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  • Writer's pictureShari Stein

10-4 Rodger- Use the On/Off Switch

Commodore 64 and CB Radio at home in 1986

Technology helps to improve lives. This is a fact we must admit despite frequent headlines and criticism which highlight "How technology is designed to bring out the worst in us."

How can we best protect ourselves against the potentially harmful effects while taking advantage of the positives? I think about solutions to this dilemma every day and made some valuable connections while observing the anniversary of my father’s death 31 years ago.

I flashed back in time to 1986, the year my father bought our family’s first computer, the Commodore 64. I bet we were one of the first on the block to own a computer! As you can see in the picture, our new computer was front and center. Off to the right was my father’s CB and Ham Radio gear. Like current mobile technology, the CB Radio world provided social connections from home and on the road. It was a precursor to GPS and Waze. Drivers used it to request help in emergencies and also for directions, traffic updates and socializing. It was also used for less scrupulous reasons like warnings about having a “clean shot”- police car spotting and speed traps. As a gadget guy, I imagine my dad would have bought a first generation cell phone, following his passions for both the latest technology and connecting with like-minded people.

There are many reasons why the Internet would have given my father the networking platform he desired. Yet, unlike the more limited CB Radio World, the Internet’s evolution carries harmful possibilities that, today, worry us and drove me to create a digital citizenship curriculum and The DIG Program. CB Radio and the first computers did not provide or draw us in with endless hours of chatting and scrolling. They were much more utilitarian with specific access points and software programs. CB Radios did connect people with both their friends and strangers. Relationships developed. You could not see each other, speaking was necessary and facilitated a connection. The safeguard was how much easier it is to detect problems and “creepiness” when you can hear someone’s voice. Also, there were inherent limits. Sure, you could find someone to talk to at all hours of the day and night, but it was quiet and sparse during “regular” sleeping hours. And, the range was limited to 25 or so miles - there was no worldwide audience.

So, how can this history inform and inspire us to have healthier and safer digital lives now and in the future? First, let’s get back to basic and more personal communication styles, like the only option that CB Radios afforded us- speaking. CB lingo gave us options to abbreviate, but was not ambiguous. Emojis obviate the need for words and are open to (mis)interpretation. When possible, we can opt for in-person or video chatting. Second, let’s set our own limits of use despite the fact that our digital devices are available 24/7. We need to set guidelines for ourselves and not idle away hours on social media, games, videos, mindless surfing, etc. And, third, since the range and scope of our technology is unlimited, the onus is on us to choose what we post and view. Neither first generation computers nor CB Radios gave us the option to post or view information to the entire world. We can choose apps and websites based on the value and positive impact they bring us and our viewers. Before we download, post and share, we need to pause. Back in 1986, it was possible to use the latest technology and stay grounded and hidden. Our screens are now transparent. Let’s clean up our online behavior.

My father could not bring his gadgets to the dinner table or family room. We played board games, watched television together, and went on excursions without interference from technology. There were no headphones for private conversations. On road trips, the CB Radio chatter was a shared experience. We used our family personal computer mostly to make aspects of our lives more efficient. Those Commodore 64 days are long gone. The world is at our fingertips, but so is the on/off switch.

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