September 21, 2015

MOSKOWITZ | Reconnection

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The first week of school this year, my laptop broke. Without it, I found myself spending an extraordinary time using my smartphone. While I might start by checking my email or looking up an assignment, I quickly delved into social media or the flood of messages that arrive in sporadic bursts. I pounded the screen with each click and smudged the glass surface with my scrolling.

Smart phones seem to fill Cornell’s campus. I think this emerges partly from the background of Cornell students, but also because smartphones have diffused through many parts of society. I think this begs us to consider the idea of distance. Do smartphones really bring us closer to the world around us? For students who live a 24 hour flight away versus me who only lives a six hour drive, this can be a very different question. However, interaction through phones seems much more passive. Ideas and emotions are expressed, but muted. You can become angry, disappointed or try to explain economics over text, but you never understand the meaning or feel the power. Physical distance shrinks with smartphones, but the qualification of that distance appears up for discussion.

A lot of historians talk about the “destruction” of distance. In the late 18th century and 19th century, the invention of steamships, trains, telegraphs and other forms of transportation and communication collapsed distances that had previously seemed so far apart. These historians would argue that the concept of time itself would need changing since distance contributed to how we saw time in our daily lives. While this tends to ignore who worked to bring about this technology and which types of people it affected, this idea could be applied to the cars, airplanes and smartphones of our time. They would argue that this brought about a fundamental change in society. Resources could be extracted or stolen then shipped around the world and repackaged to appear on shelves in a matter of days. People could move or be moved in larger numbers and traverse barriers that had seemed difficult to overcome. This narrative continues in a linear fashion to this day, where in a matter of seconds, one’s ideas, money or stories can be transmitted from one end of our world to the other.

Yet distance cannot just be measured in terms of feet or the efficiency of shipping something over an ocean. The beauty of this system of connection is the potential that it may create. It could allow a huge access of knowledge to everyone everywhere. It could allow people to remain connected with one another or connect to share experiences. The distance of idea sharing and the distance that separates those who want justice could be shortened. Yet sitting on my smartphone, tapping away and scrolling, I am not so sure. Connections get their power from individual interaction. I enjoy talking to friends or chatting with people I cannot see face to face. Yet when applying this to many people and to meaningful ideas it seems more difficult to bridge distances. Facebook, Twitter, Google and other companies monopolize the means of communication. Sharing videos can motivate change and provoke reactions, but creating a lasting impact proves more difficult. The potential does not seem to always fit the actuality.

In this way, I think we should evaluate the technology that has been created. Instead of focusing on the shortening of distances, let us focus on the strength of the connections between us. Thousands of miles and seconds are just measures. The beliefs and feelings between us count much more.