1986: Utopia?

I recently heard a story about a family in Canada who are living like it’s 1986. They have given up all forms of technology that were not invented before that year, which is when parents Blair McMillan and Morgan Patey were born. They want to raise their kids just like they were raised, without all the noise of today’s technology-crazed society. The father, Blair, willingly sports a mullet. Now that’s commitment. Or maybe just an excuse.

Why a trip down memory lane? Well, it’s the kids’ fault. One day, Blair asked his son Trey to come play outside, but Trey was too busy swiping his little finger across his dad’s iPad and that was that. He paid for this mistake dearly. “When I was a kid,” Blair told The Toronto Sun, “I lived outside.” The idea that Trey was more content sitting in front of a screen than climbing a tree was unacceptable.

That’s when they swore off the Internet, cell phones and anything that begins with “i.” Out the door they went. CDs weren’t widely distributed yet in 1986 either, which surprised me because they already seem archaic nowadays. It’s hard to believe they were barely available in the late 1980s. So cassette tapes are now Blair’s only source of music. Y’know, those rectangular, plastic things with two holes that you sometimes see in vintage shops.

McMillan and Patey are trying for a year what most of us would find unthinkable. Giving up Facebook for Lent is about as far as my friends have gone, and that feels pretty huge. I think they may even have suffered withdrawal symptoms. Imagine going completely cold-turkey by saying goodbye to your cellphone, personal computer, Netflix, Hulu and the Internet in general. It would be a foreign existence. The Internet has always been there. It’s like, well, part of the family.

McMillan and Patey kicked that family member out and didn’t bother to wave goodbye. They even braved a road trip across the United States without technology. They used a map to find their way, and the kids had to settle for coloring books and stickers to keep themselves entertained. Talk about traumatic.

On the one hand, I love what they’re doing. I wish I could be as brave. As I write this, a mother and toddler are sitting in the booth next to me. The mother’s been on her cell phone the entire time and the little guy is talking to himself as she texts. No, I’m not judging her. I’m sure she’s a fabulous mom. It’s not about that. It’s just that today, technology affects every area of our lives—how much we interact with each other on a personal level, how much we see the world around us and how we rest. It worms its way into every part of our day. To do away with that would radically change our relationships. McMillan says that without technology, “We’re just closer, there’s more talking.” Maybe we’d all be a bit closer.

The problem is, it’s not realistic. We don’t live in 1986. It’s 2013 with all of the mini-screens and 140 character conversations. As much as we might want to, we can’t ignore technology. It’s here to stay. I started thinking about McMillan’s kids and how in schools today, it’s becoming more and more common for children to learn to use iPads, Internet-based textbooks and Youtube tutorials. The future of our education system is web-based. Is it really helpful for parents to have no access to tools that their children will need in order to be successful in school? Furthermore, McMillan admits that he lost his business partner as a result of his decision to go old school. That’s not surprising. Getting the most basic of jobs today requires a basic level of technological savvy.

If we say goodbye to it, we’re really not living in the present. As nice as the past might seem, it’s still the past. What if, instead of tossing technology out the window, we learn how to manage it in a healthy way? What if we learned the art of moderation and taught our children how to control their gadgets, instead of being controlled by them? What a concept.

Human beings tend to swing endlessly back and forth on pendulums, and neither side is necessarily any better than the other. If we learned to find a place of tension in the midst of it all—healthy relationships and lifestyles, together with technology that continually vies for our attention—we might actually be happier.

We’d be teaching our kids and ourselves tools we could use the rest of our lives. These tools would empower us to make technology work toward our needs, not the other way around. Instead of feeling like we’re at its mercy, learning how to turn the phone off, close the laptop and stop swiping the tablet is a far better skill than denying these things exist.

McMillan and Patey are definitely on to something. I just think it can be done in 2013 instead of in a time machine.