I’ve been noticing lately not how the digital world has been intruding upon our lives, but rather, how it’s been helping. We recently went on a long trip and I definitely noticed how our lives have been changed by digital devices and media.
One way that digital devices and media have changed our lives is the manner and frequency of our contact with our family and friends. For many years now, I’ve been taking digital photos, which was probably the first significant change I made. It made quite a difference in how much money it took to send recent photos of the kids to Grandma!
For a long time, I maintained a website, where I uploaded photos and wrote narratives of our lives. More recently, I largely upload my photos to a photo-sharing site, and tell Grandma to choose the ones she wants prints of. Both kids e-mail with her on a regular basis. Because they see my parents more regularly, they are less likely to send e-mail, but it’s great that they can connect with Grandma, who is now in Florida.
I do also use Facebook, though I’m generally uncomfortable using it as a personal information-sharing tool. The reason for this is that because my business is so tied into my personal life, I have ended up with lots of Facebook “friends” who are not friends at all. I’m sure I would love them if our physical lives crossed, of course (I’m not dissing my “friends” or my friends!), but I know the difference between “friends” and friends, and I am more cautious in how I share our intimate details there.
Now that I have a phone that takes video, our video sharing has changed dramatically. I used to send Grandma VHS tapes, then DVDs. Now I send her shorter, single videos of something the kids have done. It’s more immediate, and less work for me. Grandma used to receive long tapes or DVDs on which I’d simply dump a month’s worth of video — I didn’t have time to edit! Now, because I can send things off immediately, I only send the stuff I know she’ll be interested in.
When my husband and I first bought the house where we live, my younger sister and I were in business together. So she and I inhabited the small bedroom downstairs which is now my daughter’s bedroom, and my husband worked upstairs in the small office that we later remodeled into a large shared office and our son’s bedroom. My sister thought it was funny that my husband and I would call each other on the phone to exchange information or just chat. We also e-mailed from one end of the house to the other.
But better than phones and e-mail have been two digital revolutions that have literally changed our family dynamic. The first was shared digital calendars. Early on, I had to e-mail my husband and ask him to put something on his calendar, such as an event we were going to or a time he had to pick up a child on his way home from work. Then I got a paid service where we could sync our calendars together. This seemed like a complete revolution in our lives. No longer did I have to e-mail him and did he have to put things on his calendar — my calendar would just automatically show up in his. But things got better: These days we use Google Calendar, a free service, which we both can edit and share. So we can now both make changes both to our household calendar and the kids’ “school” calendars. He and I seldom have to waste time talking about the functional aspects of our lives together, which is actually quite wonderful!
The second change was when I bit the bullet and invested in a phone that could get my e-mail. My husband had already done that (he’s in the industry so he’s a much earlier adopter than I am), and now we can assume that at some point during the day, even if I’m out and about or he’s in meetings, our e-mail will actually be read. Though I do have to be careful not to become one of those people who checks her e-mail when she should be having conversations with people (yeah, that’s you, Mom!), this is again a time- and energy-saving device. I call my husband because I actually want to talk to him, not to transmit information that is better transmitted when it’s convenient for him to get it.
At my husband’s prodding I started using Evernote. This is the most amazing service if you have a web-capable cellphone. You create “notes” on your computer that magically appear on your phone, and vice versa. Why is that magic, you ask?
Well, let’s see: I’m in a bookstore and I’m trying to remember that book I wanted that the library doesn’t have. Oh, I wish I had my book list with me… Hey, I do! Or I’m out and about and I need to record some information, and I just stick it into Evernote so it’s waiting for me on my computer when I get home. You can even e-mail things into your Evernote account. My most recent adaptation of it is that I have transferred all the recipes I have stored on my computer into Evernote. I can stick my phone into the clear plastic cookbook holder we have so it’s protected, and use it in the kitchen. Last night, I wanted to make a family favorite, spaetzle. The recipe I use is in The Joy of Cooking, which is way up on a high shelf in the kitchen because we don’t use it very often. This time, I got it down, and instead of using it to cook with, I took the time to input the few ingredients and their measures into a note. Now I’ve got it for future use and won’t need to keep that cookbook anywhere accessible.
I also keep tons of homeschooling information on there, such as the list of books upcoming for our book club, so I always have it with me. And I have theoretically set it up to keep information I need for my writing, though I haven’t used it for that purpose much yet.
I wrote some time ago about how we had bought a Nook (Barnes & Noble’s version of a book reader like the Kindle) as part of our family effort to use less stuff. We canceled our newspaper subscription and now I read the newspaper every morning digitally (and we still pay for it, which is important to me, given that I am part of a changing industry and I would still like to be paid!). This has been moderately successful. I have to say, I really hate the device itself: its touch screen doesn’t register my touches (for some reason, my fingers don’t seem conductive enough on touch screens and only really good ones work for me!), and the buttons you click to page through are actually quite hard to press for someone with tendonitis and carpal tunnel syndrome. However, here’s where the phone and the digital revolution come in: Though I’m not terribly happy with the Nook’s physical self, it comes with a Nook account. And now there is Android software for my phone. So even better than reading the newspaper on the Nook itself is having reading material with me wherever I go. Old books are free or very cheap, so I bought a cheap collection of everything the Bronte sisters ever wrote. That’ll keep me going for a while. I can also read the newspaper. And I don’t have to consume any paper to do these things. When before I might have bought a cheap paperback that wouldn’t survive through multiple readings, now I have a digital copy of the book that cost so little I don’t mind if I don’t read it again. And since the Nook also has an app for the iPhone, my son can read books on his iPod as well. Nifty! (And I still buy hardcover books if I want them on my shelves forever.)
Another innovation of the digital world is e-statements. We have pretty much stopped receiving paper statements from our various accounts, and this has been almost a seamless experience. With one exception, our e-statements and e-bills have successful come to our e-mail or Billpay system, and in many cases we pay with no paper, no postage, and no gasoline involved. Again, bad thing for the postal service, great thing for the earth. My husband has the job of filing what we need to keep, and once every few months the shredder would go for hours. These days, we hardly ever fill the shredder bin. I get e-statements with all those superfluous pages that they have to put in for legal reasons, and I can simply ignore them.
We love books on tape. We get every one the library has. We anxiously await more. The very best thing that has happened to audiobooks is e-audiobooks. No more changing CDs. No more wishing a book on tape could be played in our car. Either my phone or my son’s iPod gets plugged directly into our car’s audio system (it’s not a new car so we had to buy adapters for this, but it does work). And here’s the biggest plus: Both of my kids are literally pacified by words. If there are words coming in, somehow it almost always derails their fighting instincts. We have calm, fun, instructive car rides. Sometimes they beg to sit in the car a little bit longer when we get into the garage! And if we arrive early for something? We’re set.
Too much in touch?
So yes, I think there are drawbacks to this digital world. I have, a couple of times, found myself scanning my e-mail when I shouldn’t have been. I missed something important that was said or I spaced out when I was supposed to be engaged with other people. But I’m working hard to resist the temptation, especially because it so annoys me when other people do it. But I have to say that the digitally inspired changes in our lives lately have largely been positive. Unlike in the past, when installing new software or adopting a new system was a nail-biter, given how much could go wrong, these days I find that I can know within a short time whether someone’s new app is a life-changing innovation or just another thing vying for my attention. As long as I resist the temptations (Scrabble on the subway in NYC sure was fun), the benefits have been great.