Monday, 21 June 2010
The Winter of Our Disconnect
A few weeks ago I was browsing through My Bookshop in Hawksburn, where on a whim I picked up The Winter of Our Disconnect by Susan Maushart. As I write this, I’m at 30,000 feet, and have just finished one of the more enjoyable and informative reads I’ve had in a while.
Maushart is a Perth-based journalist and single parent of three who, questioning the effect of media — from TV to iPods to video games to mobile phones — decides to enforce a six-month ban of technology in the house, and write about the process (in longhand, of course).
I concluded my announcement, eyes ablaze with missionary zeal (also fear), ‘It’s an experiment in living. We are all going to do it together, as a family. And it’s going to change our lives.’ There was a frozen pause. If life was a Macbook, this was our spinning colour wheel of death.
Sussy broke the silence.
‘You mean … like Wife Swap?’ she asked.
‘YES!’ I roared. Bless the baby for throwing me a life raft. ‘Exactly like reality TV! Exactly! Except, of course, we won’t have a TV …’ I trailed off. I could see Bill and Anni exchange glances.
‘What about homework?’ Bill asked cannily.
‘You can do it at the library, or at a friend’s house, or at home using …’
‘What? A stone tablet and a chisel?’ Anni snapped.
What makes this a great book is its balance, in several senses. Maushart alternates between fairly raw journal entries of her family’s experiences, a running commentary with a bit more distance and analysis, and dives into various bits of relevant research in the field.
The book also strikes a good balance between thought- and laugh-provoking prose. I think most modern families will recognise themselves in these pages, producing both grins (LOL) and shudders of recognition.
Most importantly, though, Maushart is neither a digital apologist nor a luddite. This book is not an argument to shut your screens off permanently; it’s a wake-up call to examine how the media that we use uses us. Do you need to be contactable by five different means on a 24/7 basis? What is the opportunity cost of playing a game in a way that’s equivalent to a part-time job? Is shutting out the world with iPod buds by default a good thing? And so forth.
One of the most interesting points the WoOD makes is about multitasking; this notion that you can simultaneously work (or do homework, in the kids case), have five chat windows open, be reading four (or fourteen) websites and listening to music and/or talking on the phone.
In short, it’s rubbish; Maushart cites a raft of research showing that while people feel more productive when they’re doing more than one thing at a time, the actual quality and quantity of their output nosedives. This includes teenagers, no matter how strenuously they claim that their brains are “wired differently.”
Personally, even before I started reading this book, I’ve already been half-counsciously trying to think about when the TV is on, how often I really need to log into Facebook (answer: just about never), and perhaps most difficultly, how often I have to check my e-mail. Reading Maushart’s book brought all of this into much cleaner focus.
Of course, the fact that I’m blogging this should tell you something, but like I said, it’s all about balance…