Zen and the art of managing technology
It is a sunny Saturday in Sydney and an immaculately-attired family of five are standing as one to photograph their lunches in a posh seafood restaurant.
Mother is inspired by a spray of fluorescent caviar over curled cucumber slices. Father is attempting to frame the table’s human subjects as well as its plates (quite a feat when everyone is hovering and squinting behind their smartphones).
Daughters one, two and three, meanwhile, are less impressed with the beauty of the haute cuisine than with the digital tricks permitted by their phones’ extensive collection of photo manipulation software. They are amused (understandably) at their ability to digitally decapitate their parents and replace their heads with spanner crabs.
Technology has a conspicuous presence at this meal but it does not curtail the confabulation. There is an enthused discussion about angles and lighting. A brief argument about the pros, cons and ironies of retro iPhone applications which use cutting-edge technology to produce photos which look like faded 1970s Polaroids.
Then, last but by no means least, the inevitable request of a fellow diner to take a group happy snap using a range of filtering “lenses” and all five of the family phones – just in case.
Only after this lengthy, contemporary take on grace is complete, does the iFamily finally sit down and do that other thing people sometimes do in restaurants… you know, eat the food.
So what are we to make of this oh-so-21st-century scenario?
Roasting technology is certainly the routine response. It’s killing conversation, comes the condemnation from the critics. It breeds brutish manners, bad taste and lax parenting.
A common claim is that impressionable youngsters should be entertaining themselves via old-school methods such as practicing their penpersonship or balancing piles of coins of their elbows, rather than fiddling about with widgets.
Another recurring – and interestingly Zen-esque – case is that our increasing overreliance on technology means we can enjoy only mediated rather than authentic realities.
Daniel Sieberg, the US author of a new book called The Digital Diet: The 4-Step Plan to Break Your Tech Addiction and Regain Balance in Your Life, writes gravely of those citizens who feel something hasn’t really transpired until they’ve posted it on Facebook.
This begs the question of what happens if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to microblog about it. Those Middle Eastern tyrants who occasionally try to outlaw the internet certainly seem to think summary executions don’t count if they can’t be Tweeted.
But the geopolitical ramifications of cyberisation have received plenty of press. What I wonder is whether adequate attention is being paid to the many, quotidian pleasures of new-fangled doodads.
Technological breakthroughs such as smartphone photography are certainly a nouveau way to experience life and engage with others. But that doesn’t mean they should automatically be written off as illegitimate.
Let’s return to our seafood restaurant and consider a less gloomy purview of those documentary-minded diners.
As the fellow luncher recruited to assist their meticulous visual chronicling, what struck me was the way that – despite drawing some sniffy looks – technology added to the occasion rather than subtracting from it.
It prompted conversation. It stimulated laughter. It insisted on interaction with a stranger. And it produced images which could be savoured later when the comestibles were less glamorous and more sausage casseroley.
Artistic endeavour was also required – though the creativity involved in high-tech contexts is often overlooked or dismissed for reasons of cultural snobbery.
If this family had chosen express their aesthetic interest in their meals by rendering them in sketch or verse form, I suspect it would have been seen as charmingly Jane Austen-esque.
None of this is to deny that technology has its downsides. When it comes to interpersonal communication, the preponderance of text-based interaction risks a paradoxical combination of dehumanising alienation and sticky co-dependency.
Face time – defined by Wikipedia as “contact between two or more people at the same time and physical location in ‘real life’ or meatspace’” – now requires its own term and is no longer the default of human contact.
Many such “meatspace” encounters are also disrupted by distracted punters who check their dinner during emails, Facebook their update statuses on dates and web the surf when they’re supposed to be working. The juggling of hundreds of Words With Friends games further fragments attention spans.
Yet despite our lack of presence in the presence of others, separation anxiety consumes many of us within seconds of friends or lovers leaving a room. “Wish you were here” (though more likely “wuwh”), we text with our failing, RSI-ridden thumbs.
It’s tempting, therefore, to frame new fangled gadgets as inherently unhealthy and requiring absolute abstinence. But I think it is more productive – and also more realistic – to embrace an ethos of responsible use.
After all, even exercise, books and raw carrots can be insalubrious if their consumption involves excess and compulsion rather than moderation and considered choice. So let’s leave the electro-fasts and digital crash diets and instead consider a set of basic ground rules for techno-etiquette. These could include:
* talking at normal volumes on mobile phones on public transport instead of replicating fleets of revving 747s.
* remembering that electrified conversation is still conversation and, as such, it’s rude to conduct too many at once.
* choosing to broach difficult subjects – especially those relating to sackings and break-ups – in person rather than skulking cowardly behind an SMS or email.
* refraining from texting or Tweeting while under the influence (aka TUI).
* restricting one’s misrepresentations on online dating sites to no more than a one per cent increase in height, salary and emotional IQ.
* avoiding multi-tasking in situations where mono-tasking would be more appropriate (driving and intimate exchanges, as just two examples).
* punctuating – or at least maintaining the average daily allowance of vowels – in all mobile communications.
* accepting that with great anonymity comes great responsibility, and
* gazing at significant others and offspring with the same passion we direct towards our devices.
Despite my defence of amateur food photography, I also think it is polite to keep the digital group portraiture demands made on outsiders to a minimum. By the time that restaurant family allowed me to return to my sashimi that day, it was completely cold.
Fortunately it still photographed a treat and currently holds pride of place in my own gallery of Meals I Have Adored and Also iPhoned.
No plain Jane - see more of Emma’s work here at The Australian.
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