Who Watches the Watches?
In our comings and goings as kids, we always, always, always had to check in. It went something like this: on a given night, maybe Jake and I would go down to climb the big hills in the Snow Road Reservation of the Metroparks. Before we left, Mom would give us a time (often in the 5:30-7:00 range) to check in. Just a quick stop back home to let her know that everything was fine, and that we weren’t dead or laying in the creek with a broken leg.
I didn’t see it this way at the time, but the check ins were our (my brother’s and my) part in a covenant with our mom. We had a lot of latitude as kids. Mom was pretty trusting of us (and our community, now that I think about it), and didn’t really police our comings and goings too much beyond keeping track. We had the run of however much of our surroundings we could cover between check ins. We could stay out pretty late. But miss a check in by more than about fifteen minutes… hoo, boy. That could result in some significant loss of latitude, up to and including grounding.
Looking back, I can see this as a check-and-balance of restriction and freedom. Our adherence to the check-in system allowed us basically unlimited freedom within that system. Jake and I ran and walked and biked and explored and played. We made friends and saw the cities we lived in. And neither of us ended up kidnapped or dead. (The system works!!)
But alas, things changed, as things do. The world became a much stranger and more scary place, and evening cross-neighborhood sprints to make a quick appearance in the kitchen before embarking on the next adventure has been largely replaced by a very different kind of check in. Now, most of us are constantly in touch. Increasingly, kids have basic cell phones, or even smartphones.
Thinking back, I’m not sure how having had a cell phone would have affected my childhood. There was an odd period of time where my brother and I both had pagers… (Affordable cell phones weren’t a thing yet, and– look, the nineties were kind of weird). I’m sure it would have been different, but I’m not exactly sure what direction that would have headed. It has gotten me thinking about how our technology interacts with our freedom.
My first watch was a piece of technology without which the balancing act of limit and freedom of our check-in system could not have worked. So right there, you have an example of a piece of technology that effectively tethered me to my house, calling me back at predetermined times. But without those tethers, I would not have had the flexibility I had in my playing as a child.
Likewise, my smartphone gives me great freedom. I can, on the fly, find an alternate route home if I miss my bus. On the way home, I could use Google to find out what the hopping Parma nightlife has to offer on a given night, and maybe swing by the Brewhouse instead of going right home. I can look up basically any possible piece of information the moment might call for. But these freedoms are not without their counterbalance of restriction: being in constant touch with others carries an expectation to be available most, if not all the time. I get irritated texts from my brother if I don’t respond in a timely manner. And that doesn’t even get into the popular idea that smartphones are destroying social interaction (which I won’t, because I think most of those arguments are bullshit). Anyway…
Fitness trackers and apps tell us what to eat and when and how much to walk, which could be seen as being a slave to our technology. But they are helping us need healthier lives.
As humans, we have always had relationships with our technology, and as technology gets more sophisticated, those relationships get deeper and more encompassing. And I would say that an important cornerstone of relationship is the equilibrium of limit and freedom. This is true of all relationships, whether they’re with our smartphones or our family, or our communities (and so on…) Good relationships give us the freedom to be ourselves, while providing limits to help us be the best possible version of ourselves. If you’re in a romantic relationship, for example, that necessarily means you don’t have unlimited latitude within that relationship, but the hope is that you’re in it for a reason and the benefits outweigh the sacrifice.
That took something of a turn, I realize. I guess I have relationships in the brain, what with my upcoming wedding to the Scatterbrained Seminarian (although she’s not actually a seminarian anymore, having graduated).
I’m any case, I think the analogy works. I know that has been my experience: that all things are better when they’re balanced. A fear of technology (as destroyer of our humanity and social lives) will cripple our advances as a species. Too much reliance on increasingly sophisticated and pervasive technology will divorce us from our humanity. But find that middle ground? Nothing will stop us.