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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.

7 Responses to “The Disconnection of Being Connected”

  1. Kya A says:

    I couldn’t agree more! When I was in high school I was always the last of my friends to join the social networking sites- they always seemed odd to me. Then I realized that I would be completely out of “the loop” so I went ahead and did it. My friends and I used to talk on the phone until we fell asleep! Now a text or a facebook wall post counts as having spoke to a person. It’s crazy. I gave up facebook for a few months twice last year and missed an engagement, a birth, and several birthday party invites. I felt like I had just come out of a mini-coma.

  2. […] Diversity Officer Shirley Collado posted on the One Dean’s View blog. Her article, “The Disconnection of Being Connected,” offers an interesting […]

  3. Hudson says:

    I agree that social networking is only valuable insofar as it leads to increased or improved human interaction. The ability to organize seemlessly and easily via facebook, or to invite friends to dinner from across campus instantaneously are logistically very convenient and therefore valuable. Its also valuable to be able to stay in contact we otherwise may not be talking to, although I agree that if the maintenance of distant friendships comes at the expense of creating new ones we are only hurting ourselves.

    It’s a reality of modern life that people move, and that by doing so we are sacrificing our immediate relationships with people with the knowledge that they can go off and make new friends to replace us. That said, I take great joy in hearing from friends outside my immediate surroundings, so I think interpersonal communication is valuable. What I don’t appreciate is impersonal updates that have become so popular with adoption of twitter and the use of facebook statuses; they tools are great for organizing events or telling jokes but they meaningless on a personal level.

    Another point I want to make is the ability to keep track of current events more easily than ever before is hugely valuable in informing people, especially in institutions of higher education. I believe our current era acts as a valuable supplement to many classes at Middlebury, from international relations to economics to social sciences. Again, I must acknowledge the social worthlessness of all the visits to textsfromlastnight.com, perezhilton.com, or even NBA.com, but I do believe people derive pleasure from these visits so who am I to decide which is preferable.

    Virtually every generation is feared by those in previous generations for not having some essential quality that every other one before it had. Each of these generalizations were true about the extremes, but the majority of these eras grew up to be healthy, productive adults. I urge each of us to use new technologies responsibly, and to trust that most of us will grow up to have some parallel worry about the children being born today.

  4. Julie says:

    While I understand the sentiment, I think it’s a ridiculous thing to ask of Middlebury students to simply “disconnect from technology” for a week. As students here, we can’t get by without checking our email, almost incessantly, for the 20-30 Middlebury emails we receive each day. The Middlebury workload, while normative for an institution of this caliber, is not conducive to much down time, or face to face interaction with others. Everything you mentioned sounds quite pretty and logical, but it’s easier said than done. To truly institutionally value social interaction on campus would mean a complete overhaul of the ethos of productivity that Middlebury thrives upon and I don’t see that coming in the near future.

  5. Robert says:

    I went without my cell phone for the first two months of fall semester, and nobody could seem to get in contact with me! Your points are well taken, however- it would be nice if more of my friends could take the time to walk over to my dorm room to see if I’m around if their texts are unanswered. More and more people waste time on Facebook, e-mail, etc. but think that it is inconvenient to take a five minute walk to see somebody in person.

    However, I sense that the disconnectedness of Middlebury students has more to do with socioeconomic and cultural differences than technology. Technology is perhaps amplifying the problem, but not causing it.

  6. Hector Vila says:

    Hi, ironically, as this posting on your blog, Shirley, came out, in my J-Term course, Media, Sports and Identity, we were discussing how media creates and nurtures a master narrative that reifies the ruling ideologies. This is what’s become of Modernity, the students concluded. They describe their existence as something that fosters alienation, aloneness, confusion, disenchantment, while the narrative, which comes across all our media nodes, nurtures the opposite, leading students to conclude that a mark of our time is that our reality is marked by illusion — and disillusionment. And this in the face of a future where nothing is apparent — except perhaps hostility and violence, poverty and depravation.

    Having said that, immediately when our class was over the other day, out came the cell phones and students formed mini circles and while looking into their phones, began discussing where to go have lunch and what was on the menu. In this sense, media is serving a need: where to have lunch together. There’s a greater issue at hand, the fostering of a physical community that will brake bread together (using the English version of the Latino way of saying this).

    Anyway, before seeing your insightful post, I had decided to get off Facebook and Twitter, only because they are, in my own life, right now, distractions that I don’t need and can’t use — too much to do. I announced on Facebook that I was saying “adieu.” But, boy oh boy, the push back I’m getting! And I’m getting push back from people that can very easily get a hold of me in many ways, including seeing my, physically, on campus! What’s up with that?

    thank you, Shirley for helping us think through this!

    Hasta la proxima…los vemos…

    héctor

  7. Mike Gaskin says:

    Shirley, I feel like the opening of this blog post is written from an outside-looking-in perspective. Sure, I might appear to be disregarding fellow library patrons in favor of looking at a computer screen, but that’s not to say I’m not doing anything. I could be electronically engaged in the machinery of making college experiences happen – planning out events for the two campus organizations I run, finding out what time the next intramural hockey game is, and gathering a team for trivia night in McCullough.

    For those who don’t use online social networks, it may appear that virtual interaction is replacing real interaction. But in my view, it really helps facilitate it.

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