary, and how much is excessive--and does blogging qualify as self-care?

The thing that worries me about the internet, is that I do wake up with a bit of an itch to see what's new. Never felt that way about a book I was reading--probably because I know the books will always be there. It even occurs to me sometimes--"When am I going to read all these books I keep accumulating?" Some part of me thinks it will be at the Armageddon when the internet crashes.

Kathy said...

The computer is in the house.So when people write on their blogs or turn on the computer for relief or entertainment family life swirls around them. When I was a child my mother's "distraction" or activity was outside the house. She would go for a dinner or lunch with friends,golfing,bowling,an occasional class. I guess my point is that when she was persuing personal time she was out of the house. When she was home she was usually pretty attentive to all of us. Times have changed and so has family life. My life as a mother is vastly different from my mother's. I just can't walk outside and chat with a like minded neighbor while our kids play. I can't get together with people I have known since highschool for an evening out. The computer and blogs have helped me a great deal. I think I would feel quite isolated and a bit lonely without them. So please keep writing ladies! Maybe just set a timer. When it rings just turn off the computer.

Sally Thomas said...

Kathy -- I think what you say is true, and it's a conversation I've had with other friends online as well. The relationships are not un-real for being at a physical remove. Think of all the great old epistolary friendships. I don't visit a large number of blogs, and the reason I visit the ones I do visit is that a)what the blog host/hostess writes is interesting and good in itself, but also b)the conversations that follow involve good and interesting people whose company I think I'd enjoy in real life (in a few cases, they are people I know in real life but don't get to see often).

And I do think, well, kids see their mothers being caught up in all kinds of things which are not bad to be caught up in: various work-at-home pursuits, gardening, sewing, whatever. I do garden, but I'm not a crafty, sewing, scrapbooking kind of mother. I am this kind of mother, who writes stuff and lets things catch fire on the stove sometimes. I'm really not a very pleasant mother on those occasions when I'm working on a deadline -- but at least once, when I've finished something, my kids have gone, "Yay, Mommy!"

The addictive quality of the internet is its own thing, though. I, too, wake up hankering to find out what's been happening out there in virtualworld in a way that I don't think I wake up hankering to read a book, and this worries me.

On the other hand, much as I love my children -- and hang in there; teenagers can be seriously good company, but you have to slog through all the little-kid stuff to get there -- I'd be really bored without the online contacts. Before I had the internet, when my oldest children were small, I spent a lot of time at a church mothers' group drinking coffee with my friends and keeping one eye on our kids while they played. This doesn't seem all that different, except that the temptation is available 24/7, which is maybe not such a good thing for those of us with no willpower.

Sally Thomas said...

But I don't have to feel one bit guilty right now, because my oldest child is in New England with her best friend, and my husband took the other three fishing. Woo-hoo!

Except that I keep thinking that I ought to go read a book.

Dorian Speed said...

I don't know this professor friend, nor have I ever met you, but he sure has ticked me off.

(I realize that this one anecdote does not sum up the character of your friend, who is probably a far more holy person than I and a better influence besides).

Kate Wicker @ Momopoly said...

Two things:

"Other internet dependence factors: the onslaught of a low-grade depression over the past few months, whereby other labors like gardening and house-cleaning seem futile and pointless, and the internet, though also futile and pointless to some extant, provides just the tiniest bit of a buzz."

I, too, have been struggling with depression and hadn't even thought about the connection between me spending more time online and needing that "tiniest bit of a buzz." You make an interesting point.

Two: "Does blogging qualify as self-care?" This is a question I've been asking myself over and over? I'm not sure it does (for me). Writing is self-care, but blogging? The jury's still out.

As for the poor professor, his words irritated me at first, but the more I thought about them, the more I wondered if I'm putting too much emphasis on what my handful of fans want instead of focusing on what my family needs and what God demands from me.

Sally Thomas said...

I keep wondering about the connection between internet use and acedia. If acedia is tied to an aversion to routine things (real self-care, like brushing your teeth or showering; household chores and gardening; prayer), how much does the internet factor in as an avoidance maneuver?

I think about that all the time.

Celeste said...

Wow. Love this conversation. I can related to so much of what you all are saying here.

Having four children under four to care for, I rarely have time to respond to blog posts--I do have time to read, but two-handed typing time is at a premium.

I want to take a moment to say, though, that there are a handful of blogs I read regularly (yours, Betty, and yours too, Sally), that really do stimulate adult thought for this mom at home, in the midst of long days with small children. I thank you for the thought-provoking posts.

eaucoin said...

When my kids were little, we didn't have a computer, but I had a favorite radio show. The host was quite adept at interviewing ordinary people, and listening to his interviews felt like having people visit (without the worry of having to clean up). It was an oasis of sanity in a job that was incredibly stimulating and mind-numbingly boring by turns. Now I have a daughter who has returned home after an attempt at independence. She has neurological problems (which she inherited from me) and the particular way it has manifested in her means that she may never have a life outside of the shelter of her family. She is the youngest of my children and the others have successfully established themselves, so I have some peace from knowing that her being with us does not represent any sort of personal failure, but it is a new frontier of sorts. I used to think that mothering was a job in which you became obsolete at some point (and then you rested gloriously in the afterglow). I understand now (I'm a slow learner) that I can't predict the way my life will play out, and being sort of atypical makes me feel isolated at times. When I read your blog I feel right at home (sometimes disasters erupt, sometimes you're fighting brush fires, and sometimes life is gloriously peaceful), and it reminds me that we're all running the same race even if the landscape is different. My community is small and there are very few Catholics, and I don't know how much longer we will have daily Mass. But I believe that God will find ways to comfort me in every circumstance, and your blog is often a comfort to me, even if I don't always comment. You are not carrying the whole load, of course, but the Holy Spirit will use you and I hope you will think of that when you are worried about "too much of a good thing."

Dawn by Design said...

Yes. I know before the blog there were other reasons to be distracted. I always have been as a mother. Frankly, because there is something about this life at home with the little people that bores the pants off me

Oh, my, yes. I so struggle with avoiding the day's tasks because I can't take another moment of it. I used to blame it on having babies but now my youngest is over 2 and I see more clearly that it has really been me all along.

I used to blame it on my husband b/c he would come home and be lazy and not help me out but now he has started actually taking care of the yard AND exercising at night so I see more clearly that it has really been me all along.

I stopped my personal blogging and stopped reading blogs (like yours - that make me THINK - hopefully you take that as a compliment) for the last month or two in an attempt detach a bit from my online addiction.

It has helped some. My new blog is a frivolous sort of design place, no deep thoughts or sharing of opinions (I used to blog at No Heavy Lifting.) That's on purpose, too.

Last week I tried cutting back on my computer time and it was like going through a physical withdrawal. When the tedium of my day reaches its predictable and rhythmic heights, I go numb and turn to the computer. I didn't have that escape and I became edgy, irritable, and yelled a lot. I cried.

Bah. It's late and I'm rambling. Have a nice weekend.