Digital native goes wild

Aviva Hope Rutkin

Last week, I went camping for the second time in my life.

There were plenty of nonscientific reasons to go: it’s summer, classes are over, Maine is beautiful, camping is fun.1 But I also wanted to go on the trip for less tangible reasons. I can’t shake the suspicion that drawing myself away from the internet, if only for a single night, will somehow make me feel better, be better.

This is an idea that bubbles up to the surface every so often in the tech community. People are proud to announce that they have dramatically cut down on their email, or stopped reading the news. Or they malign their very connection to technology, as in this startling passage from a book review by Alice Gregory a few years ago:

“It’s hard not to think “death drive” every time I go on the internet. Opening Safari is an actively destructive decision. I am asking that consciousness be taken away from me. Like the lost time between leaving a party drunk and materializing somehow at your front door, the internet robs you of a day you can visit recursively or even remember. You really want to know what it is about 20-somethings? It’s this: we live longer now. But we also live less. It sounds hyperbolic, it sounds morbid, it sounds dramatic, but in choosing the internet I am choosing not to be a certain sort of alive. Days seem over before they even begin, and I have nothing to show for myself other than the anxious feeling that I now know just enough to engage in conversations I don’t care about.”

Kids between 8 and 18 now consume media in one way or another for about 7.5 hours per day, often multitasking while they’re doing it.2 When my generation dies, we may take with us some of the very last memories of a pre-digital time.3 AOL dial-up music. Big paper map books that you kept in the side pocket of your car. Buying a couple of CDs at Sam Goody. I mean, I used to live in a town without internet connection or cell service, if you can imagine.

There is this word for it that I can’t shake: digital native. A digital native is someone who grew up in the digital world, who is fluent in the language of the devices that surround us. I cannot think of any better word to describe what I am.

While we were out in the woods, I kept trying to suss out the distinction between how I felt there and how I might feel back home in Cambridge. Cambridge, where I almost always spend my days gazing into my laptop screen for one reason or another. It would be so satisfying to settle squarely on one side of the equation. Then I could spend my time here waxing pretty on the purity of disconnection, or convincing you all to stay plugged in for good. Neither is true.

Picking fuzzy brown insects out of my hair, trying to find our way on foot back to the campsite before it gets dark, I wondered: wouldn’t it be better if I could just pull up a map on my phone right now?

Lying in our tent at night, I admitted: it’s much easier to fall asleep when you haven’t bathed for the last few hours in a computer glow.

Watching my more accomplished friend build a fire, I realized: if I was somehow left to rely on my wits in the woods for a week, I’d be totally fucked.

There are pile of factors to sift through before I can come up with a good answer. There is addiction, attention, and distraction; the amazing powers of the internet, far beyond my own prosaic uses for it; the inexorable march of progress; the privilege of being able to make a decision; the flimsy way I use the word “technology”; the unhealthy way I plant myself each day in this chair. And so on.

What I’m trying to say is that I don’t know if I am better or worse for my digital lifestyle. I’m not sure who I would be if I wasn’t this way. As in many cases, I suspect I should simply espouse moderation, but I don’t know where to draw the line.

I’d like to find out.

1. Requisite plug for the campsite we stayed at, which was lovely.
2. “The average young American now spends practically every waking minute — except for the time in school — using a smart phone, computer, television or other electronic device, according to a new study from the Kaiser Family Foundation.”
3. In the rich and Western world, anyway. That’s a topic for another time.

Aviva Hope Rutkin is a science and technology reporter in the Boston area. She currently writes for the MIT Technology Review. Follow her @realavivahr.

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