Negotiating Technology

Negotiating Technology

Amish settlements have become a cliché for refusing technology. Tens of thousands of people wear identical, plain, homemade clothing, cultivate their rich fields with horse-drawn machinery, and live in houses lacking that basic modern spirit called electricity. But the Amish do use such 20th-century consumer technologies as disposable diapers, in-line skates, and gas barbecue grills. Some might call this combination paradoxical, even contradictory. But it could also be called sophisticated, because the Amish have an elaborate system by which they evaluate the tools they use; their tentative, at times reluctant use of technology is more complex than a simple rejection or a whole-hearted embrace. What if modern Americans could possibly agree upon criteria for acceptance, as the Amish have? Might we find better ways to wield technological power, other than simply unleashing it and seeing what happens? What can we learn from a culture that habitually negotiates the rules for new tools? (via)

I often feel like a great contradiction; I have long been an advocate and avid user of technology (having been on every computer since the Commodore 64 & Apple ][) but at the same time have completely resisted so much of it – it took me years to get a cell phone. And although I’ve been online since 1988 and had a web page since 1995, I am really hesitant about spending lots of time reading other blogs and updating my own. I love connection and sharing information but still feel confused about Twitter and Facebook. I totally keep up to date on everything new media and tech because I both love and work in it but at the same time I read lots of books, garden and spend a great deal of time outdoors, disconnected.

Over the past two years I’ve had a really hard time trying to put all of this into words and accurately describe (or even catch up) to how I’m feeling about technology as more of it’s created and incorporated at crazy speeds. Because it’s not going away and really, I don’t want it to. It’s just trying to figure how to be a part of it instead of swept up in it.

With the addition of Twitter, RSS Feeds, and Facebook, I’ve found myself receiving the same bits of information several times over. For example, I used to just subscribe to a blogs feed and access their info that way. But if that person is on Twitter, they’ll also tweet about their new post and link to it. If they’re on Facebook, chances are their Twitter hits their Facebook profile and I’ll get an update there, too. LinkedIn now offers the same. So instead of getting one piece of information one way, I’m getting the same information 3 or 4 different ways which results in an overload.

But what happens if you then remove that person from your Twitter feed? Will they think you aren’t their friend? This has happened to me. People have equated my Twitter removal with a friend removal even though in real life I did a lot more and gave much more support than just clicking “follow” on Twitter. So once you incorporate technology, removing it becomes really hard because of social and sometime business consequences.

A lot of my work is in new media so if I’m not Twittering up a storm or talking about the same things as everyone else or Diggining’ every post, it can seem as though I have no idea about these things. The truth is, I do and almost always know about them from the beginning before main stream thanks to all my geek friends who build the stuff and I get to test it out. But there comes a point where I ask myself, in my personal life, do I need this? How much value does it have to me? How much value does it have to my readers? Am I overloading us both? Am being redundant? Am I just saying whats already said to several mediums just to stay relevant, but not even really being relevant?

Now lets add in the iPhone of which I have had for a couple of years. After my 4 year old more than basic cell phone died I decided to get an iPhone so I wouldn’t have to worry about upgrading for a long time and liked the idea of music/phone. But when people see mine, they think I’m insane. You only have three apps? they ask. Do you need helping knowing about apps? No, I’ll tell them. I’m actually up on a lot of apps, I know what’s out there, I know what’s being built it’s just that my needs don’t require them. I don’t want to be able to do everything all the time on my phone. It used to be if I didn’t have my computer with me, people understood not getting an email right away or me checking out their Flickr or their new MySpace page. But then laptops came to be and so vacationing got really hard. Now with the iPhone, every minute, every day, everywhere you can access every thing.

There’s no reason to miss an email, an update, a YouTube video, or everything you friend ate that day. In fact, I feel like all this technology and access has prevented us from doing more and instead made us monitor more. How much of your day is just catching up on what other people are (uselessly) doing? How much of your information intake is actually propelling you to a better life? How much is just a big time suck but you feel like you just have to keep up with your friends, comment on their status, read that popular blog post or contribute your own for fear of being irrelevant, seeming unhip or worse, out of touch.

I feel the need to reiterate that I love technology and am thankful for the web; it’s provided me a fantastic career and I’ve met the most amazing friends and counterparts because of it. There are so many amazing communities and sites out there from technology to health to home and travel that I have found more than useful, inspirational and just plain fun. But even though so much of my life is incorporated into new media and technology, I don’t want my life to be 100% about it. I don’t want to know that much about everyone or feel obligated to comment on every post or fear that not Digging will make me look stupid as will bailing out on this years SXSW. It’s so easy to get caught up in technology and make some things seem bigger and more important than they are instead of really thinking about each bit of technology’s use to each of us and finding whats really important to us as individuals and making all of that work.

Reading how the Amish use technology really struck a chord with me because I feel like I am constantly negotiating and choosing what to use and how it works for me. Yet I often feel like an outcast for doing so or worse, a really bad friend because I didn’t update as much as my counterparts or I didn’t acknowledge every single status update of every single friend.

I like the idea of being ‘sophisticated’ for choosing technology instead of a drone doing everything out of fear or greed. And I like the idea of really learning how to incorporate technology that I really do love and really think has great benefits into a world that still needs to have boundaries and breathing space and conversation instead of just giving personal updates.

I’d be curious to know how others navigate the technological waters; do you love getting several of the same updates? Do you feel pressured to comment on others status or follow their every move? Are you Blackberry free? Do you spend too much time surfing the web or do you have a great online/offline balance? Are you really connecting online? Has technology made your life better or harder to keep up with? Do you embrace every bit of technology and see the benefits personally/professionally in doing so or have you seen more benefits in being selective?

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18 Comments

  1. CarlaNo Gravatar
    March 4, 2009 / 5:14 PM

    I struggle with the same issues. Two years ago I got a Blackberry to stay in touch with family, friends and keep an eye on email, etc…I felt like I was living in my Blackberry (as did my husband). I constantly was checking it for messages and surfing the web for news. After a year and a half of seeing the world through my Blackberry I removed the wireless plan and returned to phone and texts for communication. Though truthfully, I do not really enjoy talking on the phone so I am tempted to drop it altogether. If it wasn’t for potential emergency calls I would. I too wonder about Twitter, YouTube, FaceBook and the like. I can see the benefits and appreciate being connected but whew, when and where do we get a break? Solitude and space to think–free from others–is essential. Put me down for selective participation in new technologies.

  2. March 4, 2009 / 7:46 PM

    Hi Alex ~
    This felt like such a relief to read. I too love how technology has brought so much into my life that I love, and I adore learning new things. I have however also been known to just flick my cell phone off because I’ll only be away from a land line for 30 minutes, and yet still people ask “Why didn’t you take my call?”. I’ve had to really struggle with reducing which blogs I read and I still struggle with how much I share/subscribe to elsewhere. Life being constantly connected is exhausting for me, and this article both inspired and comforted me at the same time.
    One of the reasons I love your sites is because when you write, it is something I find worthwhile reading ~ thank you.
    Emily.

  3. March 4, 2009 / 8:15 PM

    I spend eight or more hours online while i’m at work and tend to switch on my computer the minute I get home after work for another couple of hours. That’s almost half my waking life on the computer. Despite being ‘connected’ I find myself cut off from friends and family simply because technology is pretty impersonal. We don’t get quality time. SO what i’ve done is make myself take digital diets where I take a complete break from technology on weekends and holidays. That’s when i REALLY connect to people around me.

  4. March 4, 2009 / 10:51 PM

    Alex,’

    As always, insightful and spot-on. I have this love-hate relationship with my cell phone (written way too much about it), but I feel like it should be an option, not a requirement to answer or respond to each call/text msg. So I turn it off or turn the volume down to a simple beep. Most of my family and friends have learned to email and call the landline if they really want to reach me. I love that. I agree with Melissa, I feel it is impersonal. I’d rather spend quality time with those I love most, than the quantity of trying to keep up with everyone and their crew.

    As for facebook, I was just telling the designer tonight how I am a bit concerned at the vast amount of information it contains and vulnerability that comes. It overwhelms me and so I try to only get on once a week. For this reason I steered away from Twitter. Yet I caved and just joined a few weeks ago. I prefer it to Facebook. Twitter seems less complicated, and I feel like I can just get on for a bit, respond to who is there, and move on with my life. Yes, I am a novice, but I think I might stay that way for sanity’s sake. 🙂 When it comes down to it, I’d rather be out biking, exploring with my kiddos and enjoying them. Like you say, it’s all about balance.

  5. Hygge HouseNo Gravatar
    March 4, 2009 / 11:02 PM

    The cell phone has long been an issue for a lot of people but I think we’ve had time to adapt to it, regardless if we like it. It seems like online media, however, is changing so quickly with so many new additions of ways to “connect” that it’s hard to keep up or filter out the stuff you don’t need (like, I really don’t want to be updated on the same thing in 4 different ways but this is getting hard to manage).

    The cell phone for me is a huge issue; when I’m out with friends or in public, I don’t answer it. Ever.

    I got especially frustrated when a girlfriend and I went out to a concert. When I picked her up, she was talking to her BF on the phone. She texted him while we had drinks before the concert. She texted him during the concert. She was also gushing to me all about his sweet txts. But by the time the concert was over, he had broken up with her – via a text message!

    So this whole thing happened over a cell phone and was totally disruptive to our real time get together which was more about her text/phone life than what we were supposedly celebrating together (which we didn’t).

    But then I have to question – is the problem with me or with her? Because so many people do this; texting while out with friends, texting while ordering at starbucks or in line at a store, end and start relationships over text lines or twitter feeds. So if the majority is doing this, am I the crazy one for not doing it, too and then being vocal against it?

    It’s hard to make peace when the expectation seems that we have to participate in it all and keep up to date with everyone and everything. I can’t even imagine throwing TV shows into the mix.

  6. March 5, 2009 / 12:15 AM

    I’m so pleased to read that other people feel the same as me. I follow a blog where there are occasional video postings, which I love. In order to continue viewing these I’ve just had to activate a Facebook account and I have to say, I really don’t understand either the thrill, or workings of it, and don’t intend to try.

    I have a Flickr account for my photos and although I love sharing and viewing other people’s work, I’ve heard that there are many up there who will only comment on your work if you comment on theirs. I wonder if these are the same people who on Facebook, Flickr and their Blogroll have a ludicrous amount of ‘friends’. How can you possibly keep up with all these people – properly?

    I made a decision, long ago, to keep things simple. My Flickr friends are relatively few, my Facebook list is virtually non-existent and my blogroll is extremely short and can’t be publicly viewed. I’ve also kept that list purely to people like you who *do* actually have something to say.

    As for my mobile phone? My family still laugh at me because I carry a cast-off version that my daughter gave me but never, ever switch it on. We managed without them before, we can do so now. In fact, we managed without *all* this technology just 25 years ago and I believe that we were more relaxed and actually better people and better friends.

    As for people texting and answering mobiles whilst in the company of others? I’m sorry, I think that’s just bad manners.

    Modern technology is great but like the Amish, we should definitely strive to use it judiciously, and not simply allow ourselves to be swept up in this great electronic Tsunami that sweeps the globe.

  7. March 5, 2009 / 1:28 AM

    Hi Alex,

    Great post. I, too, have always been a bit of a geek, but I also hate doing what everyone else is doing, so I don’t join the great new thing, even though I know what it is. I blog because I need to write, and I joined Facebook to keep in touch with family and friends.

    However, I’ve found that being in touch with technology really isn’t a substitute for physical contact with someone else. When I’m spending too much time on the computer I’ve found it means I am scared of something in the offline world, and I need to work through that instead. Many people seem to have found their best friends through blogs and Flickr, but since that has never happened to me I think in most cases it’s better to foster relationships with the people near you.

    As for cell phones: I never really use them, but when I do it’s to make plans to go out with people. When my friends and I are hanging out and we make or receive calls, it’s to invite others to come hang out with us. Maybe it’s because we’re all currently studying abroad and therefore can’t call people back home without paying tons, but I think that’s a good use of cell phones. I don’t know if that’s what people normally do, but it seems to work for us.

  8. March 5, 2009 / 2:13 AM

    I was pleasantly surprised to find this topic posted on your blog since this topic has been on my mind for several days now. I go back and forth with the whole technology/social media thing. I simultaneously love it and hate it. I find it somewhat valuable and utterly useless at the same time. Personally, I think it just comes down to having a balance. For me this means using social media to connect to people, but spending more time connecting face to face. It means utilizing the internet to gain exposure for my writing, but mostly just focus on writing. And it even means having more to share online, by living life more fully offline.

  9. March 5, 2009 / 3:25 AM

    Yes! The points you make are so important. I too love some of the things technology has brought to me – especially as I have moved to Istanbul -so far away from family and friends. It has allowed me to see my family (on Skype) and let them see how much my son is grown. It has also provided me with an amazing creative outlet and allowed me to access so much – ideas, images, knowledge that never would have been possible before.

    I sometimes wonder what I would be doing with out it here. But it really can interfere. I now put my laptop away whenever my son is awake so that I can be fully present and connect with him.

    I don’t have a problem with not taking calls until I feel like it and don’t feel the need to comment on status updates etc. Life – real life – is too important for that! I hope that my friends understand this and I think they generally do – they probably feel the same way!

    I am thinking about not doing the facebook thing anymore – I try to think about what I really get out of it – and I have to say not much! If it is important a friend will email me or call me personally!

    Thanks for bringing this up!

  10. March 5, 2009 / 3:28 AM

    This year I decided not to read any online news reports in January, which I usually did constantly. The reason being, that in the race to keep updating, the main events in the news were always being pushed aside for some newer story that was usually trivial. There was so much going on, but not much substance reported. It has now been two months and I still haven’t navigated to those sites. I read one newspaper on the weekend have still been able to join in discussions on what’s going on in the world.

    Similarly, I only read blogs that update with one very simple post a day at the most, or a thoughtful 1-2 per week. I love my iphone, like you, but only have three apps, one of which is the flashlight. And I never listen to my voice mail. Facebook and Twitter intrigue me. I use them, sometimes a lot, but feel somewhat hungover afterward.

    This year I am simplifying things: savouring information rather than devouring it. Afternoon tea with one friend is much more fun than a week of tweets and Facebook pokes with hundreds.

  11. March 5, 2009 / 6:43 AM

    Hej Alex,

    Loved the article on the Amish and the post you wrote. I do not have a cellphone, blackberry, no twittering or stumbling for me, no facebook, hyves or rssfeed either. Still I feel I need to balance my time and the time I spend on the net.
    Love to search for information on the net and all the other lovely things but fairly quick I get the feeling that Im not living and start to feel bored.

    Often I get remarks with the word why incorporated. My answer, I feel no need or obligation to the rest of the world to be constantly available. People respect this answer most of the time and if they do not it is their problem because everybody is always welcome to knock on my frontdoor.

    Thanks again for the post Alex.

    Elizabeth

  12. March 5, 2009 / 8:15 AM

    I have a blog and I love it. I wonder what I did before I had a computer. I don’t really understand Facebook. It seems to be a time sucker to me. I don’t do twitter and I only have a simple cell phone which I seldom use. I’ve had people sit at a dinner and instead of interacting face to face with everyone there, will keep their eyes peeled on their Iphone. I thought it was rude. I’m always amazed to see friends or people on dates taking phone calls or sending text messages instead of just being with the person by their side. I’m must be getting old.

  13. March 5, 2009 / 8:58 AM

    Amen, Sistah! Brilliant points, as usual.

    Your observations and viewpoints really resonate with my own. I especially enjoyed this paragraph:

    “I like the idea of being ’sophisticated’ for choosing technology instead of a drone doing everything out of fear or greed. And I like the idea of really learning how to incorporate technology that I really do love and really think has great benefits into a world that still needs to have boundaries and breathing space and conversation instead of just giving personal updates.”

    I agree wholeheartedly on almost everything, other than you questioning yourself because the majority may be right just because they are the majority. I respect you for actually questioning yourself, something that few people do now, probably due to the fact that they are mindlessly following all of these tech trends!

    I use these things (Twitter, Facebook, newsletter list) only as a tool to reach people and figure that most people do not read all of their feeds, or regularly look at their RSS or side email accounts, and that if they have signed up for more than one of these options that I have a chance of catching their interest possibly through one of these three ways. I rarely read any Tweets or Facebook posts of others. Honestly, I don’t have the time to get sucked in.

    This all calls to mind a book that is a cult classic The Four Arguments For The Elimination Of Television. It’s old (1978), but written by a successful advertiser and about how he eventually could not be in that business anymore. I think a lot of his observations, which are mostly about how people are manipulated by the media and how tv was really created for advertising purposes relates in the sense that aren’t these new “media” sources really created in order for someone to eventually make a buck because advertisers can target large groups of people?

    This perspective might help us all to evaluate if something is really a tool for us, or a tool for someone else’s agenda to reach us- whether it is direct advertising or indirect advertising through building the popularity of someone’s blog, and whether we are okay with that.

    Okay…I could go on and on…wish we could all meet for cofee talk!

  14. March 5, 2009 / 10:35 AM

    This is so bizarre. Last night I was making my way through Kingsolver’s book and came across this passage, which I had read over lunch here. It was like having a little echo of you in my livingroom.

    Anyway, I also agree with the issues being raised here. But wanted to just quickly note that coincidence.

  15. payalNo Gravatar
    March 6, 2009 / 11:04 AM

    I loved this post, Alex. You wrote what I’ve been thinking for a long time. Being married to a techie, I’m up on advances on technology. I just don’t feel that I need to incorporate all of it into my daily life. Yes, friends and co-workers think it’s weird that I deleted my accounts (I deleted facebook years ago and twitter after a week). While these new avenues of social media seem to keep people connected to the world, I miss having deeper conversations with friends either face-to-face or on the phone. I need to see body language and hear intonations during conversations. I can go on and on but what keeps me grounded and prevents me from becoming overwhelmed is spending time with people who respect my position on having human connection and actual conversation. I’m bummed that giving someone direct eye contact has lessened over the years, always heads-down on their phones or laptops.

  16. HeatherNo Gravatar
    March 9, 2009 / 8:21 AM

    Hi Alex

    Great post. First of all you are not alone in these opinions, as evidenced by all of our comments! In fact The Daily Show did a funny comedy bit about exactly what you describe: the technology overload and “a life spent monitoring” rather than doing. I’ve thought about this for awhile, ever since I realized I just wasn’t that into Facebook even though of course I am on there. I think generation plays a role here — generation or perhaps time of life. I can’t comment too much on generation without making utterly unsupportable generalizations, so I’ll talk about time of life. I have too much to do at work and at home to spend time on Facebook catching up with everyone on a daily basis, but I can imagine if I were 22 and had an entry-level job that I was way too smart for, I would have loads of extra time — plus it would be my social lifeblood to spend time doing stupid things like poking people electronically (or whatever that app is), because I would still be young enough that social connections provided me with validity and contributed to my development. I just think younger people live life in packs, so what the crowd is doing is far more important to them and to their development as adults than it is to me. At this point I’ve found a partner, bought a house, developed professionally and am living my own life, not the collective life of the pack. And I think these are normal, healthy stages of development but my point is that time of life colors what and how you interact with various technologies and social phenomenon. I don’t think there is any danger that we won’t collectively “grow out of it.” At least I hope we will! Thanks for all the great writing.

  17. CherylNo Gravatar
    March 12, 2009 / 2:03 PM

    Like others here, I too felt relief and recognition when I read your post. After more than 10 years of a life online – and in the business of supporting online community development, I have been gradually reviewing and changing how I use technology. I used to be an early adopter of gadgets. But I have chosen not to have a Blackberry or an iPhone, and people are surprised. More challenging is the fact that (some)friends, colleagues and clients seem to think I am permanently online and available. They get upset if I don’t reply instantly. I have to explicitly tell people, if you want an instant response, phone me and let me know. I have a Facebook page, and a Twitter profile, a cell and a laptop. I use them all selectivelya nd I choose when I respond. My RSI problems have diminished, I have more time to think and create, and less stress. I’m not anti-technology but am all for selective use of it and better quality of life. Thank you for voicing a profound feeling.

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