What does it mean to be a "tech mom"?

Photo via mariachily @ Flickr

When I was recently asked to sit on a panel of “tech moms” at an event in Chicago, my initial reaction was “But I’m not a tech mom!”

In some ways, it’s true. I don’t care much about the latest and greatest apps. The only reason I use a smart phone at all is that my gadget-geek husband got me a Droid as a surprise a couple years back (at the time I would have said “without consulting me first”), and after a while I got used to the functionality of a smart phone. Sure, I love the ability to text, tweet, email and check my calendar all from the same device, but I was happy before knew I could do those things.

So I’ve never thought of myself as a “tech mom.” To me that descriptor has always conjured up an image of a mother running her entire life from her phone, joining the coolest new social networks before most of the “early-ish adopters” have even heard of them, reading Engadget daily and following along with technology chats on Twitter.

And that’s not me.

But then I thought about it a little more. Sure, I’m not much of a gadget enthusiast – I like what works for me, which tends to be what I’m used to – but I was a pretty early adapter to the internet. My online participation intensified after my first son was born in 1997, and since then the Web has been a major part of my day-to-day life as a mom and especially, as a working mom. To me – somebody who more comfortably inhabits the world of words and thoughts and discussion more than a world of wires and moving parts – that never felt like technology, it felt like communication. But I think I’m starting to see that increasingly, the two are one and the same.

And I had to laugh at myself as, during our two-hour ride to the Microsoft Store in the Chicago suburbs for the Bump Club and Beyond event, I used the 4G mobile hotspot via my Motorola Xoom (disclosure: Verizon Wireless sent me one to try out) to get online and pull together notes for my talk, while simultaneously tweeting, checking my Facebook page, and moderating comments on a blog post. Okay, so maybe I couldn’t tell you the ten hottest smartphone apps for kids, but a tech mom? Yep, I guess I am one.

Well, and I guess most of us are: those of us who write blogs and those who just read them; anyone who sends their kid or sister or husband texts during the day or uses the internet to find a playgroup address or check the school calendar or research a day-care center. Even those of us who love paper and feel conflicted about video games and social media for kids and downright hate it when people don’t put their cell phones down when ordering at a restaurant are still engaging with technology, albeit on our own terms.

Maybe that‘s the key.

In the comments to my last post on technology, JulianaB said:

I think the biggest part of living with technology is negotiating with it, and many people do not do that. The Amish have negotiated with technology for centuries, and have it down to an art. (I found The Riddle of Amish Culture by Donald Kraybill to be particularly enlightening in this area). Too often we simply accept technology wholesale without putting any limits on it. Technology cries out for unfettered use, but I think our humanity suffers without limits.

What a great point. Juliana’s quote inspired me to do a little reading of my own – this simple explanation and this longer and more detailed analysis of the Amish and their use of technology. From the first article (boldfacing mine):

“As is typical of the Amish, when a new technology comes along, its effect on the church and community is examined. The technology should not be an intrusion into the home, but rather serve the social purposes and goals of the group. With that in mind, the Amish often re-purpose the technology, in a sense, to align with their community beliefs.”

Maybe that’s why, these days, it’s easy to feel uneasy about technology’s ever-expanding grip on our lives. Often the tech seems to control us, instead of the other way around. Instead of deciding what our family’s values and goals are and then figuring out a way to incorporate technology into the way we want to live, we change our lives to fit around the technology. I guess we could learn something from the Amish in that way.

On the other hand, I think it’s safe to say that most of us won’t be getting rid of electric lights or telephones any time soon. And I love the internet and the way it’s developed over the years. It’s allowed me to work from home, pursuing a career as a writer in a way that would have been impossible for my own mother. My phone lets me check for directions on the fly. My Xoom lets me take my Google docs with me and consult my calendar on the go so I can live more flexibly. Tech is great – when I use it, instead of letting it control me.

Because we don’t have to have the latest gadget or be one of the first 1000 people on Google + to get the most of out technology. If we miss this fad, there will be another one along in ten minutes or so. But you also don’t have to shun smart phones or tablets or swear off social media entirely to stay true to yourself or engaged with your family and community.

On the other hand, maybe you really enjoy being an early-early adopter or feel more connected and grounded when you keep your hands free. The question we have to ask ourselves, I suppose, is why are we using tech, and whether the way we’re using it supporting or getting in the way of the lives we want to live.

For me, being a “tech mom” will always be about communication. If it wasn’t for my ability to connect with other people via the internet and smartphones, I’d be perfectly happy to go back twenty years, when getting in touch with a friend necessitated a call from a phone stuck to the wall with a cord. Maybe you’re “plugged in” for a different reason, like entertainment or useful apps or just because you love trying new things. I guess all we can do is check in with ourselves every now and then to make sure we’re here for the right reasons – for us, and for our families.

In the meanwhile, I got a kick out of sitting on my first “tech mom” panel (and I’ll share details of my talk in a future post.) As my fellow panelists Amy and Melisa and I talked about everything from online resources for moms to social-media safety for kids, I got the comforting sense that we are all just figuring this stuff out as we go along. There’s no point at which it will be “too late” to negotiate with technology and the way we use it in our homes and lives.

And I think the first step is understanding what we hope to get out of technology in the first place, so that we can allow it to “serve the social purposes and goals of the group.” I know that for me, having that understanding in place will help me feel a lot better about pulling out my smart phone next time I’m sitting on the playground bench.

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