The New Communications

I was born in 1945 and spent my first decade in the rural south. We did not have an indoor toilet much less a TV set. I now teach and have taught writing at a California Research University for 30 years. The young people I teach right now were born in 1989 or 90; they grew up in a world vastly removed from the world of my childhood. Some of them have not seen a live chicken. I cannot and probably will never learn to text-message.

I don’t understand my students and their lives in fundamental way. I try to use the distance between us as a teaching point. Look, I say, we are different, and I would like to learn in class conversation and through what you write how you look at the your lives and experience the things around you. I really would like to know because the fact is, given my age, students are my eyes into a future I will not live to see. Although I don’t put it to my students in this way. It sounds a bit morose.

So I asked them to read a chapter from Suzuki’s book “The Big Picture.” There he writes, for example:

Without perspective, being constantly online and plugged in (a phrase meant to evoke the modern computer era, but already outdated) becomes the normal state of being. But being connected electronically is not the same as being connected physically. In fact, paradoxically, being electronically connected all the time has actually made us less social and less community oriented.

This is what Suzuki says. I am having a hard time finding decent articles on the digital communications and their deep down affect on human relationships. I would be happy to be turned on to something better. But at least he writes clearly, which cannot be said for a lot of writing on digital communication. Of course, he is saying nothing new or that hasn’t appeared or been echoed in a thousand places.

But is it true? I don’t know partly because I don’t have any experience to draw on. I have barely adapted to the cell phone; and I don’t have a hand held, like an iPhone.

I brought up these issues in one class and they just took off–and discussed the matter for an hour and fifteen minutes straight. I had other things planned, but as I said, they took off and I let it go.

I don’t know that I came away the wiser. Mostly they could not imagine living in a world without cell phones and hand helds and iPods. OK, I could have guessed that. They did talk about their feelings about the new technologies and these appeared to be a little mixed, though more positive than not. The more temperate advocated “moderation” when it came to the use of these technologies. OK, but I have read my Aristotle on moderation, so that didn’t help much.

One thing did pop up that seemed to me more concrete, something to try to get my head around. They said life with the cell was more “spontaneous.” One student said he did not like the idea of saying you would meet somebody say next week or tomorrow, and in the old days (without text messaging) one would actually have to be where one said one would be. But today with the cell, one could text and say, I won’t be there, and can we meet at another time or place. But then one student said, yea, this was true, but as it worked out in practice, what with people changing plans all the time, nobody ever seemed to meet up with anybody else, as if they were all sort of moving from one potential meeting place to another all the time. I didn’t quite understand what he meant.

This is something I need to think about–though I don’t know how to exactly–since it would seem to have concrete material implications for the way people behave (and even something to do with a different sense of time) in the era of new communications.