“Don’t let me near your pool,” or “On the risks of truly immersive technologies”

In the past two weeks, I’ve had one (two?) of the most disturbing experiences of my life. Of course, this strange and nearly catastrophic provocation has me thinking about technology.

Last week, my kids started this season’s swim lessons. Normally, this would be no cause for alarm. We’ve been doing this for years. The worst part about it is finding time in our occasionally overwhelming schedule. But at least once a year, and sometimes more often than that, we do find the time.

So when we found the time this fall – Monday and Wednesday evenings for a few weeks in a row – we thought the worst part was over. Sure, we knew it might be unusually complicated having three kids in two different pools at two different start times, but that was no big deal. We’d pack changes of clothes for each one and bring along schoolwork for them to do when they weren’t in the water. It would be fun. The kids would learn and grow. They’d be active. They’d be safer around the water. We would get to watch them swim and catch up on reading while we were at it. 

But it turns out that scheduling wasn’t the worst part this time around. I’ve now been to two swim lessons. Both times, a child almost drowned a few feet away from me.

Thank God for lifeguards 

We showed up on time for the first lesson, but just barely. A late afternoon meeting had me running late to pick up the kids at home. Once we trotted through the parking lot and into the rec center, feeling awfully disorganized, we found the pool very crowded – I can’t remember ever seeing this particular facility so full of people. Some group lessons were ending. Some were just beginning. The hallway was full of waiting parents and children. This made it a little harder to find our kids’ groups. Once we found them, though, two of our kids, Ben and Rose, quickly stripped down to their swim gear, joined their separate groups, and jumped into two different pools with their instructors. Joe and I walked over to take a seat against the wall near Rose’s group.

I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but from the beginning I had a very bad feeling about this lesson. At first, I figured it was just the disorganization, the late arrival, and the incredibly noisy room. But I have kids. Three of them. I’m used to disorganization. So I sent my wife this text: 

I thought twice – no, three or four times – about even sending that text. You have to understand that I never, ever have these kinds of feelings. I don’t have a “Spider-Sense.” I don’t have gut feelings of impending doom any more than I can sense impending good fortune. And I’m not sure I would trust myself if I did have those senses. Nevertheless, I sent the message.

A couple of minutes later, after Joe left to join his group in the other pool, Rose climbed out of the pool, walked over, and asked me for her goggles. I began digging through the bag. “I don’t know where they are, Rosie. You get back in with your group and I’ll keep looking.” I kept my head down, rummaging through the bag. A second later, a splash. I looked up and there was Rose standing at the bottom of the pool, water over her head, hands reaching for the surface. I was only a foot away and so I took a step, reached in, grabbed her arm, and pulled her up. Luckily, she was okay. “When I say to get back in with your group, I mean to climb in with your teacher! And hang onto the wall!” I couldn’t believe she just got right back in the pool.

I called my wife and told her all about Rose’s walking into the deep(ish) end of the pool: “I told you these lessons had a feeling of disaster.” Little did I know that wouldn’t be the end.

I got off the phone with my wife, watched Rose for a couple of minutes, and then started reading a big, printed edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education – big enough that you can’t see around it, really, but have to fold it down or peer over it to see what’s going on. Hard copy. Tactile enough to distract me from strange feelings of impending doom – the advantage of a really immersive technology.

About two paragraphs into this article, I heard a loud whistle as a lifeguard dashed to the area right at my feet, reached in, and pulled another child from under the water. The child’s father rushed over, as did two supervisors. The child, who was supposed to have been holding onto the wall while his instructors helped other kids kick their way across the pool, had apparently let go of the wall, might have hit his head on the wall, and sunk to the bottom of the pool. All of this happened about two feet from me, just on the other side of my giant hard copy Chronicle. I had had no idea that the kid had gone under. Thank God for lifeguards (and this pool has LOTS of lifeguards).

I sent my wife the following two texts.

In the course of just 15 minutes, we had gone from a vague sense of disaster to a near drowning.

Fast forward to tonight. The kids and I arrived early in hopes of avoiding any rush or sense of disorganization. Everything went smoothly. Each of the kids got off to the right pool and the right group without a hitch. I settled into the same exact seat I had taken a week before, this time with a print copy of Comment – not nearly as big as the Chronicle, but often more absorbing reading.

We were nearing the end of the lesson, and I had watched Rose quite a bit (I couldn’t see Ben and Joe nearly as well because they were in the other pool). Things seemed to be going smoothly. Not even a hint of disaster. I had finished reading one review and almost finished a second when there was a giant splash in front of me – no, all over me – like someone had done a cannonball just a foot away. I looked up. A lifeguard was in the pool, pulling a child from the water, and a woman was running to meet him. When the child was brought to the edge of the pool, he repeatedly vomited all over the concrete at my feet. Vomiting is a symptom of near-drowning. (Again, thank God for lifeguards and for pools that take their staffing and training seriously.) 

Apparently, this child, who was not in any of the nearby group lessons (may have been a sibling of one of the other students, but he was dressed to swim), had somehow just walked into the deep end of the pool right in front of me while I was reading.

I texted my wife.

On the risks of truly immersive technologies

I don’t know what, if any, lessons I’m taking away from this. I do not want to make light of the near-catastrophic circumstances that I watched unfold before my eyes. Or, rather, that I did not watch unfold before my eyes. And here may be one takeaway:

At the very least, it appears that the distractions of technology are not limited to absorption by the screen. For all of our stories of people falling into manholes while walking and texting, similar dangers await those who simply take up an old-fashioned newspaper. I doubt the person reading the newspaper in the car is significantly less dangerous than the person reading a text in the car. We may not look as distracted as those who are staring at their screens, but we may be just as immersed and just as likely to miss what’s going on around us.

Note that I am not saying we should only do our reading in the library. While I may not take any reading to the pool next week (taking my Kindle would feel too close to tempting fate), “Don’t read around water!” is not the lesson here. The lesson is more about the ubiquitous possibilities for absorption, the immersive potential of even older technologies, and the need to be aware of our surroundings (or pay others, like lifeguards, to be vigilant for us).

If there is any other lesson, maybe I’ll figure it out later. In the meantime, don’t let me near your pool.

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