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Jumping Out of the Fish Bowl

September 15, 2010

How did Susan Maushart persuade her three teenagers to agree to her experiment of six months disconnected from electronic media – iphones, ipods, television, computers, facebook and twitter? Simple – she incentivised them – by promising to cut them in on the profits of the book she would write about their wanderings in the digital desert.

That book – The Winter of Our Disconnect – has now been published, and Susan spruiked it at the recent Brisbane Writers Festival.

The teenagers thrived – they read more, ate meals together, even played monopoly. Their friendships and social life increased and their school results improved. But, one audience member asked, what happened when the experiment finished? Did the kids rapidly revert to the status quo? Susan hoped that she and the teenagers had learnt how to use electronic media more deliberately, to make choices consciously rather than unthinkingly.

I wonder. The metaphor of addiction is often used for the way we get hooked by electronic media. If it’s a true addiction, then resuming it after six months cold turkey will have achieved nothing. But Susan uses a different metaphor. We are usually not aware of the habitat in which we live, just as fish are not aware of the water. Her experiment was a way of getting her kids out of the fishbowl of electronic media, so that they became more aware of the habitat and how they can use it in a more conscious way.

In another session, three writers, Alex Miller, Cate Kennedy and Susan Johnson, explored how much writers need to quarantine themselves from electronic media in order to write. They were not against the new technology – Alex’s response to someone who writes with a pen rather than a computer is: Why don’t you use a quill? Why come this far along the technology line and no further? But the panel was concerned with how the internet, infinitely public and banal, could interfere with writing, which is infinitely private and deep. Caught up in the momentum of modern life, what happens to a writer’s need to daydream?

In Driven to Distraction, a recent essay in Overland, Cate Kennedy critiques the intrusiveness of electronic media and laments the battle for writers to “constantly ward off the barrage of stimulus”. She quotes Jonathan Franzen: “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” She uses Wells Towers’ term “gist harvest” for how we read something on the web, and that certainly describes what I do when I check my Google Reader. “What’s the last great book you read,” asks Towers, “where the pleasure lay not in the slow savouring of the language, but in its gist?”

I’m not quite convinced. Can’t we have both? Can’t we have both a gisty web and great books? Doesn’t each writer handle the barrage in their own way, whether it’s managing the intrusions or retreating to a cave?

There was a sting in Susan Maushart’s tale: if her kids’ habitat was electronic media, what’s hers? What is she swimming in, unawares? Answer: print. To leap out of her fishbowl, she would have to give up reading for six months.


One Comment leave one →
  1. Claire Wood permalink
    November 26, 2010 3:27 pm

    I agree with you Bryce. Blaming the internet, or indeed any technology for the behaviour of its users (and abusers) is completely avoiding the issue. People, writers, murderers, cooks, warmongers, etc must all be made responsible for their use (and misuse) of technology. That goes for all human inventions, developments and creations.

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