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Balancing the natural and digital worlds

I’m still adjusting to technology after a month of being away from everything but my smartphone. It’s amazing how much my mouse hand and forearm hurt; I think it’s time to trade in my beloved but clearly harmful thumb-ball mice. I started using them long ago to ease carpal tunnel syndrome, but now they’re a shortcut to tendonitis.

Logitech trackman mouse image

As much as I love the digital world, it’s not so easy to transition back. Facebook is tedious, most of Twitter is petty or repetitive. I craved media when I couldn’t have it, but now I skim the sites I used to read and everything looks boring. I can’t get excited about video games or virtual worlds. It’s all so much meh right now. It’s not that I’m less interested in current events, technology, gaming, anthropology, and thought-provoking issues, but the bar for my attention is higher.

So, as I find my balance again, this might be a good time to write about another occasion where I lost it. I don’t agree with the people who fret about screen time, saying that technology is making us incompetent and antisocial. However, I think that technology can exaggerate some parts of a personality while diminishing others, and we need to be responsible and self-aware of how it’s changing us.

I grew up in the country, swimming in the local creek, building tree forts, biking to nearby stables to ride horses. I was in Girl Scouts and 4-H.  It didn’t distress me to find a gutted deer hanging in our garage and I would help my mom wrap packages of fresh meat for the freezer. Yet, a little over a decade ago, I was in a very different place. The change had taken place gradually, but I isolated myself from the natural world more and more. I lived in a third-floor suburban apartment, working 10+ hours a day at a tech company and spending most of my free time online. “Cooking” was microwaving, though I ate one or two meals at the company cafeteria on weekdays. I became squeamish easily, even something like raw chicken would make me gag. I hated being sweaty or dirty. My lifelong arachnophobia had increased to the point where I would shake and burst into tears at a tiny spider across the room. I wasn’t a shut-in — I traveled and dated — but I had become very… delicate.

I was also burnt out. After a few months of introspection, I begged my way into the next round of corporate lay-offs, sold or stored my things, bought an RV, and took off for some solo travels in the US and Canada. My RV wasn’t expensive but I was in no way roughing it — I had a queen-sized bed, nice little kitchen, TV, and satellite Internet. Still, it’s impossible to have that lifestyle without getting dirty. You can’t be delicate when you’re dealing with your own sewage. After facing some hand-sized spiders in Florida and living with a changing array of bugs, my arachnophobia began to fade (it’s completely gone now). When I decided to stop roaming, found a job at another tech company and another apartment, I felt like I had a balance between the natural and digital worlds again.

I’ve managed to keep that balance. It’s not always the same — the proportions of time spent digitally/physically vary over a range that shifts with obligations, weather, passing interests, relationships, and health — but if I swing too far in one direction, I’m confident that I’ll find equilibrium again soon. I’m aware of it.

If you happen to find yourself in the same position I was, I don’t think you need to up-end your whole life the way I did. Pick up a hobby that takes your hands off the keyboard for a while. Get dirty in nature, even if that just means sitting on the grass — not a blanket — in the park. Push back at things that make you uncomfortable. Find a balance that works.

For me, now that I’ve finished writing this post, it’s time to step away from the computer for a while. See you soon.

 

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Posted by on June 8, 2015 in Health - Mental & Physical

 

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Should we all limit screen time?

My immediate response to that is, of course, no. I am inclined to see fear mongering and hand wringing about the Internet/smart phones/gaming as rants by modern Luddites who see all the world’s ills in a texting teenager.  But maybe I’m missing something. The Daily Dot writes about a strange new law in Taiwan that holds parents liable if their children use electronics constantly “for a period of time that is not reasonable”.  A new book proposes that we’re losing internal depth and introspection in an increasingly digital world (h/t Botgirl Questi). I’ve seen a couple more videos along the lines of “Look Up” recently.

screentime

The Internet didn’t exist when I was a kid. Though there was more violent crime in the US then than now, parents were less protective and my childhood sounds like The Andy Griffith Show. It was really just the outer suburbs in the 1970s-80s. I was allowed to walk over a mile to the library by myself when I was 5 years old. My friends and I would be away from parental supervision from breakfast until dinner, tromping through a creek, building tree forts in a nearby woods, listening to records in someone’s basement, or playing freeze tag across the lawns. I loved my bike and would take long rides through the countryside with no itinerary. I’d be gone for 5-6 hours with no way for my parents to reach me, no GPS tracker, no chaperone, and nobody cared. My family never had much money, so I learned skills like sewing and gardening and canning vegetables.  We got an Intellivision gaming system, but we never had a computer in the house or even cable TV. The big tech achievement of my teens was building a tree-like antenna of wire hangers up my bedroom wall so I could tune in a radio station from Toronto.

I have to consider that screen time for me is very different than for someone who was raised with ever-present computing. I spend many hours online every day but I’m proud of my offline competencies, too. Would those have developed if I had a smartphone or tablet from my earliest childhood?  There are millions of sites that are useful counterparts to offline skills, teaching how to do auto repair or maintain a house or knit or build clever Arduino devices, but does one have to have an existing base of knowledge to use them?

Personally, I think it’s important to keep learning and challenging ourselves in new directions, whether we are adults or children. Screen-based skills are very important now and time spent online isn’t the same as time wasted. I think we’re better off if we make time for physical world hobbies and experiences too.  But, should we assume that someone who rejects a digital life is superior in some way to a person who spends a preponderance of time online?  Intellectually, morally, socially, or even physically? I’m not convinced.

 
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Posted by on January 26, 2015 in Culture

 

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