Information flatulence


SOCIETY: The Winter of Our Disconnect By Susan Maushart Profile, 278pp. £11.99

WHEN TWO small girls, aged 10 and 12, were trapped in a storm drain in Australia in 2009 they might easily have perished. Fortunately, they had their mobile phones with them and immediately sought help – by updating their status on their Facebook pages. Lucky for them, a schoolfriend quickly saw the update, the authorities were notified and they all lived happily ever after.

The story, one of many amusingly telling yet quietly alarming anecdotes in Susan Maushart’s The Winter of Our Disconnect, perfectly illustrates her starting premise that Digital Natives – those children and young adults who have never known anything but a life with their faces turned towards screens and the internet – think and act differently from those of us who can remember a world before “friend” became a verb.

The Natives live in a world of intense connectivity and media saturation. More than 90 per cent of US teenagers are online, and they spend about as much time connected to the internet as they do sleeping: the equivalent of a full working day. Three-quarters have a mobile phone, two-thirds have their own computer, most have a TV in their bedroom and more than 90 per cent have an iPod or other music player. The figures are probably broadly similar over here.

“They’re kids who’ve had cell phones and wireless Internet longer than they’ve had molars. Who multitask their schoolwork alongside five or six other electronic inputs, to the syncopated beat of the Instant Messenger pulsing insistently like some distant tribal tom-tom,” Maushart writes.

So what would happen if you disconnected that giant digital umbilical cord? Exiled the computers, hid the gaming devices, dropped the net connection, put the TVs in the garage?

Maushart, a New York journalist, writer and single mum living in Australia with her three teenagers, decided to do just that for six months in 2009, in what the family came to call the Experiment. She documents the decision and its results in this hilariously entertaining but sobering and informative read.

Maushart had grown increasingly uneasy with the fragmentation of family life as each child – and mum herself – uploaded, downloaded, texted, updated, chatted, gamed and Googled, glued to smartphones, laptops, a mammoth old PC and other devices.

With her beloved volume of Henry David Thoreau’s Waldenas a seemingly unlikely touchstone, she hopes for a 21st-century version of a retreat to a way of life more basic and rewarding, stripped of the sound of e-mail notifications, iPod playlists and funny animal YouTube videos.

Somehow she manages to convince – okay, bribe – her dubious offspring to tolerate six months of technological cold turkey, all the while secretly wondering how she will ever pry her own fingers off her beloved laptop, named Della, or tolerate divorce from iNez, her much adored iPhone and the timewasters’ glory that is the Apple App Store.

She repeatedly laments the loss of the wonders of modern-day connectedness during the Experiment – for example, admitting her own love of a good Google session and what she calls Wilfing (for “What Was I Looking For?”, where a searcher online starts at one place and ends up hours later “elsewhere”) – and this gives the book greater depth than being simply an anti-tech rant.

She lards the text with eye-opening studies and sharp observation of the ways in which technology brings us – and her own children – an endless bombardment of content, information that we gulp rather than digest, resulting in “uncomfortable information flatulence”.

What happens as Maushart learns to sleep without her iPhone under her pillow and her kids adjust to their “elective iPodectomy”, learn to focus on homework without simultaneous multiple chat sessions, and give up online games and text messages is fascinating and a story for our times.

Much of what she has to say will raise questions about the directions being taken in modern education, and cause parents – and perhaps even the Natives – to look again at their unconstrained technology access in the home, particularly what she nails as the “myth of multitasking”.

Eventually, the screens and internet connection get turned back on, but the Experiment helps them reset the parameters of family life in a way that Thoreau would no doubt have approved of.

Karlin Lillingtonwrites about technology for The Irish Times