September 2, 2014

SUSSER | A Column About Nothing

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By PHILIP SUSSER

When I learned I would be joining The Daily Sun as an opinion columnist (I’d like to think that I was a “walk-on”), I pondered over what the theme of my column would be. Should I be the sports opinion columnist? No, who would want to read about what some Policy Analysis and Management major has to say about Derek Jeter’s retirement — it would be too limiting. Maybe I could be the sex advice columnist? Well, lets just say I’m not Dr. Ruth and leave it at that. What about the political columnist? No, the only time I followed a political story to its completion was during the Edward Snowden fiasco last year. And, to be honest, I only committed to the story for its water-cooler-talk potential during my finance internship. So here’s what I decided. My column would be about “nothing.” Just like Seinfeld, I plan on bringing “nothing” to the table. I may not be as staunch as George Costanza in my commitment to nothing — and may eventually talk about something. But I will approach this forum as a way of transforming the nothingness of everyday experiences — things we become so easily accustomed to — into something meaningful; maybe a lesson (who knows, maybe this could become a life advice column). So here we go:

When I actually learned I would be a columnist this semester, I was on vacation with my family in the Grand Canyon and other national parks out west. I remembered vividly when my parents proposed that’s where we would be spending the last week before I headed back to Ithaca — I was originally not sold. This was way too cliché. I knew what the canyons looked like already and was not all that geared up to have some hokey “hike and bike” trip after a summer of work. I thought that, as a family, we were past the point of embarking on such a cut and dry vacation as the Grand Canyon. I vaguely remembered those outdated family vacation movies — kids in the back of the minivan scheming with one another and Chevy Chase in the front of the van whipping out corny dad jokes, oblivious to the maturation of his children. Who travels domestically nowadays anyways? I much rather have quality family time in a Buddhist temple in Myanmar than suffer through a three-hour hike through the buggy American wilderness. I could just envision the picture of me alongside a toothless, happy Zen Master in Southeast Asia making for a great Snapchat story. This was the one hyped-up annual family vacation and we were bringing it back to the basics. Taking it out of the old American family playbook.

I eventually obliged and we flew into Las Vegas, spending the night in the overwhelmingly Mormon town of St. George, Utah — the idea of Mormons was so abstract to me that when I saw the Book of Mormon on my night table in the hotel, I was pretty thrown off. Maybe it was because the only association I had with Mormonism was TheBook of Mormon. Eventually we reached the canyons — Zion, Bryce and the Grand.

The spotty cell phone service in our cabins was unsettling. As the days went on I found myself enjoying this respite from the stronghold of my iPhone. Not only were these day-long breaks needed, but they brought to light the unhealthy relationship I had with technology. Removing myself from my phone for hours at a time allowed me to experience these natural wonders firsthand, without the nagging influence of social media. I found myself quickly embracing the absence of a human footprint and appreciating the value of a crater that has bewildered generation after generation.

In 1908, Teddy Roosevelt delivered a speech in front of the canyon, emphasizing that the beauty of the canyon should be preserved for generations to come, without the influence of developers — the presence of the canyon should remain a symbol of mother nature and keep us in touch with the world we live in. Although developers may remain a constant threat to the integrity of the canyon, our addiction to remaining connected is a new, additional hazard in the appreciation of our physical environments. Social media and our relationships with staying connected to the world not only infringes upon our abilities to appreciate natural beauties such as the Grand Canyon, but things as simple as a conversation with a friend or family member. Our phones have become a crutch for stimulation in nearly any situation.

I may be a hypocrite. I did take a couple pictures of the expansive canyons and post them on various forms of social media once I did receive service. Nevertheless, this relapse only served to reinforce my beliefs. Our addictions to our phones are not only unhealthy, but they are also fundamentally changing the way we interact with one another. The basis of many forms of social media — and their underlying communicative values — is narcissistic. Quite often, we are not sharing pictures with one another to enjoy at face value, but to underscore the superiority of one’s everyday experiences. My food is better, my job is better, my friends are better — me, me, me. The word “selfie” is enough to prove this point. Why take picture with the lens pointing out towards the world, when I can point it towards the most important entity in the world. Much of our actions today are derived not for our personal pleasure, but the potential for future satisfaction in how others view our activities. Our yard stick for social worth nowadays is likes, retweets and Snapchat story views.

So what should we do to confront this iPhone complex? There’s such an overwhelming wave of social pressure to continue to Sepia all your photos for later uploading or snapchat all your friends upon a celebrity sighting. Maybe it could be as simple as shutting your phone off for 20 minutes, resisting the temptation to reload your email and looking out towards the canyons.

Philip Susser is a junior in the College of Human Ecology. He can be reached at pss226@cornell.edu. An Ithaca State of Mind appears on alternate Wednesdays this semester.