A Heads Up

The other day, I was in Otter Creek Bakery just up the street from our editorial offices here in Middlebury, part of my daily morning ritual of ensuring “adequate” caffeine and caloric intake, when a comment from a fellow patron really caught my attention.

“Now that’s what I call multitasking.”

The comment was directed at me as I stood before one of the coffee receptacles, using my right hand to fill up my cup with a selection of the bakery’s darkest roast—while using my left to hold an iPhone, my attention riveted to the tiny screen while my thumb was busy scrolling through my Twitter feed.

I chuckled, muttered something about a guilty habit, and went on my way. But as I walked back to my office, I couldn’t help but think: What was so important, so interesting to a) divert my attention from the scalding hot liquid that was flowing right before me, and b) perhaps more pertinent, though less imminently dangerous, have me ignore the very real people who were standing around me? Was it the latest political gossip concerning the Republican primaries? The “news” that someone I’m following didn’t sleep well last night? Could this not have waited—at least until I had filled up my coffee cup? Now some may want to accuse me of Twitter-bashing, of unfairly maligning the utility of the social media tool; so, let me acknowledge that I firmly believe that it can be useful—even revolutionary—in the dissemination of information. What worries me is this: at what cost?

A year ago, Shirley Collado, the dean of the College and chief diversity officer at Middlebury, addressed this very question in a blog post titled “The Disconnection of Being Connected.” In that post, she wrote: “As I walk about campus, I see something that worries me. Many students are so profoundly connected online that I fear they are disconnected from life right here. I often see students glued to their cell phones, disregarding people in the same room. I see students with laptop lives, perpetually Facebooking, tweeting, scanning YouTube, weblogs, podcasts, and wikis. The face-to-face conversation, the handwritten note, and the reassuring touch have given way to the casual, distant interaction that sometimes comes with living life virtually.”

Collado, who possesses a doctoral degree in psychology, went on to say that she worried “that this may be the first generation without sufficient experience in making human connections, that we are encouraging the development of individuals who will not know how to talk directly to each other and resolve conflict across human lines. We may run the risk of simply becoming observers, passive nonparticipants in our own lives. I worry that technology, to some extent, is pacifying and paralyzing us.”

In a wonderful recent essay in the New York Times titled “The Joy of Quiet,” Pico Iyer points out that “the urgency of slowing down—to find the time and space to think—is nothing new, of course,” but he adds that cacophony of noise is at an all-time high. “We barely have enough time to see how little time we have. . . .  And the more that floods in on us, the less of ourselves we have to give to every snippet.”

It’s a dual threat, then: We ignore what’s all around us, while less and less of what we are paying attention to is actually being absorbed in any meaningful way.

Now, I’m not ready to give up Twitter or Facebook or blogs or (heaven forbid!) “old technology” like magazines or books; nor am I advocating that you do so, either. But let me join Iyer and Collado in suggesting a modification of both our media diet and means of accessing information. Take a moment to recognize the people in your midst; your Twitter feed can wait. —MJ

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  1. Thanks, Matt, for writing about a growing problem of the young. I worry that their skills of writing, speaking and connecting with others is being damaged with the constant use of cell phones and lap tops. Most of what is communicated electronically (Where are you now?) is of little importance. Let’s encourage our bright young students to sharpen their person to person communications.
    Richard Gariepy

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