April 4, 2013

TRASHL Disconnecting From Technology: Learn by Doing

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This week, my friend and fellow Sun columnist David Fischer ’15 wrote about technology’s prominent role in his requisite procrastination routine. Elaborating, he described an app called Self Control, which helps computer users stay off of websites they decide to “blacklist.” If a user doesn’t want to go on Facebook for an hour, Self Control, when activated, makes it impossible to access the site. It really is laughable, the irony of it — to combat our reliance on certain Internet sites, we have created an app to replace our need to practice self-control.

David went on to describe an initiative coming up on campus next week, CU [dis]connect, which urges students to leave their phones at home, ignore social media and engage in face-to-face interaction for three days. Somewhat understandably, David, like many of you readers, initially reacted with strong skepticism, questioning the capacity to “disconnect” and the utility of such a feat. He admits reevaluating his relationship with technology is a worthy endeavor, but he claims, it would make him too “uncomfortable” to fully disconnect.

Alright, I understand many of my fellow Cornellians have only remained disconnected after their phone died while studying in the library late at night — and what a strange phone-less walk home that must have been. However, an honest reevaluation of technology is not purely an intellectual exercise, as David seems to say. Let’s imagine, for just one paragraph, a time without smart phones or social media.

It’s 1982, the glory days as it were. College students with their radical side ponytails walked home from the library, consumed completely by their physicals surrounding and their own minds, attuned fully to the moment of “now.” No technology capable of diverting attention away from what was occurring right now existed. Movies and television, music and the Walkman — they existed, but there were no technological objects that could connect anyone, anywhere, at any time.

Now we have the luxury, and often the unfortunate obligation to remain connected all day, everyday. It’s difficult to find a moment away to just be alone, to digest the information of the day and to construct unique thoughts separate from those we marinate in throughout our studies and interactions. As for David and those that doubtfully respond to CU [dis]connect’s mission to get students to leave their phones at home and actually ignore social media for three days, I say:  Why not? What harm can come from three days without Twitter, without iPhones and without hyper-connectivity?

I don’t want this to be a column coming from some elevated position of superiority, because that’s not what it is. As I write this column, I am running from class to a meeting at the Sun’s offices downtown, then back up to campus just in time to get the weekend started a little early. To coordinate all of these tasks, I depend on technology just as much as the next student. And let’s be clear: Technology has definitely given us more resources and made our lives more secure. But I am fearful nevertheless.

I fear technology has been popularized so fast, and that we have not had time to question some of its deeper implications. Generally, we have not asked ourselves why we are constantly connected, but only how we can use technology to become more connected? It’s time to try and have conversations about “proper” technology use and ethical norms for social media and smart phones. The start of these conversations begins with actually disconnecting in order to reclaim agency over our thoughts and actions.

Furthermore, I fear our generation is acutely attuned to the public display of our Facebook profiles — our second selves. So much so that these self-selecting positive versions of ourselves promote a nasty kind of voyeurism, akin to the celebrity worship found in television and movies. Instead of celebrities, though, we observe our friends.

Social media, by and large, promotes this voyeurism in everyday life, where people are more aware of the collectively accepted behavior for “normal,” and are more fearful to step out of these understood boundaries. We have become less confident and unique because of it.

So I will be deactivating my Facebook and leaving my phone in my drawer on April 10 to see how hard disconnecting really is. Honestly, how hard can it be? In the best case, in the weeks after, I will be better equipped to reevaluate my practical relationship with modern technology.

Original Author: Rudy Gerson