Saturday, July 26, 2014

only connect

As most of you know, I do this Ultimate Media Challenge (UMC) thing with my students, where for the duration of the class they can't do any gaming, TV, movies, porn, social media, or youtube. It's a super hard challenge, and at some point along the way I'm sure they all curse my name, and then by the end of the challenge about 90% of them are telling me how grateful they are that I came up with the challenge. The UMC is a huge hit in my classes. And for a number of students it seems to be a catalyst for genuine change.

At the end of the UMC, all of my students resume some use of screens, but usually in a modified form. Many of them swear off Facebook or Twitter forever, but they decide to still watch movies. Or they go from 6 hours of gaming a day to a few hours per week. That kind of thing. We talk a lot about why and how we want to use technology, going forward. Like, what's your code of ethics? What guides you as you make your choices? They come up with some wonderful answers.

Talking to them so much about technology/media/screens has also been the catalyst for me thinking a whole lot myself about my own addictions to screens, and about my own code of ethics when it comes to using media and tech. This last class, that I just finished teaching, spent a lot of time collectively researching how screens and media affect us. We read an essay titled, "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?" and we watched a Sherry Turkle talk and we talked for a zillion hours and they journaled about their experiences being off screens. I've learned a lot.

And here is the number one thing I've learned. Humans need connection and engagement. We need those two things very, very much. We need skin-to-skin contact, eye contact, verbal engagement. We need to be listened to, and have a human face and voice reflect back to us that we are seen and cared about. These are some of the most basic and most vital human needs. And they're needs that increasingly aren't being met because of screens.

Except sometimes they're needs that are being met because of screens. Skype, for example, allows people to have face-to-face contact when they're across the world from each other. And for my students who are immigrants, that's a big deal. For me with my nephew and niece, that's a big deal. Telephones allow us to have voice contact with people who live far away. Social media like Facebook can allow us to be genuinely involved in each other's daily lives in ways that are connecting, engaging, and meaningful.

However, it is very often the case that media and technology are not used for connection, but rather for disconnection. In the lives of my students, and in the lives of many people I know, media/tech/screens are the number one way that they/we are disconnecting from each other. We are lonely and so we scroll through Facebook, which actually causes us to be lonelier (there's lots of research done on this), but we're unaware of our loneliness because the stimulation of the screen distracts us from our bodily-emotional sensations. We're insecure or uncertain and so we turn to gaming for hours and hours and hours and hours--which often makes us more insecure and uncertain. And so on.

When my students first start doing the UMC, they're super bored. They're bored, lonely, frustrated, and they probably stick pins in voodoo dolls of Tamie. They feel left out, because their families are watching TV, or their friends are gaming. They totally hate the experience. But then after a week or two, they start coming up with other stuff to do besides screens. One of my students started walking his roommate's dog, just to have something to do. Another started taking daily walks around a lake in downtown Oakland. Another started swimming every day. And another started working out. One of the young women, who's living with a host family, started going on in the evenings with her host family, and attended a few local festivals.

And as they start doing these new things, where they're engaging their own bodies more and engaging other people more, they start to realize how disconnected and checked-out they've been. And they start noticing how disconnected and checked-out the people around them are. These are the things they write about in their journals. Honestly, I don't know that I would believe the scope and depth and breadth of the changes they experience if I hadn't read four classes worth of journals about this now. Even though the UMC was my idea, I'm shocked at how much it affects them.

I've come up with exercises that we do together in class, to help in this journey toward more engagement. The exercises help me too! I'm totally shy about talking to strangers, but in class we practice things we might say to strangers. (One of my African-American students said in class a few weeks ago, "I know this white, privileged guy, and I feel bad for him. He doesn't know how to do anything! He doesn't know how to use a bus. He doesn't know how to talk to homeless people." It was such a great moment in class. And I thought--I don't really know how to talk to homeless people.)

Anyway, here's my point. After several years of wrestling myself with whether I want to be on Facebook, whether I want to blog, how I feel about my own email use, and so on, I've finally come up with my own code of ethics. Finally. And my code of ethics is: Only Connect. (My friend Kate has a tattoo that says "Only Connect" on her forearm. It's a quote form E.M. Forster. I think that's why it's on my mind.)

The questions I want to ask myself, in relationship to whether I might want to watch a movie in any given moment, or watch youtube videos with friends, or spend a few hours emailing, or text, are the following questions:

-Will this connect me to myself or other people or the natural world?
-Will this be more connecting than something else I could do right now?
-Am I doing this to disconnect from myself/others or to connect?
-Is there something else I could be doing that would prioritize touch, eye contact, or voice contact?
-Is there some way that I could engage myself more fully right now?

I myself often (usually) do use the Internet and my phone for connecting to others. I text a couple of friends very often, and our texts are long, ongoing conversations that are substantive engagement with each other's lives. I write blog posts, and they tend to be posts about meaningful things. And this is all good. And now that I've come up with my Code of Ethics, I feel much less guilty about all the time I spend on screens! But also--sometimes I use screen-connecting as a way of avoiding in-person connecting. Sometimes I email when it would be so much better for my body and soul to go swimming. Sometimes I text as a way of avoiding taking a nap or sitting alone in silence. Sometimes I watch a movie but what I really want to do is spend time with a friend (but I'm too shy or proud to call someone). And I don't want to do that.

So. Them's my thoughts. I'd be interested to hear y'all's thoughts on media & tech & screens.


  1. I was telling Fiona recently that fiction TV often makes me feel lonelier -- why don't i have 3 guy friends who I hang out with and laugh and have dinner..... (a recent Dr. Who experience -- even though I really like the show)

  2. I bet that's a fairly common experience, though I'm not sure how many folks are aware of having the experience.

    I've recently realized just how much I dislike watching TV or movies. Like, it's more than just the thought, after the fact, that watching was a waste of time. I'm actually *disliking* the experience, in the moment. I kind of suspect that if watching TV was a rare thing for me, this would cease being the case. But I watch movies a lot with Ariel because I am really tired of talking to her. It's hard to spend so much time with someone who is not developmentally progressing.

  3. Fiona's immediate response was that it was just me. :)

  4. Classic Fiona!

    (It is also amusing to me that you're answering this conversation 3 months later)