Friday, March 5, 2010

Deserted Campus

It was what passes for a winter’s day here in the South.  A few inches of snow clung forlornly to bushes and iron railings.  Birds huddled disconsolately on telephone wires, debating, no doubt, the wisdom of winging off to Florida. I coasted into the parking garage across a thin sheen of slush, pulled the laptop out of the trunk and, clutching my coffee, headed inside to videotape my class lecture.

Maybe it was the paucity of cars that first tickled my antennae, but it really struck me when I left the garage to make my way through the little park that sits between the large brick office buildings – there was no one around.  There were lights in windows, the heating and AC units tucked in behind the shrubs hummed away – but there were no people.  It was all very “rapturesque.”

Soon a few other left-behind slackers joined me on the way to the elevator, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of being alone.  I was whisked up to the 5th floor where I walked into the studio, checked the lights, set the camera, fired up the computer, and sat down to talk to my students – out there somewhere.  Mind you, I actually like this kind of teaching.  It feels far more personal than the evolving norm - standing before a couple hundred students in a high-tech classroom, fighting Facebook for attention.  When I talk to my students in the studio I know that the student on the other side of the lens is there because they have chosen to be there.  They are actually listening.  That is very cool.

But it doesn’t fully assuage my uneasy feeling of a deserted campus, of an increasingly vacated world where social relationships play out in digitized worlds creepingly devoid of physical human interaction.  It may be a generational notion.  Boomers – the fastest growing demographic group on Facebook – use digital spaces primarily to maintain or re-establish relations that were initiated in a face-to-face world.  But X-ers, Y-ers, Millennials, etc., define an evolution of intimacy moving increasingly toward the purely digital.  My wife has two-year old grand-nieces who regularly Skype with their grandparents – and on the children’s end the interface is a large flatscreen hi-def TV.  Shades of Star Trek: Nana is a hologram. The dominant venue for the relationship is digital.

A colleague and I, in a far too rare face-to-face chat, wondered how long it would be before digital versus face-to-face became a quaint distinction overwhelmed by the hegemony of converged interaction.  Second Life as Real Life, avatar as actuality.  I wonder if my unease with the notion is purely the case of a generation on the cusp – 20th century man bemused by 21st century implications.

Somehow, Patricia MacLachlan’s Newbery Medal winning novel, Sarah, Plain and Tall, comes to mind.  Sarah is a mail order bride who arrives in Minnesota in 1910 to become a wife to Jacob and mother to Anna and Caleb.  The book describes a series of relationships that began in a newspaper ad and moved into “snail mail” letters, all written words – the Internet of the early 1900s.  But the relationships could not become “real” until they were played out face-to-face; until they were actualized by physicality. 

I wonder to what extent our love-affair with social media is de-valuing that physicality?  If I can interact with lots of my friends simultaneously on Facebook, does that reduce my inclination to actually go have coffee with one or two of them.  And further, if I have never met someone face-to-face, perhaps never even seen a real photo of a cyber-friend in Second Life, would the idea of a physical meeting even occur?  Obviously in romantic relationships where an intimate future, marriage, family, etc., is the object, physicality remains imperative.  But what about all those other relationships in which the physical is tangential? What happens there? Is a digital hug OK if your entire relationship has been conducted in virtual worlds? I really don’t know.

And a final thought: Much has been made of the notion of the digital divide, of the differences among those who have access to robust digital media and those who do not.  Imagine the complexity of rapprochement between segments of society who literally experience “reality” differently.

I left the studio and headed back to my car.  Outside of the thoroughly wired and “wi-fi-ed” tower of brick and glass and steel, a mix of rain and sleet gusted across the plaza.  There were more hardy souls about now as Southerners ventured out into the “terrible weather.”  I pulled my head down into my collar.  Brrrrrr.  Felt human, felt good.


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  2. This was an email sent directly to me from a friend who had the post forwarded to her - RLS

    I struggle with this daily. My colleagues and I bemoan the fact that our students' inability to write a coherent sentence and flat affect when forced to engage in fTf interaction is a product--at least in part--of their brains having been re-wired by constant consumption of online media.

    One discussion I can be sure will engage students is a conversation about communication channels which invariably comes to focus on texting (I even use the "scared straight" approach, having them read a NYT piece on texting while driving and showing them the Utah video of the 19-yr.-old who was texting while driving and killed two scientists on the way to work). They admit to texting while driving. They admit to texting while showering. They admit it's an addiction, a compulsion, a distraction.

    Light bulbs go off when I ask them to consider the colossal act of narcissism and arrogance in the constant narrativity (texting, FB status updates, twitter)--the supreme act of egoism inherent in believing there is an audience for every thought we have or action we execute (Actual FB status update of my 17-yr.-old stepdaughter: Sarah is bored. God forbid Sarah should read a book or call someone or go ride a bike!).

    I ask them to think about the way their preferred channels radically reconfigure the way they "do" interpersonal comm. The move from dialogic to monologic again entails a monstrous dose of solipsism.

    Sometimes I think you're right and that we're fighting a losing battle. Sometimes I think resistance is futile. And then I'll have a glimmer of why we're not yet obsolete--a class I teach will serve at a local soup kitchen, interview "regulars" there, script and stage and advocate for those voices, using what they've learned about hunger globally, nationally, and locally. They'll learn in a fully embodied way what it means to perform advocacy. And they'll leave the class changed, challenged to continue, knowing that "doing nothing" is a vote for the status quo. These are times I feel necessary and useful.

    Most days though, I really worry for the kids I teach. And for all of us who will live in the world they inherit and lead.

  3. In the case of FB and Twitter updates, two technology problems may already be combining to form a solution.

    When Twitter was first gaining popularity, posting "every thought we have or action we execute" is exactly what people used it for, and it seems that anyone new to twitter uses it that way. But information overload quickly rears its ugly head, and it's not hard to see that posting frequent inane comments about your life is totally unnecessary. The same principle applies to Facebook, where comments and the ability to "like" a status strengthens the feedback you get. Nobody "like"d or commented on your status? Then no one found it interesting. Don't post things like that.

    Obviously not everyone takes away this kind of lesson from their use of social media... and part of that reason is exactly the feedback they get. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and whinging status updates get comments of sympathy. In fact, that's the entire point behind sites such as FML. While twitter and FB make it easier to broadcast complaints, if the culture didn't support them, they wouldn't happen. So the idea of exhibitionism goes deeper than these to a more culturally-based phenomenon.

    Personally, I blame celebrities.

  4. I do think that social media make us less likely to meet with someone face-to-face. My six cousins and I used to get together every few months. Now that we're all on Facebook, we rarely see each other anymore. Perhaps this is due to other factors, but the decrease in our face-to-face interaction seems to be caused by our ability to "spy" on each other on Facebook. Perhaps all of my cousins and I feel that we are up-to-date on each other's lives, therefore negating the need to get together.