THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Book Review

Without being wired, family connected again

By Chuck Leddy
February 9, 2011

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Susan Maushart, a divorced mother of three teenagers, noticed how digital technology, from Facebook to online gaming to constant text messaging, had fractured her family into independent fiefdoms. Connected only to their devices and their online “friends,’’ the Maushart family had stopped eating together and rarely held real-world conversations. As Maushart puts it, “I started considering . . . the possibility that the more we connect, the further we may drift, the more fragmented we may become.’’

After rereading “Walden,’’ about Henry David Thoreau’s famous two-year stint living in solitude alongside a Concord pond, Maushart, a journalist and social scientist with a doctorate from New York University in communication arts and science, was inspired to begin her own experiment in mindful living: For a six-month period, she would allow her family no in-home access to any screen, including computers, cellphones, and televisions. Needless to say, her teenagers were less than thrilled, but, as Maushart’s provocative, funny, and highly personal memoir shows, it changed them all profoundly.

Maushart’s narrative contains loads of eye-opening scientific data about how digital technology has changed our living patterns. Maushart winningly blends the personal and the scientific, and her narrative tone throughout is amusingly self-effacing. Her teenagers roll their eyes when she explains how things were different when she was young. “In my day,’’ she says, “if you wanted to play violent interactive games, watch inappropriate content, and converse with dodgy strangers, you had to wait for a family reunion.’’

The first days of unplugged living brought confusion and boredom. They were compelled to rely on their own resources, to use their imaginations to fill the gaps. Son Bill’s transformation shocks Maushart most, as she watches him go from obsessive online gamer to practicing the saxophone and even falling in love with reading books. Without the ability to text message or constantly post on Facebook while they do their homework, daughters Anni and Sussy learn the magic of mono-tasking, thus improving their schoolwork.

Most of all, the family improves the quality of their communication in nondigital settings, gathering for meals and conversations, visiting each other’s rooms to talk and play games. “[W]e found ourselves ‘tuning in’ to one another in unexpected ways,’’ writes Maushart proudly. “We lingered more around the dinner table and talked. . . . We pulled out old photo albums and talked.’’

Thoreau would have smiled. Simplifying life made the Mausharts more satisfied, forced them to become conscious of the pleasures they had ignored, compelled them to look inside themselves and to one another for the entertainment and connectedness they craved. By book’s end, Maushart’s own prose turns downright Thoreauvian: We “learned to find diversion in the unlikeliest places: in the morning shadows on a bedroom wall . . . in the suddenly revelatory details of a suburban streetscape. . . . We looked around for some substitute means of soothing our spirits and found among other things each other.’’

Even if you must download Maushart’s humane and provocative memoir onto your e-reader, it’s well worth doing. Like Thoreau, Maushart’s definitely swimming against the current of our Information Age, but it’s inspirational to watch someone marching so blithely to the beat of a different drum.

Chuck Leddy can be reached at chuckleddy@comcast.net.

THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONNECT:

How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept With Her iPhone) Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale

By Susan Maushart

Tarcher/Penguin, 278 pp., $16.95