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a bread-fueled existential crisis
or my current thoughts about the internet, technology, and life.
It’s raining outside and I sit in Panera again, taking advantage of the every other week childcare provided by my mother-in-law on Mondays. My mind flits between too many topics to name, a primary one being the intersection of the internet, my life, technology at large, and my writing.
Every other week, it seems, left to my own devices and freed from the demands of mothering for more than a naptime, my mind comes back here. This means I’ll have a lot to talk to my husband about over dinner and during our daily walk. The topic likely won’t surprise him.
After all, every other week it would seem, I come home from six hours at Panera, side by side with our smiling son, another internet/technology related existential crisis stuffed in my pocket. This one has arrived right on cue.
I listen to a daily news podcast. It’s my sole source of news in today’s world of over information (and often resulting overwhelm).
Over the weekend, they did a special edition episode about ChatGPT, a topic I’ve heard about and regarded primarily with indifference and a complete lack of interest. As a stay-at-home mom of a one-year-old, I feel no desire or need for an AI chat bot in my life.
The guest’s message is clear: I’m wrong.
Even as a stay-at-home mom, there is use for this new technology in my life. I can give it information about my life and child, and “save so much time” having it create a list of activities for my son to do this summer, complete with Amazon shopping list. Because what mom would want to spend her time doing that on her own?
Get on board, the guest says, or get left behind.
Part of my rhythm on these Mondays is to do a bit of reading, usually a nonfiction book on a topic I find of interest. Last time it was “Walkable City” by Jeff Speck. This week it’s “Momfluenced” by Sara Petersen.
No longer on social media and highly particular about the content I read online, influencers are largely removed from my life. Any comparison that takes place or aspiration for a “better” form of motherhood comes from conversations with people in my everyday life or the never ending drive for betterment that takes place in my own brain.
Still, I’m curious.
The mom influencer culture Petersen writes about may not be part of my own life anymore, but it is part of the lives of many of my friends.
As I read, I have to fight against the bubbling sense of superiority that I’m doing motherhood (or life in general) “better” than any of them because I stepped away from social media, we don’t own a tv, and my husband and I regularly have conversations about pulling the plug on all tv/film streaming services.
Even when I was on social media, I avoided the influencer culture (of any kind) pretty heavily and can’t think of a single thing I bought because of one of them.
It’s likely that I first heard about Lovevery from the internet in some capacity, but the reason a year’s worth of their play kits sit in my son’s playroom is because my sister and sister-in-law said they were worth it.
There’s a heatless curling set in my bathroom that I first learned about from someone I follow online, but it wasn’t until both of my sisters said it actually worked that I spent the money to get one myself.
But even these thoughts feed into what often happens in the culture Petersen writes about: comparison. For some, they feel worse because they don’t do motherhood “right” based on what they see. For others, they feel better because they’re doing motherhood “better” than what they see.
Feeling better or feeling worse, the comparison is still toxic. I don’t want this kind of thinking to play into my mothering period, but I especially don’t want it to happen because of people online I’ve never met before.
“You averaged 3 hours, 58 minutes of screen time per day last week.”
The weekly reminder pops up on Sunday morning, like it always does. My stomach drops a little. The good news is the notification doesn’t tell me it’s “X% more than last week,” which means screen time remained steady. The bad news is the notification doesn’t tell me it’s “X% less than last week,” which means, for at least two weeks in a row, I spent an average of four hours with my eyes on a screen.
Practically, I know there’s more nuance to it than that.
Some of those hours were actually my husband, because “my” iPad is, in many respects, a shared one, since he only uses his for work. Some of those hours were both of us enjoying a show or movie together. Still some of those hours were FaceTime or Marco Polo, using technology to connect with family and friends far away, which is undoubtedly a blessing.
Even with the nuance in the back of my head, the notification is still something of a gut punch, because was that really how I wanted to spend that time? I don’t know for sure, but in most cases, probably not.
My family is preparing for a week-long vacation. And when I say “family,” I mean all of us—parents, siblings, spouses, and the growing number of nieces and nephews.
We’re going to a retreat center I spent many summers at throughout high school and college. It’s pretty much in the middle of nowhere, situated on 1100+ acres of mountains and rolling hills.
During my summers there, you could get cell phone service in approximately three locations on the property, one of which was only after going on an hour+ hike. This wasn’t really a big deal, as it was before the ubiquitousness of smartphones and before I ever owned one. Back when not having service simply meant you couldn’t get text messages or phone calls, because that’s all your phone did.
No one much cared about it, because so much was happening around you, so a text from someone back home didn’t matter all that much. Especially since you could catch up with those people on your weekly day off.
In the summer of 2009, I remember a friend coming to visit several of us and telling us Michael Jackson had died. We were momentarily shocked… and then life went on. Because the death of a celebrity didn’t matter overmuch in comparison to the lives we were living.
It’s been nine years since I last went to this place. It’s possible the cell service has improved since then or they’ve added Wi-Fi, but I don’t really care, because what will be most important during that week will be whatever is happening right around me. Everything else can wait.
Recently, my husband and I have been having a lot of conversations about our next home. We’re multiple years and at least two children removed from outgrowing our current three-bedroom condo, so it isn’t a pressing matter. The conversations are part dreaming and part my incessant need to plan ahead and feel like I have some semblance of control, even for a situation four or five years down the road.
For the last two years, this future nebulous home was to be on two acres. This is due to my husband’s great desire for backyard chickens and a county regulation that requires two acres in order to own said chickens. (Turns out, you can actually have backyard chickens on less than two acres, you just need a special permit. And permission from your neighbors. I have a theory on which is more difficult to obtain.)
More recently, the conversations have shifted, as I’ve had to remind my husband, whose ideal living situation is off-the-grid in the mountains of Montana, that he married the girl who, a mere six months before their first date, was about to sign the lease on an apartment and move to downtown Charleston.
We’re now talking about the possibility of a single family home (in order to have both a backyard and a garage) within walking distance of the historic town we currently live nearby and have come to love, and additional property elsewhere (read: somewhere way less expensive than Northern Virginia). It would mean my husband has to give up his dream of backyard chickens, but it still ticks a lot of our boxes.
As we talk about this theoretical future home, it strikes me that, whether on two acres or less, in a more secluded location or walking distance of town, the purpose doesn’t change. We still want a home where our family can connect and be together, we still want a home where we can invite others in, and both of those things happen in the offline world.
Apple announced their new virtual reality headset last week, presumably to compete with other companies who have entered the virtual reality market.
When I hear about it, I wonder if the term “virtual reality” is an oxymoron. If reality is “the quality or state of being real,” can something that is virtual ever truly be called reality?
As with ChatGPT, my general response to Apple or anyone’s virtual reality headset is indifference and lack of interest. I have no desire or need for it in my own life, and I am confident of this, even if some guest expert on a podcast soon says otherwise. (To be clear, I’m also confident about my lack of need for ChatGPT.)
The world around us seems to be running full speed ahead toward an actual reality where technology is embedded into literally every aspect of our lives. At the same time, there is a growing number of people, in all sectors, who are speaking out against this, highlighting the potential dangers of the platforms and tools that have taken over the lives of so many over the past two decades.
For several months now, I’ve been pondering various aspects of this conversation, topic, and debate, usually coinciding with my biweekly Panera days. I jokingly call these thoughts an existential crisis because week after week, regardless of the particular aspect I’m considering, I don’t have all the answers. I often feel like I don’t have any, and I’m often left questioning what the next step is for me.
Though at times I’m tempted, I don’t want to stick my head in the sand and ignore the reality of the world around me. At the same time, I recoil from the idea that we should follow the cultural trend of all the technology in all the places.
Virtual may seem cool, but virtual isn’t reality. The data is clear at this point that, while the internet is not a universal bad, many of the platforms that are now widespread in our culture often cause more harm than good. We were not created to live primarily or exclusively in a digital world.
I still don’t have all the answers, even months into this topic taking up a somewhat ridiculous amount of space in my brain. Some weeks I feel like the answer is to burn it all down and run far, far away from anything online. Some weeks I am so, so grateful for the beautiful things, people, and opportunities the internet has brought into my life. Most weeks it’s a little bit of both.
And maybe it’s not about taking an extreme position—be that living entirely off the grid in Montana or entirely immersed in a digital “reality”—but about intentionally choosing to use technology for the ways it improves our lives based on what we value, not what we’re “supposed” to do (or do out of fear of being “left behind”).
Maybe that’s the answer, maybe it’s not. Like I said, I don’t really know. But maybe, just maybe, I’ll figure it out during my next biweekly existential crisis.
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