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Technology: omnipresent, not omnipotent

April 28, 2011

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

Thomas Edison (1847-1931) holds an honored place among our nation’s most prolific inventors. The lightbulb and phonograph are featured among the 1,093 U.S. Patents issued in his name.

Edison left behind 3,500 journals crammed with invention ideas. Jotted notes and rough sketches present a rambling display of American ingenuity. Anyone who invents — or writes for that matter — understands the importance of committing an idea to paper in the moment it materializes.

Working in his lab in West Orange, N.J., in January 1888, Edison penned a list of “things doing and to be done.” Samplings from this five-page catalogue of creativity include “deaf apparatus,” “ink for the blind” and “cotton picker.” Was Edison envisioning hearing aids or cochlear implants? Did he imagine audio books for the visually impaired? Might he have anticipated mechanized crop harvesting?

I am not an inventor. My mind is not particularly adept at unraveling problems involving technology. For years, a small index card was taped to our lawn mower with hand-written notes on how to start our John Deere. My cell phone is a cheap, pre-paid gizmo. I can retrieve messages, but don’t text or take photos. Facebook remains an enigma. I have a “page” but don’t really do anything with it. I prefer face-to-face interactions. Call me oldfashioned.

At work, I’m the “go to” person for questions regarding spelling, grammar and occasional obscurities of history. When it comes to technology — navigating databases, learning new software and demystifying social media — I struggle. Technology greases the skids of the modern workplace and I must learn certain aspects to remain competitive. Patient colleagues teach and re-teach lessons which inexplicably fall out of my head.

I feel most grateful for technologies that improve human health. Radiation shrank my father’s cancerous tumors when I was pregnant with my daughter, buying him precious time to meet his newest grandchild. Magnetic Resonance Imaging and CT Scans save lives, facilitating early detection of maladies. Dialysis keeps people alive — literally. Lasers correct vision, and electrocardiograms reveal hints of heart disease.

My approach to what I consider “recreational technology” is decidedly a la carte as opposed to buffet. I pick and choose technologies. An inherent introverted nature means I am easily wearied by multiple messages winking and blinking, taunting a reply. We don’t pay for Caller ID. Each time our telephone rings, the identity of the caller is truly a surprise. Our house lacks Wi-Fi, leaving the quietest corners free from electronic invasion. We share Internet access, invoking natural limits on usage. We don’t download Netflix, preferring to support locally owned outlets. Change is inevitable. Delaying opt-in is entirely deliberate.

Twenty-four-hour-a-day, seven day a week connectivity sounds exhausting. The technology wave sometimes feels absolutely invasive, an overwhelming tsunami of data. Do I really want my boss or my dentist’s receptionist to reach me on vacation?

A phone rattling with a new message issues forth a squirt of dopamine, like a shot of caffeine. What are the social, emotional and physiological consequences of all of this “alertness?” Who really wants to be available 24/7? Even if we shut off our myriad devices, the messages are there, waiting like a pile of unanswered mail demanding attention with beeps, blinks and tremors.

As the parent of a teen, I sometimes worry about the pervasive nature of technology. This has prompted much conversation and negotiation as we have navigated the sea called progress. Cell phone, iPod, iPad and iTouch screens require healthy boundaries. The unlimited nature of these gadgets can raise stress levels.

I don’t have all the answers. I do, however, detect heightened anxiety and angst within a society perpetually turned on by technology. Here’s what some of the experts are saying:
Pew Research Center:  One in three teens sends more than 100 text messages a day or 3,000 texts a month. Teens’ attachment to their phones is a frequent source of family conflict.

Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital Boston: Teens engaged in excessive cell phone use have been found to be at greater risk of anxiety and depression.
Kaiser Family Foundation: American youths, aged 8-18, spend an average of 7 hours 38 minutes engaged in “entertainment media” on a daily basis.

National Sleep Foundation: Almost 1 in 5 teens are awakened by a phone call or text message at least a few nights a week.

The above entities are not technological naysayers. Their research is grounded in very real science, the kind of science Edison so creatively invoked. They each offer websites providing facts, figures and strategies for navigating a technological landscape characterized by omnipresence.

Distraction, dozing off and sleep-deprived grumpiness may dull the blade of American ingenuity. We owe it to our kids to be mindful consumers of technology, avoiding consumption for consumption sake.

I believe reserving time and space for solitude, reflection and face-to-face conversation are vital to the preservation of our humanity … and our inventiveness. If you happen to agree, let’s start a real, old-fashioned conversation.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at [email protected] or [email protected]

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