Responding to the NYT: Rethinking Our Relationship With Technology Through Campus-Wide 'Deactivation Days'

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Last Wednesday, a piece titled "Last Call for College Bars" appeared in The New York Times Style section, about the effect that social media has had on the dwindling bar scene in college towns across the country. The entryway into the reporter's argument was the interactions that she had with students in Level B, a Cornell college town bar, who were glued to their iPhones, texting friends to coax them to join. Snidely quoting drunkards encountered around collegetown, the reporter paints a bleak portrait of university culture in the digital era.

As a student at Cornell who lives down the street from Level B, and one whose academic focus is on the cultural effects of new technologies, I would like to take some time to respond.

Many news sources reacted to "Last Call" by pointing out -- first in Ivy Gate, then in Cornell's Daily Sun, Jezebel, New York Magazine, Business Insider, and others -- that the interviewees gave fake names, and that the piece was therefore bad journalism. While the writer should have taken more care to confirm the identities of her interviewees -- who would give a real name after being photographed, perhaps underage, with a bowl full of alcohol and a dinosaur toy -- I don't doubt that these conversations really happened.

Where I do take issue with the piece is that these specific portraits are used as generalizations. The writer uses 'Vanessa Gilen,' who doesn't look up from her iPhone as she makes fun of people around her, as a critique of university culture at large. The writer falls into gendered tropes of men playing video games while women drink peach-flavored champagne and take Instagram photos as she describes the typical 'pregames.' The writer quotes 'Tracy O'Hara' who spends, "like, an hour untagging photos" to describe a morning after-ritual that is "often the same" for university students.

The simplistic description of how people interact with technology -- gendered stereotypes aside -- ignores the complex manner in which social media technologies have been embedded in culture both at university, and in society in general.

A recent Onion article, titled "Number of Users Who Actually Enjoy Facebook Down To 4" captures the paradox perfectly -- rather than unlock our social potential and enrich our lives, social technologies have become a burden from which it seems impossible to escape. Sure, opting out of these technologies is one solution, but, as a friend recently wrote in the Cornell Daily Sun of his choice to not get an iPhone, "My dilemma is that the culture has already shifted against my struggle... Because everybody else is responding to e-mails instantaneously, I suddenly have to as well."

His argument, in the context of "Last Call," translates: it is one thing to show up to a bar without texting friends to see if it's 'happening' yet, and another thing for everyone to share this unknowing, and to embrace uncontrolled social settings with a cultural of openness to meeting new people.

It bears repeating that not everyone finds themselves so affected by smart phones and social media, and some refuse technologies all together. 'Vanessa Gilen,' sitting on her phone at Level B, trying to get her friends to join, is not a portrait of university culture at large. However, the technologies are embedded in ways that aren't easily identifiable, and one person opting out of a trend that they dislike does nothing to slow the train of 'progress' barreling onward.

Only change at a large scale would any cultural shift be noticeable.

Therefore, I propose campus-wide Disconnect Days -- a month of widespread deactivation to see what life would be like without the digital specters haunting university and, as Rubin points out, college town bars.

If we don't experiment with life unfiltered by the digital world now, while university offers us a community of people the same age, living in close proximity, with more or less similar schedules, with almost every space on campus designed to facilitate student interactions, when else in the near future will we be able to?

When my peers and I go out in the world to world to find jobs, we will be told how helpful maintaining a social media presence will be. We will be set on the track to a digital future, and the grumbles of discontent will become passive acceptance, if they haven't already.

Therefore, for just one month, would it be possible, on a campus-wide scale, to:

  • Deactive Facebook and other social networking sites.

  • Leave cell phones plugged into a wall at home, only communicating with it as though it were a home line.
  • Party like it's 1999.
  • It will be harder than it sounds. Many people get a kick out of sharing photos and links. Many parties are conveniently organized through Facebook. People have calendars full of meetings and phonebooks full of emergency contacts. There are so many hugely significant benefits to social media and smart phones that many have become too accustomed to to give up.

    It is also probably true that I'm idealizing a time when there was more uncertainty in social interactions -- writing down phone numbers, being 'stood-up' on a date, finding directions before leaving the house, not being able to text 'running 10 mins late' -- a lot of inconvenient planning would be have to go into this month-long disconnect.

    Still, living in a world where many actions are mediated through a digital lens has been the subject of discontent, and the sad reality is that college might be the last time where such a widespread departure from this hastening trend would be possible.

    Now, if there was a concerted effort to reevaluate the complex relationship with social technologies by disconnecting, it might be that the month would end, and everyone would realize how grateful they are to have access to constant connectivity. In that case, let the path of 'progress' continue, and let iPhone 5 sales soar. However, maybe, just maybe, the iPhone-attached 'Vanessa Glen' in all of us would look up to see all that the real world -- unplanned interactions and all -- has to offer.

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