Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Big Disconnect...

On our local PBS radio station I listened to Diane Rehm interview Catherine Steiner-Adair who'd written, The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Agewith Teresa H. Barker.  As a reviewer in The Washington Post explains, this book "warns that our rampant use of technology is jeopardizing family connections vital to every child’s well-being."  

From The Christian Science Monitor ...Children as young as six arrive in her office, shaken by what they’ve seen: violent TV news in airport waiting areas; mean messages posted on Facebook; disturbing sexual images accidentally opened on an iPhone. The “magic of the iPad” has replaced the magic of the playground. Today’s children, says Steiner-Adair, are “in over their heads and they need adult help.”  Nor is it simply what our children are exposed to. Equally troubling is what these plugged-in kids are not learning: critical steps in the development process such as empathy, negotiating skills, impulse control, sustained attention, and the capacity to be alone and connect with oneself. She laments the loss of boredom – which this plugged-in generation seldom feels – as the critical first step to creativity.

Now, as a parent and an educator, I truly understand the issues and concerns about the way in which we have allowed technology to invade our lives and that of our children.  I love TV — but I know the pervasiveness of media and technology has its costs and for all we gain (more about that another time), there are losses.  To someone my age it IS troubling when all you see around you are people and their devices. 

When I wrote about attending a Feist concert, I mentioned we were sitting next to a couple of 23-yr-olds (about the age of our kids) and while we were waiting for the show to begin (a prime opportunity to share thoughts and excited anticipation) they were each on their smartphones, fingers flashing.  

"Excuse me, but are you two here on a date?" I inquired hesitantly.

"Well, not exactly.  We're friends," the young woman replied with a giggle, their focus still on their phones, fingers flying.

"But don't you want to talk to each other while you're here, instead of talking to other people?" I asked them.

"Well," she said politely and patiently, "we're actually playing a game with each other." she replied smiling at my ignorance.

"OH."  I was dumbfounded.   It didn't make sense to me.  It seemed completely anti-social.  Why would they choose to interact in silence?  I knew if I mentioned this at some point to my kids they'd just be annoyed that I bothered these people who were minding their own business. (Unlike me.)  I just didn't get it.

Every year we go to a documentary film festival and it's always four days of non-stop screenings, so many that by the last day, you begin to get bleary-eyed — but it's all worth it.  One of the things I've always loved about Full Frame (in addition to the incredible documentaries we see),  is the people you meet.  Sitting on lines waiting to get your tickets or get into the next film, while you're in the venue waiting for the film to start — you could always start a discussion with the most interesting people from all over the country.  Some were graduate students in film, some people like us, mothers with their daughters, a group of women friends who come to the festival as their annual outing, filmmakers with stories to tell — quirky, disturbing, amazing, unusual, compelling, heart-wrenching films that take us inside the places, the pasts, the lives, the dreams of so many courageous individuals who creatively tell their stories or that of someone else to lift us where they want their audience to go.

Two years ago, I noticed a huge change.  Wherever I was, whatever line I standing or sitting on, everyone around me was on their smartphone, laptop or iPad.  Maybe the people would talk to the person they were with or the group they were in, but they weren't engaging with strangers.  Not on line, not in the theatre, and not after the film.  It made me sad.  It made my experience not as rich.  It eliminated the random connections with people that I had grown to love about the festival because these possibilities were not present in my daily life.

That's one big difference between living in a big city and living elsewhere.  In a suburb you go everywhere by car.  You get in to your car to drive to work, go to the store, pick-up the kids, head for the movies.  In a big city you rely on public transportation and you're always making these connections with total strangers.  Crowded on a bus, jammed into a subway car you see what people are wearing, smell their scents, overhear their conversations about how the meeting went with their boss, what they're having for dinner, or what the shrink said at their last session.  For me, it was always a terrific reality check on the human condition.  It gave me insight into how other people were living their lives and when you travel by car, you don't get that experience.

Here is an example of what can happen.

It was 1994 and I was back in Manhattan visiting family and friends.  I'd just seen my best friend Susan and she'd kindly given me a bag of children's books for my kids.  This was a huge thing because kids' books can be ferociously expensive and with twins, well, our book-buying funds were limited.  I hopped on the crosstown bus but it was rush hour so I knew I was in for a long ride.  Luckily, I'd squeezed into a seat before it was standing-room-only — I was next to a guy buried in his Wall Street Journal and a twenty-something who could best be described as punk-Goth, in black from head-to-toe, including all her make-up.  

I reached into my bag and pulled out the first book my hand grasped...

Doll Face Has a Party!
It didn't look like any kid's picture book I knew, but it looked intriguing so I opened and began to read this bizarre tale where all the characters were inanimate objects — fork, spoon, plate, cup — they all played a role in getting this party on the road. After a page or two of reading I realized that punk-Goth was reading too, so I very carefully made sure to hold the book wide open and to leave enough time before turning the page to be sure she'd read the limited text.  When I came to The End frankly, I was disturbed; I turned to my seat mate and asked, "Whadya think?"

She looked up from the page, turned to me completely deadpan and simply said   Schizophrenic "

It was an unexpected and completely legitimate response that propelled us into gabbing about children's literature, illustrations, surrealism, this, that, and the other thing, until finally it was time for me to go.  As the bus slowed to a stop and I stood waiting for the back-exit doors to open, I turned toward my punk-Goth reading-buddy and smiled my good-bye.  I didn't know her name, I'd never see her again, but here it is, almost twenty years later and I'm still smiling over that great, shared moment we'd had.

And we had that moment because our heads weren't buried in our cellphones.

Though the book is long out of print (but available to buy online) thought you might get a kick out of reading excerpts from two reviews that were written at the time — and confirmed our reactions!

...the text has a sweet, innocent style well suited to the world of toys in which the most difficult problem is a quest for dessert. Selznick's highly assertive, surrealistic cartoon style evokes a sophisticated attitude that, though arresting, seems disconcertingly at odds with Conrad's gentle characterizations. Doll Face is depicted not as a chubby-cheeked nursery favorite, but as a Barbielike doll bearing some resemblance to Marilyn Monroe. She stares out from the book cover with a plastic face, painted sweetheart mouth, black beauty mark, pink bouffant hair style, glassy blue eyes, and thin painted brows, one of which consistently arches higher than the other. Her expression is enigmatic and unchanging throughout. When she eats the delicious Sweet Cake, a large fork smashes the pink-and-white treat against her lips. The illustrations, while stylish and interesting, dominate the text, which perhaps explains why Doll Face seems to have no fun at her own party. Oddly unsatisfying. From School Library Journal

...Doll Face, in snazzy rose-colored party clothes and with hair like pink spaghetti strands, roams waiflike through a forest of shag carpet and table legs. Luminescent colors and baroque wallpaper backdrops deepen the sense of fantasy, of having stumbled upon a dreamscape. This is a clever picture book, a distant relative of Alice in Wonderland , but ultimately there is something sad and unsettling about the wooden doll who throws a party for herself.  From Publishers Weekly