In the Eye of the Storm: What Hurricane Sandy Taught Me about Social Media and Technology

As a resident of downtown Manhattan, my family and I were affected by Hurricane Sandy. But the worst that happened to us was losing power and water, and having to walk up and down 28 flights of stairs to get ourselves and our stuff out of our apartment so we could move to our dear friend’s apartment on the Upper East Side (where we are now totally safe and comfortable). Our kids feel displaced and are missing their routines and friends, and my husband and I are inconvenienced and feel, strangely, like tourists in our own city. But that’s the worst of it. This is obviously NOT a poor me story.

But this experience has opened my eyes to a few things. In addition to teaching me about the enduring kindness of strangers in this supposedly rude and impersonal digital age, this experience has taught me a few new things about the role of technology and social media in my life and in the life of my family. Here are two that have been on my mind:

The Importance of Physical versus Digital Neighbors. After the power went out, the kids on our floor were pretty much technology-free. What did they do? We opened the doors of our apartments, and the kids (including our one-year-old) ran out into the hallway like it was a backyard. Our neighbor Patricia said we should put down grass. The kids brought out toys and started playing store, house, battles, throw and catch, gymnastics. They found a collapsed cardboard box, and like all children, found that to be the best toy of all. My one-year-old got rides on the box from her brother, who would pull her around the hallway. Kids went freely from apartment to apartment. They played with each other like never before. I felt like I was living in an idealized American neighborhood (think Leave it to Beaver, I guess, which makes me June Cleaver? Jeez, you can’t control what leaps to mind can you?). Our doors were open and we fed each other’s kids lunch.   Essentially, we dealt with the loss of power by reaching out to our immediate social network in concrete ways. This simple neighborliness was immensely helpful and satisfying. All it took was walking across the hall. In my mind, no digital social network could be as satisfying in the circumstances we were facing. Of course, digital social media and mobile technologies are incredible tools for getting things done – communicating, getting information, keeping up-to-date, seeking and offering support. But, Sandy reminded me of how isolated, on a visceral level, we may start to feel when we forget to just be with the people around us.

Embodied Technology and Phantom Limbs. My iPhone went kaput (got water in it somehow) on Tuesday. This was horrible timing of course because I couldn’t update anyone about our status. But, as many have observed (e.g.,   JOMO) we often experience great relief and happiness when we can disconnect. However, I wasn’t just feeling happy about shedding the burden of being constantly connected.  I was worried and exhausted about my present moment and didn’t have the energy to look outside my current circumstances to communicate with others. I was fairly overwhelmed with getting the kids to safety. Communicating with our digital social network wasn’t going to help at that moment.

At the same time, I observed that this relief was mixed with some panic. How do I get what I need if I don’t have a phone? Luckily, my husband’s phone was working so we definitely had communication, but I, MYSELF, didn’t have a phone, and that was unnerving. Why would that be? I wasn’t disconnected, because I was with my husband and he was connected. Why did I feel disconnected?

To me, this speaks of the psychological aspect of having mobile devices that keep us constantly connected. It’s an embodied experience, having a device in your hand. And you feel it when it’s gone. Like a phantom limb: once you’ve lost the limb, you can still feel it itching. As humans, we’ve evolved to attach to other beings and to things. We anthropomorphize objects and devices so that we can feel a connection to them. Mobile technologies, because they are so deeply about social access and connection, may be high jacking this fundamental aspect of being human. All I know is that once I got uptown, I ran to the Apple store on 5th Avenue (thank you helpful Apple Genius) and got a new phone.

My family and I came out of the storm in great shape and we feel immensely lucky. For me, the biggest take-home message was that when technology is gone, or compromised, my appreciation for the people around me is that much sweeter.

The Day My Three-Year-Old Discovered Multitasking

I recently overheard a conversation between my three-year-old son, Kavi, and my husband. Kavi was about to go to bed and had only a couple minutes left to play. Dada asked him to choose how he wanted to spend his remaining time. Kavi said, “I have a great idea, dada! I can play iPad AND play Legos at the same time!!!”

Hoo boy, I thought. My son is becoming a multitasker at age three. Already dissatisfied with the pleasure of any single activity, he is trying to divide his attention between two things (one of which is a mobile device) thinking it will be more fun and he won’t have to miss out. Is this an expression of the dreaded FOMO, fear of missing out, rearing its head so early?

And thus followed a mental checklist of my potential parenting failures. Two stand out:

  1. I multitask too much in front of him. I am definitely a multitasker, but one who makes strong efforts to put away my devices when I am with my family. I don’t always succeed, so have I become a bad role model?
  2. I don’t encourage him to enjoy the process of doing and learning. As I’ve blogged about before, one way of thinking about styles of learning is making the following distinction: we can focus on and enjoy the process of learning, or we can learn with the goal of obtaining rewards (praise, grades, etc,…). If Kavi is so interested in multitasking, perhaps this is because he doesn’t fully enjoy the process of doing a single activity.

Then I thought on a more hopeful note, maybe I’ve done something very right, teaching him 21st century skills and facilitating his mental acuity:

  1. Multitasking in moderation is useful! Certainly, at this moment in time, people could be at a disadvantage if they are not able to take advantage of multitasking opportunities to gather information, learn, or accomplish goals – in moderation. So, the fact that it occurred to him to multitask two things he likes to do could simply indicate that his cognitive development is moving along nicely.
  2.  Maybe he is learning to augment his creativity via technology. Perhaps his thought was – well, I’m hitting a wall with new things to build with Legos so maybe I can use the iPad to come up with more ideas. But who knows what he was thinking. So I asked him.

The conversation went something like this:

Me: Hey sweetie, do you remember when you told daddy that you wanted to play iPad and Legos and the same time?

Kavi: mumbles something.

Me: What’s that?

Kavi: Yes, I think so.

Me: Why did you want to do iPad and Legos at the same time?

Kavi:  Because it’s the same kind of fun.

Me: The same kind of fun?

Kavi:  Yes. First you do iPad, then you do Legos. iPad, Legos, iPad, Legos….

Me:  But you also play Legos alone, just Legos.

Kavi: But that would be boring!

Me: Really? I see you do that all the time.

Kavi: Yes…..

At this point, I decided to drop it. So, what does this little bit of anecdotal evidence mean? I have no idea. But I think the bottom line is that I know my son and I’m not too worried. He is already quite good at focusing for long periods of time (he can build with Legos for hours if you let him). Perhaps, though, there is something I can do better. I could focus more on promoting his JOMO  – the joy of missing out. It’s the feeling that what you’re doing right now, at this moment, is exactly the perfect thing to do.

 

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