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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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