July 2008


On the home front:

I have two preschool-aged sons, and this summer, I have slipped into letting them watch a LOT of TV. For me, a lot means between 2 and 3 hours a day. It’s all qubo or PBS or educational kid videos, but I have always viewed TV as an unquestionable evil. Yesterday, however, much to my surprise, I had some compassionate thoughts about the poor maligned television. Or maybe just some compassionate thoughts about myself as a parent – that my great struggle to limit their TV watching is not purely my personal weakness, and that there are greater powers at work here.

It occurred to me that the nature of work has changed drastically in just one generation. My work, for instance, as an editor and writer (such as it is), has changed drastically in just ten years – whereas I did most of my editing work on hard copies up to, say, five years ago, now I do ALL of it on the computer. I’m sure the shift from hard- to soft-copy has happened in virtually every discipline – what we used to use our hands to do, we now do on the computer. Kids’ play is going to reflect this, too. The reason why it’s so hard for me to do physical things with my kids ALL day is because I have gotten out of the habit of physicality myself. Also, the grownup goal of play now is to sit in front of a computer. The way we entertain ourselves has reflected this, the workplace is reflecting this, and our parenting/home life will reflect this more and more.

And for some reason, realizing this made me relax a little bit. It’s not just me; it’s our whole society moving in this direction. It’s much bigger than my individual will or my individual values. Surely we got here as a society because we uncritically accepted each new form of media as unquestioned progress, and surely the way out is to together begin to assess the strengths and weaknesses of each form of media as a tool and not a god. But day-to-day, we can take the pressure off of ourselves as parents – it’s bigger than just us. Not to be fatalistic, but to shed unhelpful and paralyzing guilt.

And shedding that paralyzing guilt has the direct benefit of releasing energy to think of a small thing I CAN do each day to get closer to my goal of one hour of TV a day. For instance, one thing I know I need to get better at is inviting people over during the day so the full weight of being project manager for my kids doesn’t fall solely on me. I’m the polar opposite of a camp counselor – I’d rather be sitting (i.e. not moving), reading a book or writing, any moment of the day – just like I did almost everyday as a kid. I’ve always had a struggle with being active, with being embodied – I’ve always been just one big brain. That’s my personality and my habit, and my culture certainly reinforces that physically passive tendency. My kids are crazy-active, and love being physical. I’m ready to dump the guilt that I’m rotting their brains, admit that I have a pretty passive idea of fun, and get some help from other parents who are more active than I. I don’t have to be everything to my kids – and then, as I collapse, turn on the TV in despair. Even though I can’t instantly change the screen-dependence of our culture (and I certainly want my kids to be equipped to fully enter into such a culture, if only to effectively change it), I can at least get some help from some friends on a daily or weekly basis. Parenting has become such an isolating activity, but it doesn’t have to be.

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Forgive the length of this post: it’s my first one and I guess I’m a little pent up.

I was flipping through the book Wikinomics at the bookstore the other day, intrigued by the title and hoping to find a nuanced assessment of how the virtual workplace and free-agent employment is changing the landscape of economics and our culture. I was disappointed to discover that the book seemed to polarize the discussion of the virtual workplace along the old same unhelpful line: the virtual, collaborative workplace is wholly good and here to stay, and the only ones who resist or criticize it are the old stick-in-the-mud corporation-minded business owners or cultural elites who have everything to lose in this new model. In other words, the virtual workplace represents progress, and its critics are simply afraid to lose the power and commodities they gained under either the bricks-and-mortar corporation model or the publisher-as-quality-control model.

Wikinomics reads with all the blind fervor of a political manifesto for the virtual workplace – it dismissed concerns about work relationships, for instance, by simply saying that a person’s new community would be a virtual one via email and shared online projects – glossing over the very real concern about the importance of tangible relationships with PEOPLE, who you can physically see and touch, and who know where you live. Say your colleague in California has become your “best friend,” as a result of deeply shared interests and time spent collaborating on online projects (and spending time with whom has caused the neglect and dissolution of other face-to-face relationships). Is he going to be able to help you move into your new house in Virginia? Is he going to be able to meet you for a drink when your relationship with your significant other is on the rocks (no pun intended)? Perhaps on Second Life, but not in the real world. Virtual relationships are the junk food of relationships, speaking in terms of long-term sustainability: they enhance the enjoyment of everyday life, but they do not sustain us. Unfortunately they mask our hunger for real relationship enough so that it may feel like they sustain us, especially if they’re all we’ve got, but if we could see the state of our soul, it would be seriously malnourished. We may not look like we’re starving- we may even look indulgently overweight – but we’re only filled with empty calories. We’re only relating with information at best; facades at worst.

Switching sides, I was educated under the assumptions of the reverse perspective (but same pole): intellectual elites turning up their nose at the virtual workplace (especially virtual publishing or blogs) because there was no “quality control” – just mass chaos and mediocre thought. Virtual learning was by nature a hack job; self-publishing was for second-rate writers whose work just wasn’t up to real publishers’ standards.

But it takes the same kind of blind faith to believe that the profit-driven mega-publishing companies are sentinels of quality control. If what you have to say is risky, and won’t make money, it won’t get published by the big names. Writers have figured this out a long time ago, and now there’s actually a venue for them to disseminate their ideas that isn’t dependent on profit. One can’t help but remember Thomas Paine and Common Sense, and how the ubiquitousness of the printing press (an instructive parallel to the internet in terms of communication technology) galvanized the loosely-linked colonies under a single idea – revolution – when most had resigned themselves to capitulate to the King’s commands. Accessible grassroots technology made that happen – not the nod from the powers that be (or were).

The common fallacy here is that both sides, the ardent supporters of mass virtual collaboration and the resistant elites, assume that the virtual world, as “progressive” and “popular,” is a monolithic entity that can’t be assessed and limited and changed. It’s either good or bad – and keeping the conversation in such black and white terms reveals that we have already fallen prey to what Neil Postman calls “technopoly” – when technology controls society, rather than society controlling technology as a tool. If technology is a tool, then we are its masters, and we can discern (either face-to-face in meetings or in the virtual workplace, take your pick) what this particular tool is good for. Once we determine what it’s good for, what its proper use is, then we learn how to use it well, and how not to use it in destructive ways. For example, we might wholeheartedly use the internet to disseminate ideas, but we might not use it as our primary source of relationships. The internet – and all of technology, for that matter – does not have a mind of its own. We must not uncritically accept whatever is possible – or whatever is already happening – as progress and therefore inevitable. “The latest thing” is not our master. Technology is not our master. We must master it, and get nuanced and specific about what precisely is helpful and harmful. Only then can we use it responsibly and sustainably as the powerful tool that it is.