As a young journalist, in France, I worked in the newspaper which first introduced computers in its editorial office and trained writers to use them. That was in the early eighties, and the computers were ugly, bulky machines with black screens and green letters. Later, when I became a translator, I also worked for the first publishing house to use computers in France. Instead of printing out two copies of my manuscript, the way my other publishers requested me to do it, I would simply bring the large, black square floppy disk containing my finished assignment to the editor. The computers were still enormous, the screen was still black, and the letters bright orange. And in the late nineties, when I lived in New York City, that same publisher was among the first to allow translators to email the completed manuscript as an attachment instead of mailing hard disks which were by then much smaller. The Internet also allowed me to forget about carting my hefty bilingual dictionary around. Research became so much easier. And then, in Nigeria, I discovered online writing communities; In India, online writing courses and blogging, and Facebook. It is hard to imagine life without all these medias, today.
Facebook allows me to keep in contact with people who live hundreds and thousands of miles away. It also keeps me informed. This is how I read most of my news. And even as I recognize the increasing Orwellian quality of our world , I can’t, nor do I wish to renounce the many advantages of being connected. But I’m an adult. A flawed adult, but an adult nevertheless. I have had time to develop a reasonably discerning, critical mind which allows me to recognize the dangers of technology. Also, as a dinosaur born half a century ago, my mind was shaped at a time when we actually read books from beginning till end, when we still knew how to sit and listen to entire pieces of music, to watch entire movies or TV shows. The world was not fragmented in bite size, pre-digested segments, movies could be slow, even contemplative. We could sit in a car, watch the world go by, and not whine about being bored only a few minutes into a journey. And if we did, no one gave us a DVD player, or a DS, or an i-Pad to keep us occupied. I remember trips from Paris to Malaga, in the south of Spain: 1800 Kms in a car, with usually one overnight stop in the middle, and what did we do? We sang songs in canon, told jokes, argued, or slept.
What about our young people today? Teenagers, and even pre-teens? What about these kids who seem to have mobile phones surgically attached to their hands, some of them not even 10 years old ? These kids who are requested to use computers for Homework, and work on their Maths, Sciences or English projects, (or should I say try to) even as they have half a dozen or more applications running: Google chat, Skype, emails, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and all the other social networks, new ones, older ones that I discover every day (the last one, Ask.fm, allows you to ask other users questions, with the option of remaining anonymous, and it has been linked with cyber bullying and several teenagers suicides in recent past.)
As a teen, when I was not in class, or doing homework, I could usually be found reading, playing my piano, or day-dreaming or singing in my room. We were not into sports, which is not necessarily a good thing, just the way things were in my family, but other kids my age might have been practicing a sport, or another instrument. When I was bored with Homework, I’d open the drawer under my desk, lay a novel there and read, quickly pushing the drawer close when I heard my parents coming down the corridor. After I turned 16, I was allowed to go to the movies with my friends. I still remember how Saturday Night Fever and Grease shook my world. I got the Grease record for my birthday, and listened to it over, and over, and over again. Oh, and we had one telephone with a rotary dial (a what?) and the curly cord plugged into a wall socket. All my parents had to worry about was my running huge phone bills when my best friend moved from Paris to a city north of the capital, and it only happened once. Mostly, we wrote each other 18-page letters. By hand. Of course, while working on this lengthy correspondence, I was not solving Maths problems, translating Latin texts, or memorizing German vocabulary lists. But at least, I was practicing a skill. What skill do kids practice, nowadays, when they exchange messages with truncated, acronymed groups of words? Certainly not spelling or syntax. Of course, I often used these abbreviated forms myself, nowadays, when texting. But I learned to spell words properly, first. But then, some people will say that nowadays, with spell checkers, who needs to know how to spell, and all I can do, then, is experience an intense feeling of desolation.
How can parents possibly keep up with all the gadgets and Cyber distractions available? I almost feel as if I must do the rounds, each evening, to make sure that my teenager doesn’t stay on a smart phone, or an i-Pod, or an i-Pad, or her computer until 2 in the morning, texting with her friends or watching You Tube videos under the covers of her bed.
And let’s talk about it. I love it. You Tube is fun. It’s great. It serves me the whole world onto a rectangular screen, from recipes, to dance steps, to TED talks, to TV shows I cannot watch where I live (Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, Bill Maher, yes, I love knowing I can find them any time I need a recreation). But our children, what does it give them? Most importantly, what does it do their brains, to constantly watch this barrage of over sexed music videos showing women in various states of undress contorting themselves on sandy beaches or on the back seats of stretch Limos, when they’re not hanging from lianas in the jungles? And what about shows like the X Factor, that seem to promise the world to everyone, and make it look as if it’s easy, as if all you have to do is show up and sing and everyone goes berserk and claps and cries and screams adoringly! Or the way some singers are hailed as great singers, when in my opinion all they do is shout (anyone else out there wonders what the big deal is about Adèle?) Last year, our teen said she wanted to play the guitar. We bought her a guitar, we paid for guitar lessons (on top of the piano lessons, that was the condition), and after six months, she decided she no longer needed lessons, and would continue on her own. Of course, the guitar now sits on its stand, gathering dust. If you ask my daughter about the piano, which she gave up a few months ago (we were in the middle of a move, and I didn’t have the energy to continue fighting that battle), she’ll tell you that she knows how to play and doesn’t need to take any more lessons. What can I do, when I hear that, but roll my eyes, bite my tongue, and chant internal mantras about adolescence being a normal, necessary phase in life, knowing I’m only good at the first one, and terrible at the other twos?
But I digress. Or do I?
One of my friends likes to claim that her children (slightly younger than mine, I’m waiting to see if she can keep it up) are not allowed any computer time, or barely. I respect that, and yet, find it an impractical solution. I don’t even think I could implement it in our house. Not with an IB school system that relies so heavily on technology, using the irrefutable argument that our children need to be able to function in tomorrow’s world, a world that no longer uses rotary-dial telephones or typewriters. Clearly, the way we educate our children today is, for the most part, on the verge of total obsolescence. I recognize that. I understand the value of introducing them to new languages like Internet coding. But how do we avoid the pitfalls as we negotiate the transition into this new era?
The school does try to educate them: they have talks and assemblies on Digital Citizenship. Facebook, and now Ask.fm, are banned from the school computers, on campus – but of course, most kids have their smart phones or tablets and access these networks via Wifi. And what about the time they don’t spend on campus?
At my request, my daughter now leaves the school laptop at school before she comes home at the end of the day. If she or her sister need the computer to work on a school project, they save it to Drive, and use one of our home computers. I purchased two applications to help me control the time spent on the computer. If they need to do research, I run the Anti-Social application that automatically blocks Facebook, Twitter, and any other social network of my choice, for the amount of time that I choose. If there is no research involved, I run Freedom, which blocks access to the Internet, again for a time chosen by the user. It helps. A little. So long as I’m there to launch the application. And too bad if it makes me feel like a police constable.
Have I turned into one of these conservative grumpy old farts who cannot tolerate the way the world changes before their eyes? Do I need to relax and trust that all will be well, in the end? A friend of mine, who refuses to use Facebook, also says that she doesn’t want to know what her son (a few years older than my daughters) is up to, and if she used it, would not even consider being his friend on Facebook. What you don’t know cannot hurt you. Is this the way to go about it? Look the other way?
It’s like a massive tide, over powering, unavoidable. We can try our best to keep our children occupied in as sane a manner as possible (sports, music, travels), and continue to be self-appointed home police constables. Mostly, we can take a deep breath, ride that wave, and hope that our children will make it to the other side, safe and sound. With the understanding that while they ride that technological tsunami, they must also learn the skills to strive, and possibly succeed in this ever-more competitive world.