Today, I would like to discuss a dilemma created by cyber-communication (and, yes, it is ironic that I am writing about this topic in a blog). Like many people, I text, post on Facebook, and use other cyber-tools because they are easy, fun, and help me stay connected. But I’ve been thinking about what is lost in the process.
Our campus provides an amazing opportunity—which most students will not come across again—to live among a completely diverse group of people in a safe environment and to get to know them on the most personal level. This unique experience is at the heart of a Middlebury education.
But, 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 hand-written note, and the reassuring touch have given way to the casual, distant interaction that sometimes comes with living life virtually.
If you are living your day more online than in person, you are missing one of the greatest aspects of your Middlebury experience. We want our students to relate face to face, to learn how to resolve differences, to debate and argue with one another in constructive and challenging ways. We want you to ask your friends and acquaintances, “How are you?” and really listen to them—really see them, learn from them.
Computer-based media, by their design, convince us that we are “plugged in,” when actually we may be “checked out.” As we have seen in national examples and tragedies, some people will confess the most intimate details about their lives online, but they do not know how to open up to their friends, and they risk difficult experiences being overlooked. And people witnessing these online confessions often give them only a passing glance—the words become lost in the beehive-like noise, the fast and furious casualness of it all. No one’s paying attention.
I worry 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 non-participants in our own lives. I worry that technology, to some extent, is pacifying and paralyzing us.
Although I benefit from the advances of technology and use it quite a bit, I still love a hand-written note, a visit, or a phone call. And I hope that we can all strive to make personal interaction the norm in our lives, not the exception.
I am urging students to take regular breaks from their virtual worlds, to seek out directly the people on campus. I don’t want you to have a transactional experience with your education here. Be a part of the process, not observers of it. And perhaps you will end up listening to someone who really needs you to pay attention. Most importantly, I know that this type of real connection will enhance your Middlebury education.
If we lost electricity for a week and our campus were disconnected from technology, I wonder what it would be like. What would your interactions look like? How would you push yourself to communicate? How would you get your work done?
But why wait for a power outage before you disconnect? Try it. Tell me how it went.