How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Net

We are a proud bunch, we grownups, with our internets and web sites and social networking tools. We’ve bifurcated our generation into the luddites and the tech savvys and turned the whole thing into some sort of religious war over whether technology is frying our minds or determining our future.

My immediate family spans a few generations. I have a 72-year old brother in New Jersey (19 years my senior) who offered to have my 8-year old daughter stay with him for a few weeks this summer. I saw close up how the issue of technology-or-no-technology can polarize people. He did not get a single email of mine, although I told him I had sent a long email with instructions about everything from hair conditioner to websites. He commented to my sister, “I don’t know why she didn’t just hand it to me.” He would not let my daughter use the computer for a video chat with us because that’s the computer on which he does his taxes. He sat dumbfounded as she tried to show him how she uses the web to play with her best friend online in Animal Jam. “I don’t get the point of it.”

When she was leaving for home, she asked me on the phone if she could chat with her friend that she made in New Jersey online, “Not write papers and notes and it takes so long.” Since returning, she has met her on Moshi Monsters, another inane game that provides kids with a pleasing visual narrative around which to build connection. For my daughter, for whom English is a second language, these kinds of environments have helped her, both socially and in terms of language, a lot more than stilted interaction with many of the the close-minded, hyper-protected kids she meets in our immediate neighborhood.

Meanwhile, back home, my 10-year old son learned about geocaching at camp. Now hooked, he, his father, and I have gone geocaching in Charlottesville, apps in hand. It got us outdoors with something interesting to do that connected you to a stranger in the most benign and serendipitous kinds of ways. He hid his own geocaches on Grounds at UVa, and watched online as someone found it and commented. Now there is no spice jar, or piece of pipe, that escapes his voracious search for geocaches to create and plant around town. My son suffers from severe anxiety and a profound mood disorder so debilitating that he must attend a special school. This type of technology connection to the world is a saving grace for him, a source of confidence and mastery that he can pursue at his own pace. Not to mention, it gets him to read and write, learn about geo-coordinates, collaborate with and trust a grownup, and visit places he normally would be too anxious to visit. (We did have one scary incident on the way to a geocache location in the woods, but, I think we were hearing things 🙂

Sometimes it feels as though we grownups in the tech fields are so busy being fascinated by the technology that we can never imagine just how organic it can feel to our kids. And not in the “online learning” hamhanded way that many other grownups talk about computer-aided instruction, with the school-based labs and computer carts and standardized tests that have replaced bubble sheets. For my kids, the kind of connection they have from these technologies is nothing less than a presumption that they simply need to reach up and touch this networked world whenever they want. They don’t view things as devices, or interfaces. It’s more than a cool iPhone, it’s a window to a world they know is there, a biosphere of ideas woven throughout the visual biosphere, connecting our disconnected minds the way the earth connects its waterways, organically, but through the power of language and action.

While parenting magazines fret over “too much technology” and whether our kids brains are being re-wired, our kids are beyond that. Where some see alienation and danger, our kids feel a presumptive connection. Whatever jigamabobs and thingoes they have when they grow up will not matter. What will matter are the open ideas that flow this way and that, no longer encumbered by time and space, no longer hindered by geography. This world they enter is not a scary one at all, and those among us who are frightened, like my older brother, need not be so.

Are their brains being rewired? Yea, probably. But, if it means that at the age of 72 my son won’t fear the unknown and will have tasted the world in all its glory, and my daughter assumes a multiplicity of valid viewpoints and cultures outside of her geographic region, I’d say the rewiring may not be a bad thing.

Hard-core 12-step types have a snappy comeback when people accuse them of being brainwashed by recovery: “Who says my brain didn’t need washing?”