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College on the iPhone: alone together, naturally
Sunday, March 10, 2013
Students in one of my classes were assigned to keep a log of their media consumption for a day or two. One student worried that she wouldn’t have much to record. She called herself a newspaper and magazine person and a TV-news watcher, and she said she has little time for these while at college. But after completing her log, she realized that she was as hooked on the instant gratification of social media and mobile phone apps as any of her peers.
When she and other freshman females had to leave their mobile phones in the dorms during rush parties at sorority houses, she nearly had a “mini heart attack” feeling for her phone to check the time. She said it gave them all a lost feeling to be without their phones.
This is the world our college students inhabit today, so different from just a few years ago. They wake with an alarm app, and they breathe digital vapors all day long, whenever it is allowed, until they drop off to sleep. They check Facebook, news headlines, Tumblr, email, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest. They shop without going anywhere. They watch TV or movies on Netflix, Hulu or YouTube. In the background, they choose their music from an automated custom-genre service like Pandora.
The students have mixed feelings about this. One said she walks to class dodging people without looking up from the screen in the palm of her hand. “I have mastered the art of walking through campus while only looking up every 30 seconds thanks to my hypnotizing fun-sized computer that I carry around with me everywhere.”
Another student confessed trying to avoid an awkward silence between himself and a student in the elevator by taking out his new iPhone5 and checking his email, for the seventh time in an hour that morning.
The other student did the same. And this is at a small liberal arts college that prides itself on civility and “the speaking tradition,” a duty to say something in passing.
In essays these 24 students wrote about their media-use logs, I notice some patterns:
n Keeping a log opened their eyes. They didn’t realize how engrossed they had become, particularly in mobile devices, until they had to keep a log hour-by-hour. Some were amazed. One, having her father keep a log for comparison, found the difference drastic in terms of time spent and type of media used.
n You can’t beat it for convenience, relevance, fun and efficiency. The environment for this generation has been built to make consuming digital media inescapable, always there, Semper Wi-Fi. As time accelerates every year, they appreciate the efficiency of the technology. “The iPhone is the single greatest utility tool I’ve ever encountered,” one student wrote. “Everything that I need to do and know is essentially possible on this sleek hand-sized piece of metal. Everything.”
n Some feel guilty. Running through their essays was a tone of confession. They have followed too much the “devices” and desires of their own hearts. Some labeled their own behavior as “addicted,” “wasted time” and “stalking.” They said they should be reading books and newspapers, but most felt they were “keeping up” with the news by browsing headlines and Twitter feeds.
n Atonement comes from finding a more physical way of being in the world. One student seemed to take pride in being a mix of the old and new, in that she goes places without her cellphone and avoids e-books. She worries about the next generation losing people skills. In her sociology class, she had read the book by MIT’s Sherry Turkle, “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.” Another book-loving student said she prefers direct contact with people, so she has no smart phone.
I share much of my students’ excitement and amazement. I marvel at the power of Wiki-knowledge, the light-speed of search engines and the journalistic possibilities of social media. But I wonder about the way our students will learn and know stuff. Neil Postman, the late great thinker about media, argued in “Amusing Ourselves to Death” that TV presented a whole new epistemology — how we know and understand things — compared to the print culture that produced the knowledge, democracy and science of the last 500 years.
But digital information is something new again. It is print, radio, TV, conversation and the world’s libraries and newspapers, all at once. What is the epistemology of this alone-together world of our students today? I’d like to know.
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