One of my current “academic” projects is a series of essays/investigations concerning citizenship, automobiles (mobility in general) and different means of communication (e.g., cell phones, GPS, dvd players). Don’t laugh; it might sound a bit esoteric and liberal arts/cultural studies-esque (as, indeed, it is), but there are some interesting angles to the project that everyone might find engaging. I hope to use this brief essay as a way to do something I don’t often get to do in my academic writing—provide a brief gut-level response to the discussions I’m reading. While I generally write about the “meaning” of a particular cultural conversation, here I want to add to that conversation.
Before I get to my central point-that I don’t like the idea of dvd players being used in cars—let me make something clear: I love almost all gadgets and all forms of mediation, and not only do I think people should purchase whatever they want to, but I think they should be able to legally use them however they like. Nonetheless, when it comes to these dvd players in cars, I believe we’re losing something very valuable when we use them, especially on long trips. My experience with these in-set dvd players is admittedly very limited: thus far, my experience only includes those times when I’ve been sitting in the back of a stifling hot minivan with screaming nephews and nieces. As soon as the noise reaches a certain volume, the parents flip the screens down, plop in a kid’s film, hand the kids their headsets, and sit back to enjoy the inevitable silence that follows. After a moment or two, with the kids engrossed in their narrative, the adults are able to talk to one another, and the trip takes place in an admittedly more enjoyable climate. So far, so good.
But here’s the part that bothers me: almost every parent I’ve talked to about these dvd players (and almost everyone I’ve read about in my research) says the same thing about the “situational” usage of them: “We only use these on long trips; we wouldn’t dream of letting them watch TV when we’re on a short trip. For example, if we’re taking them to soccer practice, the rule is ‘No DVDs.’” Herein lies the rub: if there is anytime you absolutely do not want to use a dvd player, it’s on a road trip with your kids, or with your spouse, or your best friend, or dang it, with anyone meaningful. In my experience, long road trips have more potential for the magic of a particular type of conversation than almost any other situation. Indeed, I adore the idea of being locked in a car with my Bonnie for nine hours or so. With no where to go and the romance of the endless road in front of us, we tend toward the types of conversations we might not otherwise have. We’ve chosen to drive to Charleston rather than fly on a vacation next month for this very reason. There’s something about those moments—and my bet is that you know what I’m talking about—that encourages heart-to-hearts that wouldn’t otherwise occur. Maybe you work on relationship issues that are just below the surface; perhaps you talk about childhood memories that you’ve never discussed before; perhaps you’re having a crisis about work. The point is, these conversations---unplanned and meandering—would not happen in any other environment and certainly would not happen if one of you decided to watch a film or read a book without conversation.
The same is true of conversations between parents and children. While I know that this is probably only true when the kids reach a certain age (i.e., you can love a kid of three, but it’s difficult to have a lengthy conversation with one), shouldn’t we start working on those skills early rather than later. Some of my fondest memories of conversations with my father were on road trips, even shortish ones. Those road trips are the times/places when I was more likely to ask “big” questions. However, there’s no way I would have imagined those as being “fun” before they occurred. If you had given me a choice between a conversation with my father and watching my favorite film (hell, watching almost any film), I take the film every time. Again, I’m not anti-movie, anti-tv, or anti-video game. Indeed, those are media that I love. It’s more about thinking about the car’s interior space, especially on lengthy trips, as something unique, something different, a medium that encourages and enhances conversation. So, while I’m certainly not questioning decisions made by others for quiet, safe road trips (believe me, I also know how valuable a silent car can be as well), I am suggesting that it may be worth our while to rethink how we might want to value particular types of conversations, how we might want to encourage certain interactions, when we’re at the point of purchase.