Can we embrace innovation AND nostalgia?

by Kristin on April 21, 2011

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by MJ/TR

Some days it seems I’ll never catch up on my work. When you don’t have clear work hours or a consistent work location, it’s especially easy to let work spill over into life.

That’s what happened as our family drove to Michigan last weekend. It was Saturday, family time, and I was sneaking in a bunch of responses to comments at my blog—typing them painstakingly out on my phone, mind you, which is not an easy task. I have to admit, I felt much better when I was caught up on my responses—more relaxed going into the weekend. A task that had been hanging over me and repeatedly pushed aside was checked off my list.

“I should have bought the iPad with the 3G network,” I said to Jason, imagining all I could accomplish if I had constant internet access AND a more reasonably-sized keyboard. But as soon as I imagined how wonderful it would be, I also felt oppressed, and a bit melancholy. Would I really want to make it easier to get stuff done in the car? At the park? At a campground or cottage? Sure, my iPhone makes a lot of that possible, but there are many tasks I just don’t want to do on a device that small. Maybe that is a blessing in disguise.

Recognizing what we might lose

I started thinking about the very long road trips my family took when I was a kid. My mom read books aloud to us, or we listened to the radio (my dad had a knack for finding Prairie Home Companion wherever we were). We talked about things we saw as we drove across the country, played word games with signs and license plates, and sometimes even sang songs. (Peter, Paul and Mary, anyone? I was, after all, born in the 1970s.)

A few months ago I heard an NPR commentary by a man who was bemoaning the way road trips have changed since he and his partner got smart phones (I tried to find it, but couldn’t). His nostalgia really resonated with me. Since Jason and I got together five years ago, many of our best conversations have taken place in the car. It’s not that we talk about big, heavy relationship issues as much as we tend to tell stories from our childhoods, and speculate how past experiences and relationships have impacted who we are today. We also talk about things we’ve read, and about our plans and ideas for the future. It’s the kind of easy, organic conversation that runs both deep and wide as the miles stretch behind and before us. When you think about it, life doesn’t give us many opportunities to talk in that way.

Remembering who’s the boss of the technology

The more I think about all of that, and about my fleeting wish for a 3G iPad, the more I believe we need to carefully consider what we risk losing as we gain so much mobility and capacity through technology. I’m obviously not the first person to raise this question, and it isn’t the first time I’ve thought about it. A few months ago I instated a “no computer work after 10 pm” policy for myself, in an effort to carve out time for reading, knitting, and hanging out with Jason. But there was something about the idea of working in the car, on a family trip, that really stopped me in my tracks.

I love technology, and I love all of the ways it’s made my life easier and broadened my community. I’m not going to say I wish all the innovators would just stop and leave things as they are. The real issue, I think, lies with us, the users, who are prone to eagerly adopting each new toy that comes along, without pause or broader consideration. We tend to only see the tool and the task it helps us accomplish in the moment, rather than the bigger picture—our real-life relationships, our priorities, how we divvy up our time, what old thing we’re sacrificing when we embrace something new.

It’s a lot like collecting coins, or curating a museum collection—it can be hard to see the value in something that seems so commonplace and unremarkable in the moment. But if we all agree to be more aware and deliberate—both in our minds and in our conversations with our partners, children, and others—I think we’ll eventually look back and feel very grateful for what we’ve preserved, as well as for the innovations we’ve gained.

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  • The Modern Gal

    I never realized how much of a grip technology had on me until I started putting my cell phone and computer away when I had a Sunday off work. I always feel so amazing at the end of those days, and when I next log in to my phone or computer, I realize I haven’t missed much.

    I notice this too on car trips or even at the dinner table. My fiance and I try to make a point to put our computers and phones away, but they sneak in there occasionally, and I feel like we might as well be in two different states than be in the same car or at the same table. And have you noticed how many people will talk loudly on their cell phones in restaurants?? It seems so rude, and yet most people don’t think anything of it.

    For the same reason as you’ve mentioned, I’ve resisted the iPad — if my phone and computer already intrude on sacred places, where will the iPad go?

  • Lisa

    This was part of the reason for my “clear the table of everything for dinner” Lent discipline. Some technology is more seductive than others but in the end anything can get its grip on us if we are not attentive and make our own conscious decisions. I mentioned reading “The Four-Hour Work Week” earlier this year. Still do not like the “deceive your boss” suggestions – that’s not honest and I want a life of integrity in all aspects – but the comments on make decisions about how one invests one’s time being even more important than how one invests one’s money … spot on. Thinking about my time as an investment rather than a spending account has been a useful shift in my mental model.

  • anieva

    This is so interesting. Just two days ago I was listening to an interview on, I think, NPR about plastics and how they have made life better for us but also how toxic they can be.

    And, this is the point that people don’t seem to get: we need to take the best of the old and the new. Just look at plastic. I mean, not everything has to be unbreakable and light. But when you’re talking about – as the show seemed to suggest – the vinyl bags that are used for blood collection and enable one donor to supply three different recipients with needed blood (as opposed to glass bottles and procedures that are much more limited), then probably we’ve found something worth preserving.

    So why not cut down on the huge super-sized soda containers at fast food places, so we don’t produce quite so much plastic. Save it for important things. But this takes a shift in the public paradigm that is so difficult to create.

    I suppose my idea to bring back occasional use of the horse and buggy for quick trips for errands on main street will never catch on ;)

  • anieva

    In other words, you’re right. The users have to change how they think.

    Thanks for the post.

  • Kristin T.

    The Modern Gal, your comment about feeling amazing made me think of something Jason and I have often observed in kids: The more time they spend on the computer or playing a DS game, etc., the more grouchy they become, especially when it comes to human interactions. And I think we’re more strict than most about how much time they can spend doing that! Anyway, it makes me wonder if it’s not just a kid problem–we’re all impacted in deep ways by screen time, but maybe adults are just better at masking it.

    Lisa, yes! Your Lenten dinner table practice is a great example of being aware and deliberate, and creating boundaries for yourself. I also love the idea of time being something to invest–not just in terms of the pay out, of course, but also in what we get back, in the long term. I usually think about time more in terms of “spending” or “wasting” than “investing.” Thanks for that!

    anieva, I’m with you! When some great innovation comes along, that doesn’t mean we have to throw out everything that was and embrace what’s new. We need to think critically–where does this make sense in my life, and where doesn’t it? Are there good alternatives for certain uses? Plastic is a great example. Once my awareness was raised I began using it less and less.

  • Alise

    Like you, my favorite conversations happen in the car. I love my weekly drives with my daughter on our way to her youth group. One week a friend called her when we were just heading out and she said, “I’ll call you later, I’m going to talk to my mom right now.” That totally made my day.

    My best friend is my best friend because when we first got to know each other, it was in two long car trips with our band. Before Jason and I were married, we lived a few hours apart and when we had many conversations in the car driving between one home and another and I know that those are some of my favorites. When we got our most recent family van, we got one with a DVD player in it for the kids, but really, we almost never use it. We’d just rather interact with one another.

    There’s just something special about those trips.