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perspective, being constantly online and plugged in (a phrase meant to evoke the modern computer era, but already outdated) becomes the normal state of being.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. 

Got to Have It

In his The Big Picture, David Suzuki starts his chapter on the effects of consumer society on the environment, “The True Cost of Gadgets,” with:

Imagine if you decided to throw away your cell phone, close down your Facebook account, disconnect your high speed internet modem, unplug your satellite television receiver, put away your Blackberry, shut down your iPod, turn off your DVD player and abandon your HDTV. Friends might think you’ve lost it. Family members might suggest counseling. “What’s wrong?” they would want to know.

And you could tell them you’re leading a completely modern life, circa 1995.

Boy, does time fly. I was alive in 1995 and can almost remember it. Was I still using dial-up, and wasn’t the big telephone thing what sort of clever or unclever message one put on one’s answering machine. And I would get those big old VHS things at the local video store (there were lots of those and not just one Blockbuster) and stick them in my machine. I thought at the time that was pretty cool, and didn’t feel, since I didn’t know what was coming, that I was missing anything.

Were those the good old days or what?

I had my students–most of them born in 1989 or 90–write about this passage.

A few of them waxed nostalgic, saying it might have been nice to live in simpler times.

Why is the past always a simpler time?

I don’t remember 1995 as having been any simpler than now.

I got my first “Personal Computer” or “PC,” as it came to be known, in 1984. We had a friend who worked with IBM, and they had a family plan where an IBMer could sell a PC to a family member for half price. Our friend claimed we were family and so we got an IBM for half price. It was just a little box that sat on you desk, you put your monitor on top of that tin box, and the screen was green with a little drop down menu. I used word perfect and I don’t think I knew anything about Windows or Microsoft at that time.

At half price the damn thing cost 3500 dollars (in 1984 dollars). Hard to believe I would pay that much for anything back then. Hard to believe I had that much money to spare. I just had to have it.

As my students claim, a cell phone is not something you want or desire as opposed to something you need. No, you absolutely need it.