Sunday, March 25, 2012

My Life Collides: Grad Class, Colleague, and Church (Reading, Thinking, and Reflecting #8)

Alone Together, Chapters 7-10:
 Let me tell the story of my week in this post.  I learned as I finished reading Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand that what draws me to nonfiction is the existence of a narrative, something Hillenbrand is a master of. So let me try to draw you into my nonfiction life as I lived the very things of which I was reading.

On Monday, I arrived at work having held firm to my self-promise that I would not check my work email Sunday night.
"I have come to learn that informing myself about new professional problems and demands [by checking email] is not a good way to start or end my day, but my practice unhappily continues" (Turkle 153).
I had however brought my iPad to bed to read more of Turkle's book last night, as I find it so fascinating that it can be bedtime reading (I have to admit I usually fall asleep when I try to do my grad class reading at night in bed ...).  I had held firm to my promise to my husband (and myself) that when the iPad came to bed like this, it was just a book and I would not use any other app except my Kindle app.

But back to the Monday morning.  I was a little tired because I had been woken up at 1:00 AM by the instantly recognizable iPad ting.  While I had kept off all of my apps, I had neglected to turn the volume off.  So at 1:00 AM, one of my former students friended me on Facebook, and while I am sure he was doing it not intending it as a "real time" event ...
"License to feel together when alone, comforted by e-mails, excused from having to attend to people in real time" (Turkle 206).
 ... it became decidedly real time to me. He would probably be mortified to know how real this digital action was.

So, that next morning, I turned on my laptop and went right to my email.  I have achieved not ending my day with the professional flood of email only by allowing myself to begin my work day here. I found an email from a colleague with a link to the New York Times article "Your Brain on Fiction." Brain research is proving that when we read about an action, say a sentence about kicking a ball, the same area in our brain lights up as when we are actually kicking a ball. I could not wait to share this with my AP English class, as we are all lovers of fiction who always want more reasons to read more fiction. Yet my brain also recalled something I had marked in my reading the night before ...
"And in humans, 'mirror neurons' fire both when we observe others acting and when we act ourselves" (Turkle 135).
Turkle uses this very same evidence to explain how we are different than robots because what we do affects our thoughts and feelings.  Caring for humans is a feeling not a performance.When my students read about the downfall of Othello, their experience reading this is utterly different than a robot programmed to be able to read.

I shared this article with my seniors, who were, as I suspected, excited for a justification of their reading addictions.  However, it was my freshmen who drove the point of humanity home to me.  On Thursday, a Holocaust survivor, Mark Strauss, came to speak to my freshmen as part of their study of Night.  As we reflected on Friday about this visit, the first thing my students said was how seeing a human tell his story was a deeper impact than even reading Wiesel's story. Yes, they gain from the impact of reading the story, but it is the face-to-face experience that does not allow any distance from emotions.
"One of the emotional affordances of digital communication is that one can always hide behind deliberated nonchalance" (Turkle 198).
And so this morning, I sat reading the newspaper before heading to church, taking what I thought was a mental break from the connections of my week that I am still trying to make sense of. The main editorial was "More than ever, we're ages apart" by Matthew Shaffer. His editorial opens with lamenting the rise of generationally separated church services as a symbol of the age segregation he sees imbuing our society. As a counterpoint to the ease people find with allowing the elderly to take care of themselves or to be cared for in facilities specially for that purpose, Shaffer writes,
"How can this bad (separateness) come of this good (freedom)? The best allegory for this, the dilemma of modernization, is C.S. Lewis' imagining of Hell, The Great Divorce. Lewis envisioned that the damned suffer not a fire, or any physical torment or confinement, but absolute dominion and inalienable rights: the liberty to roam an infinite and borderless land, and to freely and instantaneously build castles wherever they like. Lewis' damned enjoy this freedom by abandoning locations and acquaintances the moment they become inconvenient. The awkwardness of an exchange with a neighbor we think has slighted us can be evaded by simply moving away. After a few years' stay in hell, each of the damned is thousands of miles away from any other, pacing solitarily in his castle" (Shaffer D1).
I left for church this morning thankful for the older members who greet my two young children every week, thankful for the people I would  be seeing in the next hour and a half before I came home to write this post to a digital audience who is not here right now and is not asking anything of me until I am ready to hit publish, if they even ask anything of me then.
"Today our machine dream is to be never alone but always in control. This can't happen when one is face-to-face with a person. But it can be accomplished with a robot or, as we shall see, by slipping through the portals of digital life" (Turkle 157).
I am still not sure what to think about digital life, and I have yet to finish Turkle's book so I will be pondering this for a while yet.  But I do know that as I finish this post, my husband and my son are soon to be returning from Sunday school, and my life can become completely out of my control and perfectly human.

Works Cited:
Shaffer, Matthew. "More than Ever, We're Ages Apart." The Free Lance-Star [Fredericksburg] 25 Mar. 2012, sec. D: 1,3. Print.

Turkle, Sherry. Together Alone: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Kindle Ed. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2011.  

(Image from this blog.)

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