A few weeks ago, I took a bath with my daughter: I was in Raleigh, North Carolina, and she was in Los Angeles, California.
I was exhausted— I had just flown all day to pay a visit to the HGTV Smart Home 2016, and FaceTimed her to check in once I got to my hotel. She was beside herself: Congested with a doozie of a head cold. Inconsolable, she was crying for me to come home, which turned her into a giant snot ball, and then she couldn’t breathe, which made her cry even harder. It was a heart-breaking mess.
I suggested she get in a hot bath to drain her poor sinuses, and she asked if I’d “take a bath with her”. So we did: Each of us in got in a hot bath, 2,500 miles away from each other, and with cameras angled just right, we started chatting about our day. Runny noses and tears gave way to meaningful conversation: A friend had made fun of her new haircut, a boy she liked was being a jerk, and a test she took threw her for a loop. It became clear that my absence wasn’t the only thing she was upset about, and with a clearer head that wasn’t overcome with guilt, I could counsel her and console her.
We also talked about my day: We debated the pros and cons of having a job that you love take you away from the people you love. I told her about a funny flight attendant who made people laugh, and we contemplated that perhaps the grumpy flight attendants we’ve encountered are leaving home, and the joyful ones are returning home.
We stayed in that bath until our fingers were wrinkly, and then re-angled cameras as we wrapped ourselves in towels, giggling all the while. She said goodnight with a smile, and went to bed feeling heard, and loved.
There is a “disconnectionist” agenda in the media today that paints technology in a one-sided manner. Books like Shelly Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation, and Steiner-Adair’s The Big Disconnect posit that we’re all hopelessly addicted to technology, and are better off every time we abandon the pursuit of online connections and live life in the real world. These books and articles, about “digital detoxes” and “unplugging” would have us believe that we live in a world where our devices have us by the throat— we’re incapable of making decisions around them, and it’s best to just be rid of them and get back to ” real life” (AKA, the old way of doing things). Connections we make online are a faulty, less-than substitute for the ones we make in person. And the smartphone has become the scapegoat for our bad behavior, as if we have no self-control, no say in the matter. Oh, and most comforting of all— it’s not your fault! How can you be blamed, when technology is so darn addictive?
This disconnectionist idea doesn’t hold up when I remember that I am a thinking person, and am capable of self-control. This disconnectionist idea doesn’t hold up when technology like FaceTime facilitates extraordinary moments of connection and intimacy. And what of those people who I spend time with in-person who aren’t at all mindful or present… it’s like they’re somewhere else, but somehow it’s better because of our proximity?
Here’s the thing: We’re not stupid. We know when technology takes us away from the people we love. I know when I’m checking my emails, half-listening to my kids and modeling terrible behavior. Does that happen in my home? Of course it does, I’m not perfect, people. But here’s what happens a lot more: I leverage technology to let my family know I care about them. I send e-card, love texts, an article I think they’d enjoy, or a FaceTime when they’re needing some… face time. To deny that these are powerful ways to connect to the people you love when you can’t be with them, to say that the connection is somehow diminished because it isn’t “real”… well, that’s just ridiculous. Ask my daughter and her wrinkly fingers.
This disconnectionist idea, that technology is the big problem, and the less we use of it, the better off we’ll be, isn’t the whole truth. Unfortunately (and not surprisingly) the answers are more complicated. We all have to look to our internal moral compass for the truth on where and when technology adds to quality of life, and when it detracts. We have to create boundaries around when and where we use technology so we don’t miss out on what’s happening around us. But we should also make room for technology to help us make connections that are no less real because they don’t happen IRL.
So I’d love for those out there shouting Unplug! to consider that there might be a middle ground: There is a time and a place where tech needs to be put aside, and time for it to be used to help us make meaningful online connections. Finding those times is as nuanced as our individual relationships are.