Plugged In to the Outer Cape
by Jill Schneiderman, guest contributor
Sand dunes at Wellfleet. (photo: Joshua Bousel/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
“If you don’t teach your children to be alone, they’ll only always know how to be lonely.”
—Sherry Turkle, from “Alive Enough? Reflections on Our Technology”
The founder of MIT’s Initiative on Technology and Self made this remark in the context of describing the awe she feels when she walks among the magnificent dunes near Provincetown, Massachusetts. I know well those sand dunes and the extensive tidal mudflats that mark the tip of the Cape.
Dr. Turkle thinks of these places as sacred spaces, and I agree. I take my earth science students there to witness the work of wind, water, and sand. And, for a week or two each summer, I go with my children so we can experience the flow of the tides. These are indeed remarkable places in the landscape ripe with possibilities for self-realization.
I take my geology students to the dunes and mudflats of the Outer Cape so that they can experience the vast time scales and spaces of earth system processes.
A satellite view of Cape Cod. (photo courtesy of NASA)
The Cape itself, as some readers may know, owes its existence to the great ice sheets that extended as far south as Long Island during the late Pleistocene more than 10,000 years ago. The mud of the tidal flats and the sand of the dunes are the glacial debris, reworked and sorted by the wind and water long after the ice sheet retreated north.
Other reminders of the presence of the massive ice cover in the region are cliffs above the dune fields — the edge of the glacial moraine (a pile of boulders pushed along as the ice pushed south) — and freshwater ponds of neighboring Truro and Wellfleet (“kettle holes” formed when stadium-sized chunks of ice broke off the glacier, became engulfed by glacial sediment, and then melted). All of these features stretch for miles and remind me and all my geologically time-traveling companions that 18,000 years ago — a seemingly long time — this portion of the Earth was covered by a one mile-thick sheet of ice.
Wellfleet Bay Audubon Sanctuary. (photo: Susan Cole Kelly/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
Encountering this landscape cultivates in me, and I hope in my students, what Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement.” For me, this is a soothing feeling of awe and connection. Walking in the dunes or across these mudflats puts me in touch with deep time — for the particles that compose them may themselves be millions of years old, silt and sand moved there merely thousands of years before.
Although we walk among them today, the particles have been through many cycles of existence. Formerly they were part of a mountainous land mass; subsequently they were eroded, transported, and deposited at least once. Each grain has an individual history. Collectively they tell a story that encompasses swaths of time that hold all of humanity. I find this reality comforting.
The sands of Provincetown’s dunes. (photo: Leonarda DaSilva/Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0)
Dr. Turkle worries helpfully about the inner effects of digital objects. Though she acknowledges the benefits of digital connection, Dr. Turkle laments what people lose as they take to the dunes and mudflats with their earphones in and handheld electronic devices on and open. To her mind, people lose the ability to feel at peace in their own company. I agree, but also would like to suggest that by unplugging from the electronic world in such sacred spaces we increase our capacity to encounter entities larger than ourselves — vast time scales, and past and ongoing earth processes. Thus we enhance our ability to connect with the earth system of which we are a powerful part, and this experience lessens loneliness.
Jill S. Schneiderman is Professor of Earth Science at Vassar College. She’s also the editor of and contributor to For the Rock Record: Geologists on Intelligent Design and The Earth Around Us: Maintaining a Livable Planet. She blogs at Shambhala SunSpace and Earth Dharma.
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Listeners Respond to Sherry Turkle’s Insights on Technology and Living Fully
by Susan Leem, associate producer
"(don’t) Cry" (photo: Pedro Klien/Flickr, CC by 2.0)
The fresh ears of our listeners and their own experiences of our show with Sherry Turkle are helpful in absorbing parts of her message that might have slipped by the first time. Following are several we found enlightening and funny:
Rick Silveira of San Diego, California taught me a new phrase:
"As I listened to Turkle’s unedited comments I am reminded of the FOMO factor, the ‘fear of missing out,’ and how social media fills that gap for some."
I can see it being a major force to keep people involved in social media. But what else do you miss out on while trying to quell that fear? I also loved that he was listening to the unedited version of Krista’s interview when this phrase came to mind, trying not to miss a beat!
Our senior editor particularly likes this humor-filled, self-effacing response from Ken Hyatt, a retired chaplain in the U.S. Navy who now lives in Grantsburg, Wisconsin:
"Recently I’ve been catching myself sending emails to my wife while she’s sitting in the same room a mere arm’s length away at another computer. She has expressed valid complaints to this situation: "Just talk to me!” is her plea. This awareness has revealed my own hypocrisy when I rail at others who concentrate on sending text messages while ignoring the person with whom they’re conversing, or having lunch with. …
Finland, the land of my ancestors, has more computers, cell phones, and modern communications technology per capita than anywhere else on the planet. I have a growing conviction that it is the way we Finns deal with our fear of face-to-face communication, and by extension, a certain fear of intimacy. I have come a long way in that regard, but I have a considerable distance yet to go, as a 72-year-old who is still ‘on the way.’”
In another thoughtful reflection, librarian Marcia Jackson of Ashburn, Virginia describes her affluent neighborhood library where parents have continued for years to turn out for storytime in droves, as devoted parents do. But something is keeping them from really being there:
"I look out over the sea of faces and see adults texting, checking email, playing solitaire, etc… The other thing I see, which I find greatly ironic, is the obsession with taking photos of their kids with their smartphones. So, they can’t actually interact with the child yet they feel the need the record the moment and post the photo on their Facebook page or blog. The end result is that the kids are not the same… they aren’t getting the most out of their library experience and they’ve turned into little performers in front of the camera to get their parents’ attention.
As I sat down to clip coupons on Sunday (without any technology at hand incidentally), my own toddler rushed at me and begged me to stop because she knew I’d be out of commission for an hour. Sherry Turkle pushes us to think about what drives our relationship with technology, but, more importantly, reminds us of what we’re trying to protect and preserve — the ability to be more than just physically present, to be alive.