The Winter of our Disconnect

The information paradox- that the more data we have, the stupider we become- has a social corollary, too: that the more frantically we connect, one to another, the more disconnected our relationships become. – Susan Maushart

I mentioned this book last week, so it seemed only right to say a bit more about it this week. ‘The Winter of our Disconnect’ by Susan Maushart plots the experiences of one Australian family during a winter giving up technology, the affect that it had on them both as individuals and as a family, and what the experience ultimately taught them.

The parallels with Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ are considerable, but it would be fair to say that Thoreau’s sacrifice was perhaps greater!

I first heard about Susan Maushart’s book on Women’s Hour on Radio 4 (don’t ask – it’s not like I seek out such programmes – the radio in the bedroom was still on when I went back in at one point – honest…), and I loved the concept. As someone who uses a great amount of technology in life, I immediately posed myself the same question – could I give up technology? What would I gain? What would I lose? How would I feel about it? At the time, my job greatly involved technology, so I’m afraid I almost gave up the notion at that precise moment. How could I? Ridiculous.

The concept hung with me though, and I quickly bought the book. I was desperate to hear how it affected both her and her children, and what it did to their understanding of both time and relationships. I’d heartily recommend it. She has an easy flowing style, which transverses narrative, scientific reportage and journal, making for a compelling enjoyable read. Here are a few of my favourite quotes:

Giving up one activity does not guarantee you will take up a more worthy substitute.

I love this – asking anyone to stop one activity doesn’t mean that they’ll suddenly write sonnets or paint masterpieces! Perhaps one of the hardest challenges we face is actually knowing how to occupy our time well.

She spends a fair amount of time considering the neuroscience behind our technological activity:

No one’s brain is different enough to make constant interruptions, distractions, and task-switching an optimal environment in which to function.

This is a pet interest of mine, and I’m sure I’ll return to it in another post, as I think I’ve read more than my fair share about it. Whether we like it or not, neuroscience would show that we are becoming different creatures as a result of our interaction with technology.

She also considers another pet interest of mine – what we’ve done to the term ‘friend’:

‘Friend’ requires an adjective these days, since it otherwise feels empty.

As anyone who has witnessed me claw a table in disgust at the utterance of the phrase ‘critical friend’ (that hurt even to type!), I despair about what we’ve done in the last 15 years to the word ‘friend’. People often look at me blankly over this, as they don’t seem to understand that we’ve lost something of untold value. As human beings, we don’t have 1,000 of friends – we have 1,000 of acquaintances. We may have dozens of friends, and a handful of true companions – that’s how we differentiate. More on this to follow, certainly!

One last quote from the book:

SMS made everything negotiable: hour by hour, minute by minute. There was no such thing as a firm plan or a final schedule.

One snowy winters day at the beginning of the 1990’s I once waited for a friend to show up who turned out to be over an hour late. We didn’t have mobile phones, and I knew his sense of timing was woeful, so I hung around until he showed up. We’d made an arrangement after all – a certain place, at a certain time. Now we don’t do that, and we are definitely the poorer for it. Time is precious – we’re at the verge of losing this the same way we’ve lost the meaning of friendship.

If you haven’t read it, then get hold of a copy. You won’t be disappointed. You can get it here on If you know someone who is addicted to technology, this is the ideal antidote in the form of a great Christmas present! Who knows, they may even put down their smartphone long enough to read it?


Footnote: When I write these ‘Thursday’ posts about my favourite reads, I’m either armed with my paper copy of the book itself, and my neatly folded corners telling me where there were good sections or quotes (sometimes I have a note file in my phone simply with page numbers of quotes to return to), or better still – the digital copy of the book that I’ve read, with the joyous convenience of a device that tracks sections of the book that you highlight and puts them all together in one gloriously simple list (btw, the jury came back in on the paper/digital divide a while ago). This time, I had neither to draw upon! I gave my copy to a colleague a long time ago in a fit of enthusiasm (as happens all too often with my favourite books!), and never got it back. So, nameless book thief – If you’re reading this musing (and you know who you are!), I’m not looking for the book back. Please just make sure that once you’re read it, you pass it on (hmmm… can’t do that with a digital copy, though eh? Maybe the jury is still out after all!) 😉

Image credit: govan riverside.

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5 thoughts on “The Winter of our Disconnect”

    1. Thanks for sharing the link, Derek. I’m fascinated by the whole discussion around physical/digital, and I’d agree with the author that reading is so much more than the digesting of the words on the ‘page’. One thing I will say however, is that digital has significantly expedited the taking of notes and their subsequent recall for me (but give me a ‘real’ book anytime!)

  1. Not having read the book, nor a kindle owner, I suppose I am not really “qualified” to comment – however, in this technological age in which we live, we should be glad our children are reading at all!!

    I am an avid reader of books, and my “me” time is spent selfishly, lying in either the bath, or my bed, book in hand, until I cannot keep my eyes open any more. At least a book doesnt have a battery that could die on you when you get to the good parts…the cliff-hanger, of all cliff-hangers, I’m sure!!!

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Jo – I really appreciate it. I’ve two children, and by far and away the best time of my day is our son’s bedtime, where we always read a number of stories. He (like both his parents) absolutely loves books, and loves choosing from the bookshelves in his room. There is something beautifully tactile about a book, and like you I’m glad they don’t need batteries!

      I also love to pass a book on, either to someone else who I know will enjoy it, or to a charity shop so that the book can go to another good home. Until they crack that type of onward lending, then I feel digital readers will always be missing something?

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