Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey . . .

. . . But Leave the Laptop on Shore, 'K?

(Image Credit:  Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn [1885], via)

The fantasy of escape from civilization is so deeply rooted in American culture that we might as well say it springs from the nation's soul.  It's a fantasy that appeals to our sense of ourselves as individuals and free agents, sturdy beings unencumbered by history, family, or society.  It's a total crock, of course, but it's a crock that has resulted in some truly fine writing and storytelling -- everything from, you know, this to, say, this.

Anyhoo, the fantasy of escape from civilization is also often a dream of escape from technology, from whatever machines are perceived to be mucking up the paradisal gardens of our collective imaginations at any given moment.  Lately, it would appear, the machine we long to escape is the one you are holding in your hands or lap as you read these words.  Have you noticed?  Suddenly everyone is running away from their computers, declaring themselves unplugged, subjecting themselves to heroic experiments in disconnection.
  • Cartoonist James Sturm brilliantly documented his 4-month "exile" from the Internet in a series of word/image posts that ran in Slate from April to August.  (He cheated once.  It involved dead bunnies and a heartbroken child.  We vote to let him off the hook for his lapse.)
  • Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel courageously declared in WaPo that she had put an away message on her e-mail for the month of August to let folks know she would be checking messages infrequently as part of an effort to live more slowly and reflectively.
  • The New York Times asked for volunteers to give up their gadgets for a period of time and report back on the experience.  Their harrowing tales of life without Farmville are documented here.
To us, though, the most fascinating account of these forays off the grid is the one prominently featured in Monday's Times -- the story of five neuroscientists interested in the effects of using digital devices on the brain spending a week together in a remote part of southern Utah away from computers and other communications tools.  They literally went "back to the raft," using themselves as guinea pigs to test whether the effects (on thinking and behavior) of our reliance on such devices might be reversed by a "retreat into nature," as Matt Richtel puts it in his story.

(Photo Credit:  Chang W. Lee, New York Times.  Art Kramer, of the University of Illinois, studies the neurological benefits of exercise.)

Not surprisingly, if you put five really smart guys with overlapping interests but different types of expertise out in the middle of nowhere for a few days, the dudes relax, chug a few brewskies, and shoot the $hit -- though in this case the $hit is like, you know, pretty high falutin'.  Instead of making fart jokes around the campfire, they're speculating about what happens to the brain when humans multitask and what are the best imaging techniques for capturing "the effects of digital overload on the brain."  They are also doing things like forgetting to put on their watches and not reading the research papers they had packed along on the trip.

Further study will have to be done, of course, but it would appear that the guys were on VACATION!  Go read the story, which is really pretty cool for the way it shows the scientists sharing ideas and using their own brief experience in nature to test and in some cases modify their previously held assumptions.

Here's the thing, kids:  Roxie's World is by no means opposed to getting away from it all.  We are totally down with the salubrious effects of close encounters with nature and the importance of making space in one's life for quiet and reflection.  The moms like nothing better than a good long walk, which is why they made such excellent dog people during my embodied years, and Moose has practiced a variety of meditative disciplines, including yoga, t'ai chi, and long-distance running, over the course of her adult life. (For new readers, here's a post that offers a kind of statement of faith from Moose on the value of walking away, temporarily, from one's ordinary life and world.)

During their recent trip to England and Wales, both moms disconnected to some degree:  Both put "out of office" messages on their e-mail, and both spent a lot less time hunched over their computers doing the kinds of things they typically do online.  Moose stayed off Twitter for two whole weeks and discovered she didn't miss it at all.  She kinda kept up with her blog-reading, but didn't post comments on any blogs but this one.  Posting here was light and trip-related, as you know.  She checked Facebook regularly, mostly to post travel photos and stay in touch with folks at home.  She took her iPhone with her, thinking she would use it as a back-up camera, and never took it out of her pack.  Goose's pack was so loaded down with Mac gadgets that Moose referred to her bag as the Apple store, but she made good yet limited use of both laptop and the new iPad.  Moose also did a test-read on the iPad during the trip home and is pleased to report that Charlotte Brontë's Villette mitigates ever so slightly the discomfort of international flight for people who insist on traveling without detaching their legs.

We digress.  What's fascinating in this rash of vacation/exile from technology stories is the persistence of the fantasy that one can and should endeavor to separate oneself from technologies that are perceived as threats to the self.  Our reliance on these tools, according to this logic, weakens our reliance on ourselves.  It is at best a distraction, at worst a dependence, which is why, over and over again, these stories are framed as addiction narratives. "I've tried various strategies to limit my time online," James Sturm laments in his first post about his decision to go without the Internet altogether. "But nothing has worked for long. More and more hours of my life evaporate in front of YouTube. Supposedly addiction isn't a moral failing, but it feels as if it is."  Hi, I'm James, and I'm an Interwebz addict.

Henry David Thoreau is here for you, James -- and for you, Katrina, and all you other techno-junkies trying to come to grips with your pathetic desire to remain a functioning member of the wired world.  Thoreau groused all the way back in 1854 that, "Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things.  They are but improved means to an unimproved end . . . .  We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate." Oh, Henry, if only there'd been Twitters on the outskirts of Concord, MA back in your day. We'd love to hear you rip into that!

Our point is not to dismiss the substance of some of the claims being made about human-computer interaction these days. There is little doubt that massive amounts of time get wasted in a range of more or less trivial pursuits online and that our techno-toys often serve to distract us from the quiet desperation of lives that feel meaningless or beyond our control. (Oil spill got you down? Click here and get a new cow for your fake farm! Don't worry! Be happy!) We are also eager to see what further neurological research will reveal about whether heavy usage of communications devices is actually rewiring our brains and, if it is, whether that rewiring is clearly detrimental to the brain's functioning or simply benign.

Rather, our point is that this kind of ambivalence toward technology has a long, thick history in the United States.  Americans have been frantically searching for spaces in the world and in themselves supposedly untouched by the techno-industrial machineries of modern life for hundreds of years. That yearning is steeped in privileges of race, class, sex, and technological access. (We give Sturm credit for at least acknowledging the irony of documenting his experiment in living offline in an online publication.) You are not a gadget is the title and the central claim of Jaron Lanier's important yet finally romantic manifesto about the threats to "individual intelligence" posed by the "pack mentality" supposedly encouraged by Web 2.0 designs. We have never been human, Moose has always wanted to reply to that claim, channeling the philosophical core of Donna Haraway's argument in When Species Meet. (Romantic or not, Lanier's book is on the syllabus for the blogging course Moose will start teaching in a couple of weeks. She looks forward to grappling with it in a class of digital natives.)

We have never been human -- In other words:  We have always been gadgets, more or less.  Unplug, darlings. Tell your inbox to go f*ck itself. Take a walk or a hike. Get down on your knees and swear with dog as your witness you'll never play Farmville again. Knock yourselves out, but don't for one second imagine that in doing so you separate yourself from techno-culture. We dream of a world above, beyond, or outside this sad, sullied place, but where is it, my pretties? Have you seen it? Come back to the raft -- but rest assured that GPS will guide you home. You may not be human, but you still have to figure out how to survive in this world. You'll be better prepared for that task if you cut the crap and acknowledge that the problem, whatever it is, is not in our gadgets but in ourselves. Mark Twain understood that. Do you? Oh, how I hope you do. Peace out.


  1. Awesome. I love everything about this post. I'd spend time expanding on just *why* I love it, but I have to separate myself from the laptop now to commune with my TV.

  2. I wonder if smoke signals were the pre-twentieth-century equivalent of blog posts.

  3. Right again as always, Roxie Smith Lindemann. It's why we try to modify ourselves and create a 2.0 version that has a little balance. (My current version involves no Twitter, NYTimes, or Facebook.)

  4. Yes, AWESOME post, Rox, and right on in every way. Love your conclusion, which resonates with this ole Goose. . . .just when she's blaming the problem, whatever it is, on something getting in her way, she finally knows deep down that it's herself! But we have never been human and we have always had our distracting gadgets. Still, I would love to know what Hank Thoreau would have to say about Twitter. . . .

    Keep going, Rox! And THANK YOU.

  5. Anonymous9:07 PM EDT

    a great post, roxie. here's a question: do you think there's more addiction with the screen technology because the light/movement is stimulating our brains in ways that produce feel-good dopamine, disrupt long-term concentration, require more and more 'hits,' etc? this is what i'm gleaning from the recent neuroscience, and also from watching my own behavior/responses with more, and less, of facebook, email, etc.

  6. Oooooh, I think you're way ahead of me on the neuroscience, Anon. Is the evidence really tending to support the idea that this stuff is addictive? We were just musing on the cultural compunction to frame it in those terms without thinking that's what it might actually be. On the other hand, on those long days when my typist can barely speak or make eye contact after punching out a big post, I'd say she looks a lot like a junkie jonesing for her next fix.

  7. GlassPen6:15 PM EDT

    took awhile to absorb long post and all the supplemental reading (note to self: prefer hotlinks to footnotes or ref lists). it should not take a neuroscientist to point out that brains need rest, same as bodies do after exercise. sleep studies have discussed this for a long time now (no, I don't have citations to hand) can literally die from lack of sleep.
    a buddhist--or any meditation practitioner--would agree that it is all about *attention*...or maybe you'd say, focus. assuming arguendo that everything you do builds up habits of one kind or another, what kind of habits do these electronic devices promote? attention may be very focussed, but fleeting, if you do a lot of texting or play video games, etc. apparently this is excellent training if you are going to be a fighter pilot. meditators value prolonged attention to one thing (or "nothing")...which is the sort of focus that is needed for the kind of thinking and work that writers (including bloggers?) and academicians do. there is, of course, a fair range of activities in between that require different levels of focus to attain competence...though it does annoy me greatly during my long commutes that other drivers are not sufficiently focussed on the task at hand, thereby endangering me!
    so...what do you want to do, and how do you want to do it? that would argue for more gadget time or more meditation time (or substitute activities that appeal). really, it's not about the gadget.

  8. Spot on, GlassPen: "What do you want to do, and how do you want to do it?" What manner/mode of attention is best suited for the kind of task you are trying to perform? The Aristotelian wisdom of moderation in all things might be helpful here, too. All brains need breaks, and all bodies need rest, as you note.

    Oh, and my typist insists that extraordinary focus is required for blogging, but I'm not sure what grounds she has for making such a claim.

  9. Loving this post, realizing need to return to hit links missed, realize with horror (mid 20th cent. boundary thinking) that not sure if old lady retired fem therapist should put foot in comments.

    Wish so hard that comparably thoughtful retirees, as in "always on vacation," would blog. Yours is a model for the practice--personal + political. Thanks for this, will have to see where I can go in my own space.

  10. Hey, we love us some old lady retired fem therapists around here, Naomi. Welcome to Roxie's World! Thanks for the kind words about our blogging practice, which we do aim to make a blend of personal and political, being not exactly young lady fem lit types ourselves. Hope to see you again.

  11. What's fascinating in this rash of vacation/exile from technology stories is the persistence of the fantasy that one can and should endeavor to separate oneself from technologies that are perceived as threats to the self.

    And whatte is also fascinating is the moralizing thatte accompanies this shitte. What is the moral principle that makes it better for a buncha fucken d00ds to dicke around in the woodes drinking fucken beer and shooting the shitte for a weeke than it is to dicke around on the Internet reading blogges for a weeke? Hmm?


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