As a resident of downtown Manhattan, my family and I were affected by Hurricane Sandy. But the worst that happened to us was losing power and water, and having to walk up and down 28 flights of stairs to get ourselves and our stuff out of our apartment so we could move to our dear friend’s apartment on the Upper East Side (where we are now totally safe and comfortable). Our kids feel displaced and are missing their routines and friends, and my husband and I are inconvenienced and feel, strangely, like tourists in our own city. But that’s the worst of it. This is obviously NOT a poor me story.
But this experience has opened my eyes to a few things. In addition to teaching me about the enduring kindness of strangers in this supposedly rude and impersonal digital age, this experience has taught me a few new things about the role of technology and social media in my life and in the life of my family. Here are two that have been on my mind:
The Importance of Physical versus Digital Neighbors. After the power went out, the kids on our floor were pretty much technology-free. What did they do? We opened the doors of our apartments, and the kids (including our one-year-old) ran out into the hallway like it was a backyard. Our neighbor Patricia said we should put down grass. The kids brought out toys and started playing store, house, battles, throw and catch, gymnastics. They found a collapsed cardboard box, and like all children, found that to be the best toy of all. My one-year-old got rides on the box from her brother, who would pull her around the hallway. Kids went freely from apartment to apartment. They played with each other like never before. I felt like I was living in an idealized American neighborhood (think Leave it to Beaver, I guess, which makes me June Cleaver? Jeez, you can’t control what leaps to mind can you?). Our doors were open and we fed each other’s kids lunch. Essentially, we dealt with the loss of power by reaching out to our immediate social network in concrete ways. This simple neighborliness was immensely helpful and satisfying. All it took was walking across the hall. In my mind, no digital social network could be as satisfying in the circumstances we were facing. Of course, digital social media and mobile technologies are incredible tools for getting things done – communicating, getting information, keeping up-to-date, seeking and offering support. But, Sandy reminded me of how isolated, on a visceral level, we may start to feel when we forget to just be with the people around us.
Embodied Technology and Phantom Limbs. My iPhone went kaput (got water in it somehow) on Tuesday. This was horrible timing of course because I couldn’t update anyone about our status. But, as many have observed (e.g., JOMO) we often experience great relief and happiness when we can disconnect. However, I wasn’t just feeling happy about shedding the burden of being constantly connected. I was worried and exhausted about my present moment and didn’t have the energy to look outside my current circumstances to communicate with others. I was fairly overwhelmed with getting the kids to safety. Communicating with our digital social network wasn’t going to help at that moment.
At the same time, I observed that this relief was mixed with some panic. How do I get what I need if I don’t have a phone? Luckily, my husband’s phone was working so we definitely had communication, but I, MYSELF, didn’t have a phone, and that was unnerving. Why would that be? I wasn’t disconnected, because I was with my husband and he was connected. Why did I feel disconnected?
To me, this speaks of the psychological aspect of having mobile devices that keep us constantly connected. It’s an embodied experience, having a device in your hand. And you feel it when it’s gone. Like a phantom limb: once you’ve lost the limb, you can still feel it itching. As humans, we’ve evolved to attach to other beings and to things. We anthropomorphize objects and devices so that we can feel a connection to them. Mobile technologies, because they are so deeply about social access and connection, may be high jacking this fundamental aspect of being human. All I know is that once I got uptown, I ran to the Apple store on 5th Avenue (thank you helpful Apple Genius) and got a new phone.
My family and I came out of the storm in great shape and we feel immensely lucky. For me, the biggest take-home message was that when technology is gone, or compromised, my appreciation for the people around me is that much sweeter.