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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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Connected, but alone? – Final group experience

// Posted by on 11/25/2014 (11:29 PM)

In the digital age, we are constantly connected. Whether it be via email, Twitter, Facebook or texting the rapid advents in technology has made it extremely easy to remain in touch with friends, family and even strangers. Consequently, these… Read more

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In the digital age, we are constantly connected. Whether it be via email, Twitter, Facebook or texting the rapid advents in technology has made it extremely easy to remain in touch with friends, family and even strangers. Consequently, these social networking tools have become a mainstay in many of our lives. Heaven forbid if the Internet was to momentarily lapse. However, as we become increasingly connected via these sites, are we actually becoming isolated from one another? This is a fascinating question and problem that has been the focus of much debate in the 21st Century.

After meeting with my group we delineated about how to construct an experience around these pertinent issues. While I for one was under the impression that it would be easy coming up with an idea, given our constant use of the media, it proved more difficulty than expected. The requirement that our experience would have to take places at the James River also proved problematic. How would we emulate the notion of “connected, but alone” there? And what about the weather…November is not exactly an ideal time to spend an afternoon by a large mass of water. However, we drew links between being out in nature (a natural environment), and how it stood in stark contrast to being online (a man-made, constructed environment).  Thus, our idea of a ‘Picnic Potluck at Pony Pasture’ was born. Building upon the concept “connected, but alone” we essentially decided that we were going to sit, have a picnic, and talk to one another for about twenty minutes. However, in order to assess whether there were in fact any differences when you remove technology altogether, we would then collect everyone’s phone, meditate for about two minutes to get them “in the nature zone” and continue the conversation. The ultimate goal was to test Turkle and Tufekci’s theories. Would the conversation deeper in the absence of phones? Did people have more to talk about when they were able to bring things on their phones into the conversation? Was anyone anxious about not having his or her phone, and did that anxiety impact the quality of the conversation?

While we had worried that the cool (or worse rainy) weather would somewhat derail our experience, the sun was out in full force! We couldn’t have asked for a better day. As we sat near the river eating the spread of snacks it was interesting to note the lack of phone usage. I had anticipated greater use, but as Damian noted afterwards, because we were still technically in class, he felt that he shouldn’t be using his phone. In fact, the only ones to use their phone at all during the first twenty minutes were my fellow group members. Personally, I wanted to snapchat and take photos. Not only do I generally take many photos on my phone, but I felt that having a picnic by the river for class was such a novel thing to do that I wanted to share it with my friends both in Richmond and back home in Australia. The beautiful day only made the pictures even more attractive!

One of several snapchats I took

Just a quick photo

Nevertheless, all class members chatted freely and the conversation that emerged was engaging and interesting. We discussed a whole range of subject areas and there weren’t any noticeable lags. Our ability to maintain a conversation with one another both with and without our phones would seem to affirm Tufekci’s argument that social media and technology is not hindering our ability to communicate IRL. After all, she claims that there is no difference between online and offline, everything is real life.  However, at times our conversation did seem to jump around quickly from one topic to another. It was as if the nature of our conversation mimicked the very nature of how we communicate online. That is, in short spurts rather than in depth discussions (think of the limited 140s characters on Twitter or the innumerable threads on blogs). Thus, Turkle’s assertion that social media is having a real effect on how we interact is fare more persuasive.

Moreover, when the phones were taken away, even though I had not been using it constantly, I did feel strange and oddly unsettled. I found myself double-checking every so often to see where it had gone. In fact, had the food not been there, (acting as somewhat of a distraction) perhaps I would have become even more restless! Again, my behavior certainly affirms Turkle’s view that not only are we becoming increasingly reliant on technology, but also it is, along with social media, changing the way we act and think. As she notes, “We want to be with each other but also elsewhere.”

The goods

In terms of documentation, I was heavily reliant on my iPhone. As previously mentioned, I took photos and snapchats in the first twenty minutes of both the surrounding environment and (I’m ashamed to admit) of the spread of food (see images below). As New Media theorist (and a member of the Turkle camp) Nick Carr would argue, I was essentially looking to my devices to offload my experience and memories rather than actually putting these cultural and interpersonal experiences in long-term memory. However, as the conversation progressed I found myself documenting less and less. After all, when a conversation is engaging one doesn’t feel the need to check or use their phones. As a result, I did not document as much as in previous experiences, particularly once our phones were taken away!

Ultimately, the nature of constant connection in the digital age raises some troubling questions and presents serious issues regarding how we communicate. Despite Tufekci’s compelling and valid argument of the positive role of this new technology, I do find myself leaning closer to the mindset of the Turkle camp. While our experience may not have truly highlighted the changes in our communication, as a young adult immersed within this world I have definitely noticed the shift in the way my peers and I interact. It is a shame too, because as this experience reminded me, being out in nature surrounded by good company and good food trumps chatting online any day.


Categories: Assignments, Blog, Discussion, Pictures, Uncategorized
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Into the Woods

// Posted by on 11/25/2014 (12:55 PM)

To commemorate our last experience, we headed out to Pony Pasture for a picnic along the James River to “get away from it all.” Since I submitted my law school applications, my time online and on my phone has increased… Read more

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To commemorate our last experience, we headed out to Pony Pasture for a picnic along the James River to “get away from it all.” Since I submitted my law school applications, my time online and on my phone has increased exponentially. For the last week, I have checked applicant blogs on the Top Law School (TLS) forum nearly every hour for updates on who’s getting in, and my phone has never more than a foot away. In the spirit of powering down and tuning in, I’ve put my phone on “airplane mode,”and for however long it takes me to finish this reflection, I’m staying off the blogs.

Opinions on the conversational effects of social media and technology (like smart phones, TV, etc.) can be divided into the Turkle and Tufekci camps. Where Tufekci sees social media as a tool to strengthen bonds and “in real life” discussion, Turkle fears that we have sacrificed conversation for connection. Originally, I fell somewhere in between the two “T’s”. Self-reflection and a necessary “wake up call” from my family, friends, and law school admissions consultant/temporary life coach about my obsessive blog and email trolling has pushed me into Turkle territory.

In too-frequently updating my email and reading the TLS forum, I have checked into media and out of my life at Richmond. I’ve spent more time in my room and less time with my friends, growing increasingly accustomed to Turkle’s concept of being “alone together” with the other TLS bloggers. When my group came up with the idea to use the experience to have two conversations, one with phones and one without, I knew that separating myself from my email, even for twenty minutes, would be a challenge, and it was.

Despite my phone-less anxiety, I was impressed with the depth of the conversations we had. We asked each other questions, took active interests in each others’  lives, and there were no noticeable or lengthy lags in our discussion. While it could be argued that the strength of our conversation is evidence of Tufekci’s point, I don’t think our sample of bright, engaged Richmond students represents the average American. Turkle’s examples that he employs to support his claims might be extreme, and as Tufekci points out, he may incorrectly equate social media and social robots, but from personal experience, I think Turkle is on to something when he argues that we’ve come to expect more from technology and less from each other.

For the next few days, I’m going to trade in my forum for family and my phone for friends, tuning out of the anxiety-ridden world of law school admissions and into a calmer reality.

 


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