My Love-Hate Relationship With Technology and Social Networking

A column by Ruth Hopkins about modern technology.

Every now and again, I suffer from bouts of technology fatigue. I remember a simpler time. When I was a kid growing up on the rez, we didn’t have cell phones—heck, we didn’t even have voicemail or caller ID. Sometimes we didn’t have a phone in our house at all. Atari, then Nintendo existed, but we couldn’t afford one. Video games were in arcades. Laptops? Not quite. My brother had a Commodore 64 that he plugged into an old black and white TV. No cable, and no Blu-ray or DVD player either. We had three channels, received thanks to rabbit ears festooned with tin foil.

Looking back on it, having a lack of tech device access as a child allowed me to live a charmed life and flourish. During the summer, I’d wake up at sunrise, play outside all day long, and come in at sundown. My friends (mostly cousins) and I would swim at the lake, ride our bikes, build forts, play sports, and explore. I’d come home with skinned knees and elbows, covered in dirt, and usually carrying a woodtick or two, but the fresh air kept me healthy.

We didn’t have Kindles or e-books. Instead, during the school year I used the Dewey Decimal System to find secret treasures in the library so I could page through books that opened the doors of my imagination. In winter, there were snow tunnels to be built, and Saturdays were spent sledding or ice skating on ponds.

By the time I got to high school, bulky dinosaur personal computers, dial-up internet access, and cell phones entered the picture. Still, they weren’t employed for daily usage like they are now.

These days I feel like I’m mere steps away from literally plugging my brain into a modem. Because of my aptitudes and chosen professions, on a typical workday I’m on a computer for hours at a time. I’m logged into multiple social networks 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Emails, voicemails, updates and text messages pop up on my smartphone around the clock. If we’re truly inundated and overrun with technology and social media, I’m part of the problem.

Yet in 2012, being tech savvy, especially as a student or a professional, is mandatory. I’ve taught lessons as a professor in lecture bowls full of students on laptops. In meetings, people sit around tables checking their calendars on their phones and texting contacts for further information. Such behavior is no longer considered rude. It’s expected.

I’m not the only one who has the primal desire to unplug and go "off-grid." Just the other day I was commiserating with others about how much we miss actual face-to-face human communication, connecting with nature, and being more active, and how we’ve grown tired of being forever online. We complained about seeing toddlers in strollers with Ipads, and how social networks expose us to an endless parade of duck face pictures while breeding narcissism. Then we traded jabs toward the iconic "Big Brother"—the all-seeing eye of technology ala Zuckerberg and Siri, who seems to have invaded every aspect of our lives, and who we feel have robbed us of much of our privacy. Ironically enough, this convo took place on Twitter.

Don’t get me wrong, technology has afforded us tremendous benefits. It has become invaluable to human communication. Unless you’re deep in Indian country or in a few other remote locales, you can get a hold of someone anywhere within seconds, regardless of distance or weather. While a few Natives may complain that dodging the spouse is much harder now, at least we know if we’re lost in a snowstorm or breakdown in the dead of night on some remote gravel road, thanks to our handheld devices, we’ll be found. Social networks save me a bundle on postage and long distance charges too.

Social networks breakdown barriers. You can friend or follow someone from any race, creed, religion, culture, or nationality. In this way, internet access is a great equalizer. It gives us the opportunity to communicate with a wide variety of people and exchange information. Studies have shown that kids who use social networks are more empathetic and accepting of diversity as well.

We live in a global society, largely in thanks to technology and social networking. Social media has become an active conduit for free speech, and social change. The revolution may not be televised, but it will be tweeted. Words, written or spoken, hold weight, convey influence and sway the life decisions of thousands—even millions. To ignore such an opportunity to carry our message to masses would be foolish. As Natives who weld words, we now count coup with keystrokes.

Yes, social networks and tech devices can be addictive and distracting—but if we’re not fully engaged with our surroundings, it’s no one’s fault but our own. Current high-tech devices and modes of communication are so new and are evolving so quickly we have yet to adapt to it. Like everything else in life, it’s up to us to practice moderation. We can still go off-grid as needed, and have the best of both worlds (Hi-tech, green, Native commune, anyone?). Balance life online with socializing face-to-face. It’s a beautiful day- go outside and get some sun. We decide whether technology is a blessing, or a burden.

Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton/Mdewakanton/Hunkpapa) is a writer, speaker,former science professor and tribal attorney. She is a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network and LastRealIndians.com.