The Nature of Relationships: computers

By Kathrin Seitz and Marc Felix | Jul 07, 2010
Marc Felix and Kathrin Seitz

Many people have asked us what we think about our relationship to computers.

Marc’s answer

When I first began thinking about our relationship to computers I ran through all the negative information I’d accumulated over the years. All the terrible things that pop psychologists and educators and news commentators have told us about computers. How they are dehumanizing and lead to alienation. There’s the grim picture of the person in their cave-like room with bloodshot eyes spending 18 hours a day addictively and a-socially playing computer games. But, like everything else, isn’t this really a question of balance?

I began to think about my own personal experiences with computers. The joy of getting an e-mail from my beloved or one of my daughters or close friends. The ease of accessing information on any topic imaginable or finding images of just about anything I want to see. In fact all of my computer experiences have been overwhelmingly positive.

I did a little research and discovered that Internet users have greater brain activity than nonusers, which indicates they are growing their neural circuitry. I also found out that people playing video games develop better visual acuity. Many people can now work from home because of the computer.

I think we need to be more optimistic about our relationship to the digital universe of computers.

The more I use the computer, the more I like using it. I wonder if our brain is fed by photons and electrons and pixels like our body is fed by meats and fruits and vegetables.

At one time only royalty and high church officials had access to books. Then Gutenberg invented the movable type printing press and just about everyone could benefit from reading books. In a similar way, at one time only governments, large universities and wealthy corporations had access to computers. Now, with our iMacs and laptops,  just about anyone can jump into the ocean of the Internet, YouTube and Google. Is Steve Jobs the modern day Gutenberg? And is it just a coincidence that the Apple is named after the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge?


Kathrin's answer

My relationship to computers is more uneasy than Marc’s. For sure it’s due to my brain -- an ADD, creative, jump-all-over-the-map kind of brain that gets addled when my computer doesn’t do what I expect it to do.  And, like many people in my age group, I have not spent enough time just nosing around the computer and the net, so when the computer misbehaves or, more truthfully, does something unexpected, I flip out. Add to that my inherent impatience with all things mechanical (I’d rather be lost in fantasy about a story I am writing), and the situation becomes ugly.

When I was raising my son, I would sit in my home office, encounter a problem and call, “Alex” with a plaintive note in my voice and he would come in and fix the issue, easily of course. He was a member of the computer generation, after all, and had been cruising around the keyboard for hours every day. The down side of this was the condition of his eyes. When he was 12 he had perfect vision. When I took him back to the eye doctor a year later, his vision had deteriorated. He has been wearing contacts ever since. When I asked the doctor what happened, he had a one word answer: “computers.” What could I do, I wanted to know. “Move to Montana,” was his answer. Why? Because focus on the screen for a long time tends to strain the eyes. The solution is to look up from the computer every couple of minutes and look at the horizon (Montana has huge skies).  The lens in the eye will then shift and you will return to the computer with rested eyes. Here in Midcoast Maine, we can look at the bay or the mountains and accomplish the same thing. If only we take the time to do so.

Speaking of challenges posed by the computer, the latest research says that our brains are changing due to our use of computers. Nicholas Carr, author of "The Big Switch" (2007) and the Atlantic Monthly story “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” cites experiments in neurological science that gauge the organic impact of computers. The neural pathways built by reading books differ from those forged by surfing the Internet, where portals lead us on from one text, image or video to another while we’re being bombarded by messages, alerts and feeds. This glimmering realm of interruption and distraction impedes the sort of comprehension and retention “deep reading” engenders, Carr explains. This kind of research gives me pause and confirms my discomfort with computers and other advanced technologies such as the Blackberry, Kindle and iPad.

But this is the world we live in and there are so many benefits to computers – like Marc, I love sourcing information about anything: the night sky, Rudyard Kipling, the lyrics to songs in "HMS Pinafore," and of course what our local businesses are offering up today. It’s a glorious world out there.

With all this in mind, I decided to shift my attitude. I consulted Marc about my desire, and we arrived at this thought: the computer, like the sun, emits electromagnetic impulses. So why not think about my computer as the sun? I smile at it and feel the waves of light and the positive benefits. I exhale. Looking at the horizon and back at the screen, I affirm that I will not lose patience or become discouraged. Is this working? Occasionally.  Maybe more today than yesterday.



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