Does technology really facilitate union or are our devices fostering dissociation? Perhaps the answer to that question falls somewhere on a continuum for each of us.
The World in our Pocket
By David Barnett
Recently, technological advances have altered the pathways of human communication in a multitude of profound ways. At Texas State University in San Marcos, professors and students are concerned with the prospective implications as well as many already-evident consequences of the collective shift in perception of what constitutes normal/healthy human interaction.
With the predominant age demographic of college students having had been socialized during the timeframe in which society experienced this abrupt influx of culture-shifting technological phenomena, contemporary college culture can serve as an essential microcosm from which we can observe and detect the effects of this rapid shift in socialization.
Students drift throughout campus—their ears plugged with earbuds; attention focused on their smartphones—thus, to some degree, preventing the possibility of authentic and spontaneous audible/verbal human interaction.
“The social landscape is almost unrecognizable since my time here,” said Douglas Byers Jr., a former Texas State student (circa 2006-2008), upon his first return to campus since his days as a student. “I feel like I’m walking around in a dystopian sci-fi about humanity’s transition into automatons.”
There are many facets of tech’s effect on a college culture: negative impacts on mental/emotional health and wellbeing; increases in the rates of drug and alcohol abuse/addiction; and negative impacts on effective study tactics as well as the ability and aptitude for retention of information during lectures are all areas in which professors are observing remarkable ramifications that stem from problematic usage of technological devices and social media platforms.
Perhaps most worrisome of these various aspects of this tech-induced shift in student interaction is the measured decline in overall mental health of college-aged individuals. The results of a recent study concluded that there is a positive correlation between problematic smartphone usage and various mental/psychological disorders, alcohol and substance abuse/addiction, and lower overall GPA. In addition, individuals who were admitted problem-smartphone-users scored lower (on average) on the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale.
“There have been increases in suicide attempts amongst people. . . Some of this is [because] we don’t have enough offline interaction with each other and we’re seeking validation through ‘likes’ and impressions of our ‘content’,” said Nathan Pino, a professor of Sociology at Texas State University. “That lack of human contact and [in-person] feedback from others can have an impact on self-esteem and self-worth. These things reduce genuine human contact.”
Social media and other mediums used for “connectivity” have also been under public scrutiny for their enabling effect on the spread of misinformation as well as actual campaigns of disinformation. This can also serve to facilitate political/ideological compartmentalization through the validation of one’s adopted and established perspective.
Political Sociologist, Dr. Bob Price said of the subject: “I’m very interested in the current cultural wars; the whole red state/blue state thing and the sort-of silos people are putting themselves into. We need to get rid of all social media. It is damaging to us. It is anti-democratic. It’s not just that it doesn’t help democracy; it’s hurting our culture.”
Social Media giant, Facebook, has recently been at the center of a very contentious issue pertaining to the validity of political campaign ads. Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, has committed to the company’s position that Facebook will not fact-check political ads.
“The internet allows people to publish information without it being validated . . . It’s a corrosive element to our culture,” said Social Psychologist, Dr. John Davis. “We’ve got thousands of sources of so-called information and if individuals select those narrow ones that they most-agree with, they become people with extreme blinders on.”
We can observe another substantial impact of tech culture in the dramatic change in students’ study and classroom/lecture habits. Smartphones, tablets and laptops are now ostensibly just as common in classrooms—if not more so as a pen and notebook. Ruling out the impossibility of extra-sensory human multi-tasking ability, it’s not a leap to assume that one’s attention being compromised by their device is affecting the capacity for cognition and retention of information. Furthermore, it has been empirically proven that the act of physically writing down information improves one’s absorption, retention and understanding of information.
“You can only think about one thing at a time if you’re a language-using animal—so students think that they’re in class. They might even jot down notes intermittently—but then they go back to their ‘insta-feed’,” said Dr. Bob Price. “You’ve got to have your head in the game a little bit if we’re talking about a theoretical perspective that’s a little bit abstract.”
Students don’t seem to see smartphones as more impactful on their ability to focus in class than other, antiquated modes of distraction.
“Doodling distracts you from what’s going on in class. I think it’s like the same thing. Whenever you get bored in class, you want to take your mind elsewhere,” said Texas State senior, Kendal Noreen. “I just think it’s a generational thing. Older people think it’s ruder than us.”
The introduction of tools such as Quizlet and GroupMe have made it substantially easier for students to engage in the exchange of information and study materials. These platforms have provided students with a medium through which they are able to publish exams and lecture notes; detracting from the incentive to attend class or devise/formulate their own study materials. On its homepage, Quizlet promotes itself as a study tool: “Improve your grades by studying with flashcards, games and more.” For previous generations of college students, word-for-word publication of previous tests complete with the corresponding answers could be interpreted as—at best; ethically questionable behavior—and in some instances; could warrant expulsion. Current students don’t see it that way though.
“I don’t think there’s anything unethical about using Quizlet because most professors switch up their tests a little anyways,” said Texas State senior, Kendal Noreen. “It just gives you a skeleton for what you can expect. Nine times out of ten, that test is not going to be the same—cause that professor isn’t dumb either so they’re gonna switch it up.”
If educators are necessitated to institute preventative measures against certain platforms and behaviors, doesn’t that in and of itself imply that said behavior isn’t entirely virtuous? It beckons; at what point did word-for-word publication and dissemination of exams and answers conceptually transition from cheating to studying? Students have always shared study materials and coursework—but there’s an important distinction to make between allowing a classmate who’s taken ill and fallen behind to copy notes from a previous lecture and broadcasting an exam on a public forum to which the entire school (and the entire world, for that matter) has access. If we must modify our own behavior to conform to or combat a shift in our collective value system, how do we define what constitutes honorable and ethical conduct?
There’s growing sentiment amongst the academic community that deferring to technology as our primary source of information as opposed to absorption through human interaction or pulling from our own already-established reservoir of knowledge can be detrimental to imagination and thus, ingenuity.
“To be a thoughtful, respectful, well-educated person, I think we need to step back and say, ‘the easy way might not be the best way’,” said Dr. John Davis. “A lot of times we need to take the easy way to get through our every-day lives; but we also need to think more slowly—perhaps—and give it more effort and willingness to be open.”
Individual civilizations throughout human history—and humanity, itself—has always had a knack for formulating or manufacturing the logic needed to justify and validate their own contemporary culture and values. I mean, what civilization hasn’t been characterized by the inherent hubris of thinking that they have reached the pinnacle of human existence? For so long, society has romanticized this ideal of a futuristic world with flying cars and robot assistants. We all gathered around our television sets to watch “The Jetsons” and dreamt of the day when our world would resemble theirs’—only perhaps we’re still more analogous to the Flintstones in some ways. We glamorize tech. We’re enamored by it—and with social media, we seem to have created an entity that has provided us with the channels through which we can actually quantify our own self-esteem and bolster (or erode) our egos. Human beings don’t like to face the prospective negative impacts of their existence. We delude ourselves with concepts like carbon offsets. We’re very good at deluding ourselves. We want to alleviate our guilt and vindicate our actions. Every culture’s ethnocentrism drives their thinking they’ve finally figured out the proper criterion for ethical behavior—but if history serves as indicator, we’ll soon identify a current collective value that becomes antiquated and obsolete. Our values are currently, constantly and ever-changing. Integrity, itself, is a subjective concept. What other areas of existence has this shift in our collective value system permeated into? What areas will it? Unfortunately, it’s impossible to predict what reverberations future generations will feel as a result of our current tech obsession. When we defer to technology—in all its various forms—are we crippling ourselves for the future as pertains to innovation and evolution in conscious thought?
“For a human to be creative, that human has to have some stock of ideas in his or her head to manipulate,” said Dr. Price. “If we get habituated to saying ‘I’ll consult the world in my pocket’, then maybe we’re diminishing our creativity.”
Sans for one obvious exception, these photos were all taken on the Texas State University campus by David Barnett