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Lee Capristo
Director of Publications
Email: lwcapristo@smcm.edu
Anne Arundel 100

Connected and Worried

Written by Jeffrey Hammond, Professor English and George B. and Willma Reeves Endowed Chair in the Liberal Arts

"Can You Hear Me Now?"

This past Christmas I received an intimidating present: my first cell phone. It doesn't surf the Internet or come with "killer apps" that do everything under the sun. It's just a tiny phone. I've learned how to charge it and make a call, and though I still feel like an astronaut whenever I use it, this gadget has already proved its worth. Didn't it save me a bundle in long-distance charges when I got snowed in during a recent trip to Ohio?

Like 270 million other Americans, I am finally connected. Wherever I go, I can now reach out and touch someone. Of course, the fact that anyone can also reach out and touch me might alter my preferred experience of solitude. As John Donne might say today, no man plugged into an enormous grid of voices is an island.

It would be easy for someone my age to play the Luddite and condemn all such newfangled devices as the devil's work - as a conspiracy between technology and commerce to steal what's left of our souls. But how can I? As part of that dwindling population who can remember the bad old days before personal computers, I can attest that word processing, e-mail, and the internet have enriched my life immeasurably, especially my writing life. Gone are the days of retyping entire manuscripts with each revision, or brushing Wite-Out over every typo. E-mail put to rest those endless games of phone tag with editors. And with the internet, I can do fact-checking and even some basic research without going to a library.

In my fitful attempts to stay current, I have adapted to each innovation as it came along. With the "mobile phone," however, I don't feel the same eagerness to leap to the new platform. Something about the constant connectivity that cell phones provide gives me the creeps.

The digital world's key selling points have always been connectivity and interactivity with others. As the popularity of social networking sites attests, technology doesn't just enhance community: it creates it. Post your profile on any version of "My- Face," and you're no longer alone - or not, at least, in virtual reality. Go to a blog and jump into an animated conversation with perfect strangers. Visit a news site and take a poll with thousands of unseen peers. You can do all kinds of things online - many of them simultaneously - and feel as if you are part of something. These online actions will be fairly constant, too, because computers are meant to do things: in this point-and-click world, "friend" has become a verb.

If the sense of community fostered by technology makes people feel less lonely, that's a good thing. But I wonder if the constant interaction fostered by the digital realm is making us forget how to be alone. There's a big difference between being alone and being lonely - a difference that the seductions of cyber-community are threatening to efface.

For people under the age of 30, the technological tail has been wagging the educational dog for some time now: interactive and collaborative approaches to learning have dominated their schooling. While this has been mostly for the good, such approaches tend to downplay the importance of the individual, along with the development of such private habits as self-reliance, patience, and reflection.They might even be undermining the sense of being an individual in the first place. Not only are young people in danger of forgetting how to be alone, but they might be missing out on the solitude and silence needed for genuine self-reflection.

And here, of course, is where those devilish cell phones come in. I can personally attest to their value during snowstorms and other emergencies. But whenever I step outside and see a student walking by and talking on a cell phone, I wonder if the fear of being alone has become so great that it cannot sustain a solitary walk across campus. Has silence become so unbearable that every quiet moment must be filled with talk? Is it possible to ponder a serious issue during a phone chat? Or notice the clouds, the trees, and the faces of other people?

Maybe it is: I've been assured that young people are adept at multitasking. But to multi-task is, by definition, not to single-task: to concentrate on one thing for a sustained period of time in search of a solution. Some things simply cannot be done in collaboration or amidst a sea of distractions. And at what point does multitasking degrade into off-tasking or even no-tasking? The Washington Post recently ran an article by Daniel De Vise (March 9) about the increasing number of college professors who are banning the use of laptops in their classes because the diversions of being connected are too powerful. If laptops are distracting, cell phones are proving even more so. According to a recent estimate in the Post (August 13, 2009), Americans driving while using their cell phones account for some 340,000 accidents per year.

It has always been hard to be alone and think. My fear is that technology is making it even harder. Indeed, the not-so-private cell phone conversations that I overhear suggest that privacy itself is becoming antiquated. If so, will private thoughts become outmoded? With cyber-connectivity routinely providing instant access to whatever we want at the moment, can we develop the patience to figure out what we really want over the long haul? With everyone from Bertrand Russell to Brad Pitt sharing bandwidth on that great equalizer known as the web, it's getting harder to decide what matters and what doesn't. And with technology pulling everything into the "real time" of the immediate present, will the past become less real? Will our capacity for memory shrivel up like our tails once did?

Defending the need to live at least some of our lives unplugged probably makes me sound like the hopeless Luddite that I've always tried not to be. Maybe I should start a blog to defend myself. Then again, would a true Luddite own a cell phone? Although I might be an Omega user, that Christmas present is right here in my briefcase, snug in its box with its charger and a manual that I plan to read before the next snowstorm hits.