the art of augmenting

I think I spend less time on my phone than some people do. I am definitely not bragging—I spend plenty of time on my phone. That doesn’t stop me from secretly congratulating myself as I sit at dinner watching two people at a booth across the room wordlessly eating their dinner while they stare into their mobile devices. My family has banned what we call “augmenting while eating”, because we like good conversation and a good conversation with each other, and we can be pretty smug. Our jobs necessitate that we are connected most of the time, so dinner is a safe place where we can be ignorant about who directed which episode of Mad Men and where are latest Amazon purchase is.

Not that our 45 minutes a day of untethered luddism will save us from our inevitable transition into blobs of organic bio-controllers. (Emphasis added for sarcasm.) After all, you can’t have a good dystopia without technology encroaching into natural life and squelching the noblest human characteristics: compassion, respect for nature, self-determination. Signs of this are all around us, just look at the kids these days. The kids these days. *shakes head*

Lately, my husband and I have been fond of saying that our child will surpass us in every way in about 5 years’ time. Some days it seems like it will be a lot sooner. We’re indulging in a little bit of self-deprecating bragging, but because of the industries we are in we also realize that she will have access to more information at an earlier age than we could ever have imagined as preteens with dial-up Internet. While we’ll be on an level playing field as far as access, her brain will be wired for this stuff. Everyone who is acquainted with a parent or grandparent of a small child has heard the same story:

“…and you know, she thinks everything is a touch screen. The other day she asked me why she couldn’t change the picture on the cover of a magazine.”

I’m guilty of telling this story, too. It’s novel to imagine a generation that sees digital media as more real than physical media. Then again, the latest research tells us that print is definitely not dead, even among the youngest consumers. While it seems more and more as if we live in the future, we’re not escaping the past as quickly as we think. For every space-age video conference I have, I get 3 pieces of paper mail. For every solution I elegantly devise, facilitate, and carry out through a vast network of computers, I still use a bit of string or a stray paperclip to shore up some hastily scrawled reminder or broken clasp. I still have a foot firmly planted in the tangible world; in fact, most people do.

Sometimes I use technology to make things easier or better, and moreover it’s my job to think of ways that people can use technology to facilitate learning. The thing about the act of augmenting, though, is that it assumes an increase, something greater. It’s right there in the definition. When my family made the choice to disallow phones at the table, we did so in an effort to enhance our experience. When I read through my Twitter feed when I’m in line at the grocery store, I’m probably making the experience more enjoyable for myself. I could also try to use that time to be more efficient, more organized, more connected, more politically conscious, more productive, more frugal…

The trouble is when we can’t point out WHY we are doing what we’re doing. A little exercise I like to do when I reach for the phone or open a new tab in my browser is to ask myself what I intend to do. Since I’ve started approaching these actions mindfully, I’ve found that unhelpful habits like repeatedly checking inactive social media feeds have begun to disappear. What I’m doing should amplify the important things in my life, not relegate them to the periphery of my attention. I’m in charge here, technology. Pending some sort of Terminator-style cybernetic revolt, it’s likely to stay that way.

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