x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Plugged in and 'alone together', conversation is a chore

Social networks offer the illusion of companionship without the risks of intimacy. I want to change that, at least in my family.

On hot summer afternoons, when the dragonflies wilt and sweat glistens like dew on skin, young Indian girls gather in villages and towns to play indoor games.

They sit on cool mud floors and play "seven stones," a game in which one pebble is thrown in the air and the other stones picked up in sequence in the interim. As the sun sets, the girls run out to play hopscotch, while young boys roll a discarded bicycle tyre down the dusty lanes: simple games for sweet, innocent times.

The scene could not be more different at my home. In fact, I wake up in a cold sweat just thinking about it.

In a recent dream - or nightmare - I dreamt that my two daughters could no longer speak to me. We were sitting across from each other. They were trying to form the words but no sound would come. The only thing that worked was sending texts from the iPad, a scenario that isn't much different from reality.

Author Sherry Turkle calls it "alone together," and it is something that occurs in my house everyday.

On a typical weekend morning, my family gathers for a few hours of respite from the labours of our week. We sit on the couch beside each other and get on our favourite devices: my husband on his MacBook, me on my iPhone, my daughter on her iPad and the other playing a game on the iPod. Every now and then, one of us will chuckle at something on the screen, causing the others to look up desultorily before returning to our world.

Ms Turkle, a professor at MIT, says technology has become the "architect of our intimacies". In her book and lectures, she talks about how social networks offer the illusion of companionship without the risks of intimacy. By allowing us to do anything from anywhere, says Ms Turkle, technology makes us addicted users of digital instruments who are more attuned to signals from elsewhere, instead of those from around us.

I can relate to this scenario, and I want to change it, at least in my family. I want us to talk to each other; play the board games of my childhood; bond. The question is: how?

In the last year, I've tried various methods to bring back conversation into our lives. I established a moratorium on electronic devices during dinnertime. No taking phone calls, no responding to the buzz of text messages as they arrived, and definitely no Angry Birds or any other game during dinner.

That lasted about a week. The worst part was that I was the one who "had to" take a phone call from an editor in New York.

Quixotically, I've turned to software to help me break free from the shackles of the social networks that I am addicted to. Like other writers, I've used Freedom, software that blocks internet activity, forcing you to be productive. I've deactivated and reactivated Twitter accounts. While these have provided prevention and punishment, they haven't established or re-established the connections I crave.

Board games proved to be my salvation. One Sunday morning, I brought out a Scrabble board and set it on the dining table. Instead of lecturing my kids about the evils of technology like I always did, I simply opened the board and made up a long word in the centre.

A few minutes later, my husband walked by and added his word to mine. An hour later, my ten-year-old sat down and tried to make up multiple small words. "Hey, you can't do that," said her older sister, and sat down across the table. I sat down with them, as did my husband.

We took turns, making up words, challenging each other. Mercifully, our mobile phones didn't ring. My teenager's phone buzzed continuously with incoming texts as it always does, but for once, she was too engrossed in competing with her sister to check and answer her texts.

Then, a miracle happened, in the form of the word "complicated". My reticent teenager who rarely discusses her school friends casually said: "Our class is full of complicated relationships." How so, I asked, struggling to keep my tone casual. "The new kids want to be accepted without trying too hard," she replied, while attempting a triple word score. "The old kids want to be nice and accepting, while maintaining their cliques. It's all very complicated."

And thus began the thing that we do so rarely in my house: conversation. We talked. I won't say that we were entirely free of technology. We did turn to the online dictionary on our mobile phones when we challenged a word or needed to check a spelling. But at least we connected in a real—rather than digital—way.

 

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir