March 18, 2014

ELIOT | A Call to Disconnect

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One day last week I saw a young man — presumably another Cornell undergrad — not paying attention to where we was going, and walking straight into a tree. The tree was not a particularly old tree. I was on my way to class, so I didn’t get the chance to chop it down and count the rings but would estimate (probably wrongly) that it was an adolescent tree because it seemed angsty.  I once fell badly enough to tear a massive hole in my jeans and chin while running down Ho Plaza and slipping on some ice, but nothing (except a basic knowledge of gravity) could have prepared me for what happened next: Apparently one of the branches was in a state of unstable equilibrium, so when the man’s cranium perturbed the trunk, the branch decided it was a good time to get rid of the snow it was holding. Gravity took over, and covered this guy in snow.

Did I laugh? Bet your sweet bippy I laughed.  The main reason for laughter though was not that this fender bender with an oak tree was caused by some miscalculation in an awesome parkour route or chasing down an errant frisbee. No — the guy was simply looking at his phone, veered off course a little bit and got covered in snow. He probably, but not definitely, would have avoided the situation if he had put his phone away for the walk.

I notice this trend all over campus. I am sure that I’m not the only one dodging people who are present in the world I live in, but their world is mostly just a screen as they pass between classes.  Or maybe you have walked into a lecture hall or discussion (where conversation, called “discussion,” is encouraged) a few minutes before class starts. Chances are high that a good chunk of the rest of the students are buried in their cellular devices and not talking to anyone.

I wouldn’t consider myself a Luddite but would consider myself a non-practicing Luddite. They saw in the industrial revolution what they thought to be the dangers of technological advancement (and many of them had a wild rumpus where they would destroy then-modern farm equipment). It is easy to look at people’s reliance on devices for everything from address book, to calendar, to personal secretary and see something of the machines replacing humans that they feared.

While I may not have been around during the Industrial Revolution, I was somewhat sentient towards the end of the 90’s and remember that even then there were no people walking around texting or sitting in class playing Flappy Bird. Imagine what being a student here must have been like. What did the kids do before class? Talk to each other? I know, it sounds crazy. But just think — at one point in history people had to tweet by candlelight.

I’m not suggesting you throw your phone into the gorge. I would but I am too deep into Clash of Clans to give up in the near future (it’s called commitment … ladies). Perhaps today calls for a modern Luddism, because with the advent of social networking and constant communication with somewhere we aren’t, our generation has definitely become the most connected but perhaps one of the worst at actually connecting.

I closed my last column by paraphrasing Buddhist meditation master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and his thoughts on unconditional friendliness to oneself. It seems fitting that I reward anyone who actually makes it this far with something of similar merit. American Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön, when talking about the practice of mediation says, “it is just as if we had looked around to find out what would be the greatest wealth that we could possibly possess in order to lead a decent, good, completely fulfilling, energetic [and] inspired life, and found it all [in ourselves].” Bear in mind that I am 21 years old and know next to nothing about Buddhism and meditation, but this sentiment sums up quite well how I feel about our generation’s use of cellphones. It is easy to go into the world in your phone and try and find any number of things that will make you happy or happier. Maybe it is the score of a basketball game, maybe it is a text message from a friend back home, maybe it is sitting on the toilet and playing Tetris for three minutes. That’s fine, but if you have spent enough time with me you’ve probably heard me snarkily tell someone on their phone, “Everyone you need is here.” Sometimes, I think we get caught up in our digital worlds and forget that the greatest wealth that we could possibly possess exists in the real world you can touch not the world on your touchscreen.

Also, your GPA will go up if you pay attention to the class and not to your Facebook feed.