Tag Archives: social media

Finding Common Touchstones

     Mercury Capsule at the Air and Space Museum, Washington

What happens when the media that have been traditional touchstones to the culture no longer matter?  What follows if there is a withering of once common narratives?

When we wonder why we are such talkers and texters, look no further than our natural desire to find meaning in the words and faces of others.  While most communication thinkers would accept that we are islands of consciousness, most also come to the view that our social nature gives us the urge to affiliate with various sorts of tribes. Beyond the family, most Americans seek connections with affinity groups organized around schools, religious institutions, work settings, or various avocations. Beyond that, we count ourselves as members of the same culture: less firmly now, perhaps, but it is still a piece of our identity.

Cultures typically share a language, a political history and sets of foundational stories. They are the common property of all. But what happens if the media that have been the traditional touchstones to our collective selves no longer matter to the society’s newer members?  What happens if there is a withering of our common narratives?  One sign of our weakened sense of affiliation are the 1800 big and small American newspapers that have shut down in the last fifteen years.  Many communities are now news deserts cut of from the nation, and often their own communities.

Concerns like these are frequently raised because, while we have the technical means to easily share our culture, we are less inclined to visit its various precincts.  There are more interesting distractions to pursue.

I’m 72 and my students are mostly south of 20.  And though they are pleasant and easy to work with, it’s increasingly apparent that we come from very different places.  At times it can seem if we both flew in from different countries to spend some time together.  To be sure, we speak the same language, but the forces that have shaped us and and govern our interests are partly alien to each other.

Mine is the older country of the Vietnam War, political assassinations, the civil rights struggle and stunning leaps into space. We expected to meet future spouses in college. Even today our older selves still celebrate great cars, packed bookstores, jazz virtuosos and film and television benchmarks that are more sanguine than dystopian. Many in my generation also seek a daily connection to the national news cycle and, hence, to America’s sagging civil society.

At the same time, my country has also been hell-bent on the dream of affluence. It’s been somewhat less generous toward the young than those of the previous war generation, who gladly built schools, a vast transportation infrastructure for growth, and ways to provide access to college for veterans and the expanding middle class. Our’s is also a generation that votes in larger numbers, keeping a thumb on the government-services scale that favors the old over the young and poor.

 

The challenge here is to sort out reasons for the apparent fraying of links that have held together the culture.

 

By contrast, the young come from a country freed from many of these old cultural markers and some of the bigotries that went with them.  That’s expected, and a welcome part of the gift of idealism that is the birthright of the young.

Theirs is a nation of ‘digital natives’ organized around screens and represented more by personal media and fragmented video on-demand.  They mostly ignore the more centralized broadcasting of major networks. In addition, for the members of this country, devotion to a marriage partner can wait, while all-consuming devotion to the smartphone comes sooner. The device trades in artifacts of the self rather than the full self. It also feeds off the attractions of celebrity as a measure of self-worth.  This is expressed in terms of media markers, where a phone is a gateway to attention that can attract “followers” at a distance. The effect of the ubiquitous online discourse encourages much more interest in the “now” rather than a delayed-but-better “later.”

Of course I’m generalizing beyond what any individual case would allow. And it would be unfair to conclude that younger Americans don’t value social capital.  Many are generous with their time if asked to work for social justice causes.  But social connections are no longer created around shared discourse about the nation’s political problems.  Looming obstacles of the workplace and an independent adulthood matter more. The hollowing-out of the middle class now feeds a generalized discomfort among the young about finding a secure place that can yield the kinds of comfort levels known by their parents.

The challenge here is to sort out reasons for the apparent fraying of links that have previously held together the culture. Generational differences are a given.  But the atomizing of experience that is common in peer to peer media shifts our energies toward the personal and away from the political, which is traditionally the realm of core questions about how we should live as a society.  So we have to ask: are we still living in a shared cultural space if we don’t share the same stories?

Phone Culture is Making Us Stupid

The solitary self is becoming an unfamiliar place we would rather not visit.

We can all celebrate the expansion of information made possible by the internet.  But there is a price to be paid for total connectivity, especially the portion of it that drops into the black hole of phone culture. The ability to call or receive messages from people we know or public figures we ‘follow’ takes a heavy toll on the energies of addicted users.  It’s becoming a familiar complaint.

Notice what people are doing when they are caught in a pause between activities: maybe waiting for a train, a friend, or the start of a meeting.  They are usually in the thrall of their devices. Any pause in the day must be filled with the search for an incoming distraction. The solitary self is mostly an unwelcome place we would rather not visit. True, a person could be reading a provocative book on their device. But it is far more likely they are cleansing their phone of throwaway messages: thumbing through the detritus of a culture increasingly caught in a web of inconsequential moments.

If the need for personal mobility arises, the protocols of this addiction usually require a device clutched in the right hand, ready to receive an incoming “message.” The left hand is the withering appendage still used to carry whatever else must also come along.

There can be no doubt that a portable phone has all kinds of useful functions for journalists, travelers, business people, and many of the rest of us. But it has become an easy reason to postpone more demanding tasks.  We are too ready to divert our attention to screens of minor delights.  Even counselors and psychotherapists are now advised to tolerate mid-session phone-checking from their younger clients, who now average well over 100 hits a day (Psychotherapy Networker, November, 2018).

Consider a brief sampling of what this overuse is costing us.

–Intrapersonal thought is impaired.  We are not the people we should  be if we don’t consider our actions and decisions.  The work of a fully functioning human includes examining the events and moments in our lives.  Plato’s reminder that “an unexamined life is not worth living” is self-evident. We need time to hear ourselves in order to set our own compass for the days and weeks ahead. While many are proud to cite their devotion to yoga or meditation, the concentration and sustained awareness they can produce used to be a common experience for previous generations. The natural rhythms of the pre-digital world gave individuals a natural window to their consciousness.

A spectator’s world is one where things happen to them; where the screen is to be seen; where reaction dominates over action.

–Time is lost on tasks that could be more innovative, creative and educational.  We seem to turning into the kinds corpulent and devoted spectators that populated Pixar’s prescient WALL-E (2009).  A spectator’s world is one where things happen to them; where the screen is to be seen; where reaction dominates over action. Since creativity and innovation require sustained attention to a single task, we must nurture the capacity for such linear thinking. How many symphonies would Joseph Haydn have written if his pocket held an iPhone 8?  He wrote over a hundred in his lifetime,  but I doubt he would have made it even to the Farewell Symphony, Number 45.

–Personal identity that needs to form and evolve is put under siege.  We can easily succumb to the seemingly happier but mostly inflated self-presentations offered by others.  Evidence from recent studies suggests that many adolescents tend to fall into lower levels of self-esteem if they are heavy users of social media. (Journal of Adolescence, August 2016, 41-49). This is probably because online communities like Instagram tend to norm what’s “cool” and what’s not. The resultant checking of self against others drains away the natural impulse to shape one’s identity to passions found in the inner self.

–Real-time contact with others is decreased.  For many of us, rates of daily “screen time” have crept into the eight hour range.  Phones make up about half of that time. Researchers have also documented a disturbing recent trend indicating that middle and high school students are avoiding actual interaction with strangers or adults.  For them, face-time with all but a best friend is stressful.  More perversely, as recently noted, a phone has become its own excuse to not see or connect with another.

The new year is a good time to reconsider what matters. Phone culture is too often the cause of a downward spiral where ‘listeners’ no longer hear, observers no longer notice, and the rest of us are on the verge of becoming immune to the advantages of figuring out what we actually think.