An exercise in silence

Some of my students signed up a few weeks ago for an extra credit project.  The project required them to stay away from glowing screens (cell phones, television, facebook, twitter, etc) for two weeks.

Of 150 students, 53 signed up for the 2 week project.  But only 18 of those students were willing to stick it out for the full 2 weeks.  Those that completed the task wrote up a brief reflection on their experience.

A few common themes kept coming up.  Almost all of the students reported getting quite a lot more homework done.  Most also reported getting more sleep, since around 9 or 10pm they were cut off from the glowing screens of television or facebook that might have kept them occupied for a few hours.

Everyone spoke of how difficult it was to connect with their friends.  You could sense, in their reflections, the lonely desperation of people who cannot find anyone to be with for dinner or that gnawing feeling teens feel when they think they are missing out on some special social event.  Rather more worryingly, several expressed difficulty “dealing with myself and others” (as one person put it).  They felt insecure, sort of lost and dearly missed the escape afforded them by earbuds.

The overall response split about in half as to whether they wanted to change their behavior in the future.  About half found the experience “liberating” and expressed a desire to sustain that as much as possible.  The other half could not wait to get plugged back in.  In a lesson that we do not do what we really want, most who experienced it as a liberation said that, despite this, they quickly turned back to their old ways.

Reading over the reflections has actually softened my view on these social technologies.  I used to be simply against them, though I confess my opposition was mostly blind (in that I don’t myself text, facebook, etc).  I now see that these technologies can be genuine instrumental goods.  At a large school or for people living far from their friends, these social technologies can be  a valuable means to the end of community.  (In fact, after years of holding out I joined Facebook!).

But my worries remain.  The means can be confused with the end, and I do suspect that many use social technologies as a replacement for real human contact and community rather than a way of creating it.  For example, one student noted that his girlfriend thought he had broken up with her, which makes me wonder how much time they actually spend together.  And several students noticed how when they are with people, no one is really present (they had not noticed this before since they have been absently present themselves before).  And it appears that many use it as a kind of crutch so they can avoid themselves and others.  In this, important parts of the human condition seem to be lost – the silence of a walk, the sounds that travel with being around others, etc.  This article discusses this loss in greater detail.  This all makes me wonder if the distractions from the human condition are an important cause in the apparent downturn of interest in humanistic studies and liberal education.  Hard to be compelled by perennial great questions when you are too distracted to think about them.

Here are a few representative selections from the student reflections:

“Another difficulty with the assignment, I was very used to walking through campus with my earphones. The first two days, I felt very uncomfortable walking without my earphones.  I felt like a small piece of forgotten shoji that was thrown to the side by accident. Every person on the street seems to be rushing somewhere or they were standing in big groups and laughing loudly. When I passed those big groups, I would have a big paranoid moment, where I would think they were looking at me and making fun of me. Hence, it was a very uncomfortable feeling. Although, I adjusted to walking without my earphones after a couple of days, I personally would prefer walking with my music and ignoring the rest of the world without worries about what other people might be thinking about me.”

“I could probably survive without facebook. However, I need an instant messenger to contact my family or talk to my friends in Mongolia, Malaysia and Germany etc. If technology did not exist, I would not be able to communicate with them and stay in touch and be good friends as we are now.”

“An earphone allows me to feel less insecure and makes my days pass faster. “

“It was somewhat depressing. People forget how to communicate in person so I missed out on some events and a lot of people thought I was mad at them by the end of this assignment.”

“At first I would always feel a little annoyed not being able to listen to my favorite music. For about two minutes I walked feeling bitter about the assignment. In boredom I would then search for something to think about. Always I would find something and my mind would wonder on topics from family, my future, current events, etc. By the time I got home, I found it hard to stop thinking and focus on homework of other tasks. This new routine walking home made me realize there are many things that require my careful thought and attention that I am usually ignoring.”

“Honestly, it was hell. i hated not being able to just text my roommates and see when we were going to dinner or ask my friends if they were coming over. i hated not being able to look up random questions i had on google, i hated not being able to listen to my ipod when i was walking home but very very very  most i missed movies. all my friends and roommates would be downstairs laughing and eating and watching a movie and i had to go upstairs and read war and peace. it was terrible. and i am so less motivated to do my homework because i feel like i have been working hard all day and there is nothing i can do to relax because EVERYTHING requires so much mental work. which does mean that i was more tired at night because i had spent the WHOLE day thinking. i basically loathed those 2 weeks.”

“It turned out that it was a lot harder than I had anticipated. I found myself just sitting in my apartment trying to think of things to do when I wasn’t working or doing homework. I ended up taking a lot of walks, keeping up on cleaning my apartment, and even went grocery shopping more than usual even when I just needed something little.”

“The downside was that I ended up spending a lot of money.  Free time leads to wanting to buy books and card games.  The plus side of this is that there is more quality conversation when playing card games than when trying to play video games as a group.  I picked up a leather-bound copy of the Candide and had to talk myself out of buying about 6 more of different titles.  Also, with the asking questions, it’s extremely frustrating not to have Google around.”

“Towards the end I seemed to have been closer to myself.  I know that sounds weird, but I learned I could entertain myself without video games or the drama on facebook.  I made inner peace with myself.  Or so it seemed.  The day I got my electronics back I went right back into my old habits.”

“I talked to new people on the bus and gained a lot of insight, with an i pod or phone attached to my body I would of never been able to have those conversations.”

“I got my friends together to play cards one night and this is what I observed: there were about eight of us present, two laptops on the table (one playing music, the other half heartily displaying an unread e-textbook that needed studying), seven phones were in hand and being checked at any given moment, and have you ever noticed how annoying it is when you’re trying to talk to someone and their face is glued to their phone? Every moment had to in conversation with some person that wasn’t even present, no one (besides myself) was really in that moment, hanging out with their friends – they were talking to everyone else in the world, thinking of something else, doing something else. As a generation I think we’re losing that human connection that once was so precious and so common. The ability to sit out on your front lawn and talk to your neighbors as they came by, the ability to just talk to those people around you as you walk to some class on campus together, the ability to appreciate silence in a hectic life.”

“I thought it was going to be a piece of cake. To my surprise, it ended up being two of the most depressing weeks of my college experience. I never realized how truly addicted we are to technology in everything we do. I would find myself sitting alone in my room night after night while my friends were out to the movies or playing Wii across the hall. I couldn’t even distract myself by creeping on other people’s Facebook photos. More often than not, I was completely and utterly cut off from all forms of human contact. I felt like such a loner. I never grasped how dependent I am on technology to entertain myself. Texting, Facebook, movies, and video games played a much larger role in my day to day routine than I ever really realized. Refraining from using it not only limited my electronic communication and interactions, but my face to face communication and interactions as well. It was an eye-opening experience which I am glad to have gotten out of the way. “

About Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.
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