Saturday afternoon a very rare thing occurred. A boy came to our door, rang our doorbell and asked if my sons could come out to the park and play. We almost didn’t know what to do. At first, my eldest declined because we were watching a movie together, but I immediately jumped on the opportunity for them to get some fresh air. No, no…go on, we can watch this anytime and off they went. The young man was new to the neighborhood, my youngest mentioned him as a new face on the school bus. They had recently moved to our Maryland suburb from DC.
Despite the park being nearby, practically across the street, their mother fretted. After about 30 minutes, she asked “Should we check on them?” I answered “No, they will be fine”. Admittedly, because this rarely happened, I hoped for the best but hid my concern better. “We had to let them out eventually”. I understood where she was, I grew up in the Bronx and my mother was protective. As a single mother, she would rather let me sit in front of the TV for hours than be outside unsupervised for 10 minutes. I railed against it as a boy but now I understand the preference of knowing exactly where your kids are: a few feet away safe and sound. But now I live in a quiet tree lined block, in a house with a deck and a big backyard so why the apprehension?
Maybe it was because despite living in our house for over 5 years, we barely knew our neighbors. We spend morning and evenings watching the local news which is basically just a daily reporting of all the horrible things that have happened both nearby and far. We fear, we feel lucky, we stay inside. And even the ones that we are familiar with and know us, are inside most likely spending time on their own screens also feeling lucky. Like us, we know they are home, we see their cars, but we do not see them. We see their posts on facebook, but we do not actually see them. So, if my sons got into trouble, there would be no one watching, no one to go to. There is still the rhythm of sounds, the car door closing at 4am when Gerald my neighbor across the street goes to work at metro or the lawn mower and blower every two weeks when the landscaping service visits next door. These take at least a year to recognize.
So, maybe I should go out and check. You never know. I didn’t have to wait too long, after 40 minutes, the kids got bored and came home.
And we do not know. We have lost many opportunities to connect with other people nearby. Technology is changing the way we live. The disconnection is apparent. Playgrounds are empty, kids opting to visit virtual playgrounds on their game consoles to perpetually battle in Fortnite. We stand on line in supermarkets staring at our phones. The lady in front of me could live up the street, who knows? Never seen them either. I do remember that my mom would let me run up the bodega on the corner for milk and cigarettes, on the way there I would pass the “nosy” old ladies in their folding chairs circle, I would see a couple of kids from my school playing handball against the side of a building and the store owner behind the counter. They all knew me and recognized me, now that I think about it, I was actually safer within that community fabric than my kids were in an empty park on a silent block. Author Adam Greenfield describes the impact the smartphone has had on our society:
“ [An] entire way of life—a densely interconnected ecosystem of commerce, practice and experience. And as we’ve overwritten those ecosystems with new and far less tangible webs of connection based on the smartphone, the texture of daily experience has been transformed. The absorption of so many of the technics of everyday life into this single device deprives us of a wide variety of recognizably, even distinctively urban sites, gestures and practices. Stepping into the street to raise a hand for a cab, or gathering in front of an appliance-shop window to watch election results or a championship game tumble across the clustered screens. Stopping at a newsstand for the afternoon edition, or ducking into a florist shop or a police booth to ask directions. Meeting people at the clock at Grand Central, or the Ginza branch of the Wako department store, or in the lobby of the St. Francis Hotel. What need is there for any of these metropolitan rituals now?”
Of course, we still see other parents at our children’s school events but the number of interactions, the number of times you can learn about others, make a judgement to stay clear, see if they are “safe”, make friends have diminished. We no longer even have an excuse to have an interaction. Kevin Sullivan writes “Technology has had a profound impact on the weakening of our community relationships. We no longer need to ask a neighbor for a recommendation for a good house painter, landscaper, or plumber. There are apps for that. There is no need to ask a neighbor to borrow a cup of sugar when Amazon Fresh will deliver groceries to your door in a few hours. Our new virtual friends Alexa and Siri provide us with all kinds of information.”
I am tempted to give my boys phones so that I can track them easier but afraid that that will only exacerbate the problem and place them in more danger of constant distraction, poor in person communication skills, depression, cyber bullying, restlessness from over stimulation and depression. In one of my previous post, I was incredulous of the “brain hacking” power of electronic devices and argued against regulation in favor of “personal responsibility”. I now see that these technologies are more pervasive that I initially believed and that like alcohol, sugary soft drinks, drivers licenses and guns we should take steps to study the effects, set some social boundaries and put children in a protected class.
I wish I could talk to my neighbors about this but I never see them. Just kidding, I know! I will post something on Facebook. OMG! I don’t know if I am part of the problem or the solution. Man, I really need to work this technology love/hate thing out. However, I do know, that this coming Saturday afternoon, I am going to send my kids to invite our new neighbor to play in the park. Maybe I will take a chance and join them without my phone. We will scream if we need help or if are having fun, whichever comes first.
Shawn is an Information Technology manager in Washington D.C. and a graduate student at Quinnipiac University pursuing his masters in Interactive Media and Communications.
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