"Which do you prefer -- sex or a pastrami sandwich?" one guy asks another, though it's not a proposition but a light-hearted survey. "To tell you the truth," the other guy says, "sometimes the sandwich." This exchange is lodged in my memory, overheard a dozen years ago at a restaurant.
It reminds me of a scene from last Sunday at the Buttercup Bake Shop near my apartment, a heartbreaking power struggle involving competing temptations: technology, love and sugar. I watched a girl, about 10 years old, eat a cupcake and try to get her mother's attention, but Mom had eyes and fingers only for her iPhone. There was no evidence she'd even eaten a cupcake. She scrolled through emails for the entire time I sat next to them, 20 minutes. iPhone 1 - Cupcake 0. iPhone 1 - Daughter 0.
It made me sad to see the girl looking so bereft -- and stuffing her face with mounds of sugar while Addict Mommie's eyes bored into the screen affixed to her palm. And sadder still because I had just finished Susan Maushart's terrific book about this very problem -- our screen fixation and what it does to family life. The title says more than most do: The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her iPhone) Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to the Tell the Tale.
It's one of a number of smart new books that examines the down sides of our brave new world. Evgeny Morozov's Net Delusion: the Dark Side of Internet Freedom argues that the Internet does not have a liberal, pro-democracy bias, and that repressive governments use it more than we know to further their nefarious aims. MIT professor Sherry Turkle's Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other is another title that says a great deal about where we are - and where we might be headed.
The Winter of Our Disconnect is lively, funny hybrid memoir of a six-month-long experiment that American journalist, Ph.D. Maushart, living in Australia, inflicted on her family. It's layered with social science, brain research, and apt quotations from Thoreau about his time on Walden Pond. Best of all, Maushart makes her three teenagers come wonderfully alive in all of their anger, dismay, angst, teen 'tude and up-to-the-minute slang.
The experiment was that they'd live without screens in their house for six months -- no TV, computers, cell phones or iPods. They could use computers to do their homework at libraries or Internet cafés, and Maushart used them to write her newspaper columns, but nothing within the walls of their house.
When she announces what's coming - "It's an experiment in living... and it's going to change our lives" -- the kids are understandably dumbfounded. "There was a frozen pause," she writes. "If life was a MacBook, this was our spinning color wheel of death." She sweetened the deal by paying them, though she doesn't say how much.
It takes time for them to work out the rules and the logistics, and her older daughter chooses instead to move in with her father - though she returns in a handful of weeks. For all of them: "When we contemplated taking the leap of faith into screen-free living, there were many things we feared. Gaining weight. Losing friends. 'Missing out' (in some vague but disquieting way). But our greatest fear of all was the one that Bill had articulated right from the git-go: that without our media, we'd be bored. How ridiculous. Of course we were bored. Paradoxically, though, we found that reconnecting with our inner blank slate wasn't nearly as gruesome as we'd feared, once we got the hang of it and rediscovered the lost art of staring into space."
Part of what happens at chez Maushart is that all this media silence and face-to-face connection allows her to observe and study everything from her kids' sleeping and eating habits (excessive screen time leads to insomnia and no family meals, hence junk food) to the more global matters of multi-tasking and brain function.
Something else happens: her son Bill rediscovers the saxophone and reading novels. "For my son's sixteenth birthday, I bought him eleven books," she writes, "and he was thrilled." Plenty more happens but I don't want to spoil the journey or the payoff, except to say that there is one -- or three or four.
Ironically -- or not -- I'm writing this on a computer, where I spend much of every day, and you're reading it on some kind of computer screen. It would be disingenuous to urge restraint, to suggest changing your ways -- though I do want to promote an iPhone ban while eating cupcakes with your kids. Or send them to me, and I'll eat cupcakes with them, sans phone. But if you want to change your ways virtually, or imagine what it might be like for six months, there's no better place to look than The Winter of Our Disconnect.
(Cross-posted from Head Butler)
Elizabeth Benedict is the author of five novels and editor of the anthology, Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives. She is a writing coach for high school students who want help with their college application essays and can be reached at email@example.com.