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Experience 5: At the James

// Posted by on 11/26/2014 (12:18 PM)

I knew that our final experience on Monday would be unique and cool, because it was required that it take place at the James River. But the simplicity of the project was even better than I expected. We were each… Read more

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I knew that our final experience on Monday would be unique and cool, because it was required that it take place at the James River. But the simplicity of the project was even better than I expected. We were each asked to bring a snack to share, and we basically had a class picnic. We drove to the river and walked around to check out the area for a few minutes. We then found a nice rock, laid out our blankets, sat in a circle and, quite simply, chatted. And snacked. Again, it wasn’t what I was expecting, but it was great.

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The beautiful river provided a great setting for our last experience.

Then, about halfway through our time at Pony Pasture, the announcement I had been waiting for came: Nicola collected our phones, and Emily explained that for the second half of the experience we’d be asked not to check or use them in any way. The goal, we found out later, was to evaluate how or if the difference would change our conversation and see if it could reveal something about the effects of smartphones and social media on our daily lives.

I really didn’t notice anyone in our class that was attached to their phone during the first half of our conversation. Our attention was certainly directed towards the snacks in the middle of the circle, but we were mostly engaged and listened to each other as we spoke about TV shows, our futures as liberal arts majors, the upcoming holidays, the dominance of coffee shop chains like Dunkin’ Donuts and all the awesome stuff to do in the city of Richmond.

I actually think that in this particular experience, we really provided support for Tufekci’s argument that social media and portable digital devices are not the problem, and that there may be bigger issues in our society that undermine connection and relationships. We were able to hold a consistent and interesting conversation that involved nodding and eye contact, and while we didn’t necessarily discuss anything very profound, I didn’t feel like we were just making small talk, either.

I think there are two reasons why our experience was so successful in avoiding the distractions of social media. First, I think that the small, discussion-based character of our class, and the fact that we’ve all worked together in even smaller groups in our experiences, made it easy for us to talk casually. That I’m comfortable speaking in front of the eight of us about deep, theoretical academic texts makes it much easier to chat nonchalantly with everyone without it feeling forced.

Second, As Damian mentioned on our ride back to campus, I think we were all still partially in the “class” mindset, so I wasn’t eager to check my phone even during the first half of the experience. I remember sending a few texts in the back seat of Dr. Rosatelli’s car on the ride there, and thinking that it was a little odd to be texting in front of my professor. When we arrived at the river, I considered leaving it in the back seat until I heard someone remind us to bring our phones so we can keep track of the time. Thus, in general, I think that we really avoided the “problem” of social media and a lack of connection that Turkle so passionately promotes, and I didn’t honestly see a significant difference in the quality or character of our conversation after our phones were forbidden.

But it’s also true that when my phone isn’t right next to me, especially in an outdoor and theoretically less phone-friendly setting, I am often looking for it or wondering where it is and if it’s safe. There were certainly multiple jokes made while we were there about phones dropping in the river, coupled with frantic pocket or bag checks just to make sure that the iPhone was safe and sound, for real. Perhaps you could say that I feel lost without my phone, but I think that might be an exaggeration. If I leave my phone at home, or if I had left it behind in the car, I might not worry about it or even think about it. While it is a conscious choice and I sometimes have to remind myself of the value of being “tuned out” or “off the grid,” I actually can appreciate not being attached to my phone.

I say all this, and then this evening as I sat at a restaurant with five of my high school friends, I noticed that for at least 5 minutes about halfway through our dinner all of us were staring at our phones. And these are some of my very best friends that I haven’t seen in a couple of months! It was a sad moment, and I must admit that our discussions in Digital America came to mind.

The truth is, I think, that Turkle and Tufekci both make powerful arguments, which is certainly a conclusion we reached in class. I see ways that Turkle is right, and its scary to think that my friends and I couldn’t just enjoy each other’s company and forget about the texts from our college friends for a few hours of catching up.

This video popped up a few times on my Facebook newsfeed (How ironic!) a few weeks ago, and I think it fits in well with this debate:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AY4uWLOLKzU

I certainly think it’s telling that this is spreading around. Maybe Turkle is right, and I think that the negative effect of social media and digital technology on our ability to form long-term memories is frightening. But social media and smartphones definitely aren’t going away, and just like I didn’t want to be “that girl” that called out all of my friends last night at dinner for being on their phones, I feel pretty hopeless to solve this problem. How can I accuse someone else of checking his or her texts in the middle of a conversation, when I know that I constantly do it too? What’s the solution?

Predictably, as I say in many of my experience reflections, I think my solution to the danger of connectedness making us more selfish and separated is awareness and self-reflection. As I mentioned, I feel fairly confident that I have the ability to disconnect and leave my phone behind when I need to. But I could certainly improve, and maybe not pull out my phone at what should have been an exciting and engaging reunion of old friends. I’m not sure there’s a way to restrict time spent on social media for everyone, but perhaps with more knowledge of Turkle’s beliefs, people would be willing to do so on their own. Then, maybe, it would be easier to evaluate Tufekci’s argument and see whose proposal really holds more weight in everyday life.


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Pony Pasture Potluck Picnic Party

// Posted by on 11/25/2014 (10:49 PM)

How many times have you sat down for a meal and noticed that half of the people at the table are on their phones? Or when was the last time you were talking to someone and realized that they were… Read more

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How many times have you sat down for a meal and noticed that half of the people at the table are on their phones? Or when was the last time you were talking to someone and realized that they were paying more attention to the feed on their phone? At least from my own experiences, I have sat down at that table far too many times, and often feel frustrated when I am trying to talk to someone and they care more about what’s going on with their phone. And I can’t that I am not guilty of doing either myself.

For our Experience #5, we wanted to focus on the theories provided by Turkle and Tufekci. Turkle focuses on the idea that connection replaces communication, while Tufekci believes that social media is strengthening connectivity and communication. It was important for us that the experience be relatively fun, as it was our last one and also had to take place at the James River. Somewhat inspired by a conversation that Nicola and I had earlier in class that day about Australian Instagrams, we thought it would be interesting to compare conversations when we did have our phones versus when we did not. We thought about walking around the area or venturing out to the rocks, but ultimately decided to have a picnic at the river. While donut holes and brownies are certainly fun, food is often a good topic of conversation and connection, so we thought that it would be appropriate to incorporate it into our conversation based class. We called it the Pony Pasture Picnic Potluck Party.

James River.

Once we arrived at the river, we spent a few minutes walking through the trails in search of the perfect (and least “nature” smelling) rock for our picnic. We found a rock, and spread a few blankets across it. We then put out the food and sat around the rock.

Our group had thought of ways to incorporate phones into conversation, and I think Emily was trying to do this when she asked me if I had any pictures from my trip to Toronto. Although nobody ended up being interested in the pictures, I thought that it was a good attempt to begin and focus a conversation around a piece of technology.

The idea of a conversation centered around a piece of technology certainly came up during the first 20 minutes, although I didn’t find it to be an extremely significant part of the conversation. I don’t remember what exactly she was showing  people, but I do remember Nicola using her phone to show people pictures of what we had been talking about. Tufekci states, “Social media is enhancing human connectivity as people can converse in ways that were once not possible.” (Tufekci, The Atlantic) I think that this notion was present here, as the addition of the ability to access images instantly added another dynamic to the conversation in order to help the understanding on both sides. In this way, the phone was useful to the conversation and provided a topic for further talking and comprehension of the subject.

However, more so than the way that phones were important to the conversation, I found that the food people brought played an important roll in what we were talking about. From the donut holes to dining dollars, I think that the presence of the food sparked more conversation than the presence of phones. While the phones allowed us to provide images of what we were talking about at the moment, the food at the picnic gave us several different topics of conversation. For example, the donut holes sparked a conversation about chains and local restaurants, which then led us to talk about different local restaurants and chains that we liked. Rather than simply add on to the end of a conversation or remark, the food sparked the initiation and flow of several conversations. For me, at least, I found the food to be more of a “distraction” or conversation point than the present of cellphones.

Food, glorious food!

Although I had expected people to be on their phones throughout the first twenty minutes, I think that the context of the picnic influenced how and when people used their phones. Personally, I wasn’t significantly tempted to be on my phone, however I did check it from time to time. If I had a message I responded, and I took some pictures of the food and the river. However, I found that because it was still “class time” I felt a little odd and even rude pulling out my phone to text. In this sense, I certainly think that the context of the picnic influenced my phone usage. Had I been at a picnic with six of my closest friends, I think that it would have been different. For example, I think that people would be a lot more focused on getting pictures at the river, or snapchatting our riverside picnic.

People Partying @ the PPPPP

Even though I didn’t feel anxious without my phone during the second 20 minutes, there were still a few times when I would reach down beside me looking for it. I would be looking to check the time, or see if my friend had texted me back yet. However, the conversation my friend and I were having wasn’t very important, so I didn’t feel anxious about responded or what her next text might be.

I didn’t notice a huge change in conversation when we put our phones away. Actually, I found that collecting the phones caused the biggest change in conversation, and even seemed to awkwardly halt it for a moment or two. This was interesting to me, as I had expected the second half of the conversation to be much more forced than the first half. However, people did not rely on their phones as much as I had thought they would, so the second half and first half were relatively similar.

Overall, this experience actually helped to restore a bit of my faith in humanity and our generation’s ability to hold decent conversation without constantly checking our devices. Turkle has a compelling argument concerning connectivity vs communication, and as I read her article, I found it increasingly easy to nod my head and agree with what she was saying (NYT). Perhaps this article influenced how I imagined the second half of our picnic to be. I had thought that it would be just like the lunch tables I too often sit down at: silent, apart from a few “mhmms” and tapping fingers. I also know how easy it is to appear to be present in a physical conversation while actually being completely consumed by what is happening on my phone. I was honestly surprised and delighted that this didn’t seem to happen during our experience. While I believe that daily life has elements of technology that both nurture and hurt communication, I found that during our experience the technology did not seem to play a large role in either hindering or fostering our conversations.


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