Electronic Devices – Necessary Evil?

By Barb Sauer

Have you ever seen someone glued to his or her electronic device, and wondered, “Why don’t you go outside? You should get out of the house and go somewhere with your friends.”

Certainly cell phones, pads, and video games can suck people away from socializing and living life through real experiences. I’m beginning to feel they have become one of those “necessary evils of society.”

However, I recently found an occasion where a technology gadget enhanced my social experience. I was having lunch with a close friend, when in walked a man: he looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him. Suddenly, I said, “Oh, my gosh, he looks exactly like that guy.”

electronicMy friend looked confused. My look told her I knew she didn’t have E.S.P. Then I tried explaining, “You know, the guy in that Meryl Streep movie. Um, uh, the one with “the dingo ate my baby.” My friend got up to speed, but both of us were still stumped, as we couldn’t recall the name of the movie, let alone the actor. We sat for a while in frustrated silence trying to remember, then I googled it. In a moment, I had a picture to share and we both agreed, yes, he did look exactly like Sam Neill who played the husband, Michael, in A Cry in the Dark.

Thus, weird as it may sound, I’ve come to appreciate that electronic devices can be good tools in social situations, especially when you feel as if you may be suffering from the early onset of dementia. Of course, it does mean you have to remember where you put that smart phone and what buttons to push.

Another example: Ever go on a museum tour with a docent? The added level of insight enriches your visit. Granted, the social interaction with a real person sharing those insights is part of the positive experience. However, what museum can afford that level of personalization? So years ago, museums came up with clunky audiocassette tours. You donned big, uncomfortable head- sets and walked around, always at an extra fee.

Now, many national parks and renowned museums have information apps, for free! A visitor can dial up or scan a QR code––those crazy checkerboard-like black-and-white boxes you see on signs nowadays. Although you don’t get to socialize with the docent, at least you get great information, delivered in a more engaging format than just reading the signage.

A number of years ago, when working at the Paper Discovery Center, I realized this technology came to the Fox Valley. Harold Miller, a board member of both the Paper Discovery Center and Heckrodt Wetland Reserve, was the cross-pollinator. Tracey Koenig, the executive director of Heckrodt, was the early adopter and more than willing to help coach the Paper Discover Center on how to set up an audio tour. For a number of years, people could use their cell phones to listen to more information about plants, animals, and wetlands at Heckrodt, and about the exhibits at Paper Discovery Center. I’m guessing other places in the Valley use this tool too.

Light up the Fox is excited to announce that we’ve added such an “Info App” to this year’s Riverfront Light Display on Water Street in Appleton (Dec 20 – Feb 11 / Thomas Edison’s birthday). And we’ve discovered that catering not only to the basic cell phone but also to the ever-more-popular smart phone makes the tool and technology even better.

The info app lets us share audio recordings telling the story behind the project, the students who built the displays, and how it all connects to Fox River history. With the smart phone technology, we can also share pictures, videos, and related links.

Many of the videos are from River Time, a wonderful, professionally produced video documentary that tells many facets of Fox River history. The volunteer group, VISTA – Volunteers in Service to Appleton, released this video on VHS in 1990. For years it has been part of the curriculum in the Appleton Area School District and beyond. I recall the phone discussion with Gerald Fisher, the executive producer of River Time, when I asked permission to post segments of the video on YouTube so we could reference them in our events and scavenger hunts. He was joyfully excited about sharing the work with more people. VISTA consisted of volunteers with a passion for the Fox River and Appleton history, and a desire to showcase this passion and educate others. One of the video’s narrators, Jack Valacek, was an outstanding volunteer at the Paper Discovery Center; he certainly fit this bill. The more people VISTA’s production can reach, the better.

We hope people have the time to pull away from their electronic devices at home, join friends and family, and wander down to Water St in Appleton to see the masterpiece light displays created by area students. Then we welcome you to enhance your social experience by reconnecting to your technology to learn more about the displays and view photos of the work as it progressed. The Info App will be available until January 20, and if participation is high, we will extend the service throughout the display, until February 11.

If you complete the ‘virtual tour’ of the info app, you’ll find a video of the illuminated skate routine by Fox Valley Figure Skating Club in Feb 2014. We’re happy to partner with them again in our closing celebration, commemorating Thomas Edison’s birthday. The free figure skating exhibition will be on Friday night, February 6, at Jones Park, starting at 6:30. Please consider, once again, unplugging and getting out of the house with your family and friends to join us.

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