Don’t Blame it on the Tech

[Snark Warning]

A modified version of this piece also appeared as my column in the Daily Northwestern.

Technology gets a bad rap.

You wouldn’t think so–obviously, we all love it–but in a way it does.

You can’t really go a day anymore without encountering a book, article, or person spewing some variation of the following: “Oh, these days, everyone’s just so plugged in to their laptops/iPods/iPads/iPhones/Kindles/Blackberrys/etc,” always with a tone that combines whininess with nostalgia.

Sometimes it’s in the context of promoting physical activity, face-to-face interaction, getting out into nature, ink-and-paper books, live music, or any other number of virtuous things. Sometimes–paradoxically, since this usually appears online–it’s in an article about some brave soul who has eschewed Facebook, email, or–gasp!–the Internet altogether. Sometimes it’s embedded in smug pieces with titles like “Why I Don’t Have a Smartphone” or “Why I Don’t Text My Boyfriend.”

For a while, I really couldn’t figure out what it is about these remarks that drives me so far up the wall. I thought perhaps it was the repetition and sheer clicheness of such comments, or just my contrarian nature.

However, I think I’ve finally figured it out. These lamentations annoy me because I read them, accurately or otherwise, as attempts to shift responsibility for running our own lives off of ourselves and onto the technology that we willingly invent, purchase, and use.

In other words, it’s not that I can’t be bothered to spend time with my family. It’s that the evil Apple device prevents me.

Of course, I exaggerate. Most people don’t really feel like they can’t control their technological activities (although there are exceptions). But I do get the sense that gadgets get an unfair amount of blame.

I also think that people often choose to cut themselves off from technology, at least temporarily or partially, rather than learning how to achieve some sort of balance in their use thereof. What else explains the preponderance of browser extensions and desktop software that blocks “time-wasting” websites or programs? If the only thing preventing you from typing http://www.facebook.com in the address bar is a special browser add-on, you’re not actually learning how to control your urges in the moment they arise.

I also know of people who literally deactivate their Facebook accounts or have a friend change the password during critical academic periods. Of course, part of me just wants o say, more power to them. But another part wonders why people can’t just restrain themselves from going to the website.

In other words, Facebook doesn’t waste your time. You waste your time.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in connection with what I wrote about in my last post. When I observed Shabbat this past weekend, that meant I had to spend 24 hours without using any technological device.

Aside from the fact that my nephew was born that day and I really wanted to check in with my family, I can’t say that the obligatory technology fast affected me much. I didn’t die of boredom without the Internet, but neither did I revel in the feeling of being “free” from all that pesky technology.

Ironically, I think this trend started off as a contrarian one. At some point within the last decade or two, some skeptic probably wrote an article to the tune of, “You know all that technology we think is so awesome? Yeah well it’s not.” (In fact, that person is probably Nicholas Carr.)

But now I’d say that this has become a mainstream opinion–one that I don’t necessarily disagree with, but one that seems completely oversimplified to me. I don’t believe that there’s anything special about today’s technology that causes it to sap all of our attention. As with most social trends and problems, I believe that what’s going on here is actually much more complex.

For instance, everyone loves to bemoan the fact that people now communicate mostly through technology. There’s the old cliche about texting or IMing someone who’s just in the next room–or in the same room, and the preponderance of college students who use Facebook to run their entire social lives.

But what’s really happening here? Could it be that the expectation for young people to go away to college, move frequently, and put off making permanent bonds with others until later is driving the increased emphasis on digital communication? Could it be that most people never learn effective communication skills and thus feel more comfortable talking to others from behind a screen? Or, perhaps, that technology takes away the fear of rejection that people face when they try to, say, invite someone to hang out in person or come up and engage them in conversation?

I’m really just throwing out suggestions here, because I don’t know. But I do have a very strong sense that technology is really just the medium through which already-existing problems in our culture and our psychology are being revealed.

For instance, everyone hates the nasty trolls that seem to inhabit every website with open commenting. However, the Internet and the anonymity it provides do not cause trolling; they simply allow it. What probably does cause it are boredom, frustration, and a general inability to empathize and care for people you cannot see or even imagine. And those are problems that reside within ourselves, and not within the technology we’ve constructed.

Technology makes an easy target. It’s new, it’s hard to understand, and it’s changing our culture faster than we can churn out books and articles that analyze it.

But it bothers me that choosing to disconnect from technology has acquired a moral value, and that we bitch and moan about technology instead of some of the larger, deeper problems with our culture.

Those problems are much harder to tease out and analyze. It’s easier to just write a piece blaming everything on iPhones.

But gadgets come and go. Culture usually does not.

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Obscenity and College Admissions: Don’t Judge People by Their F-Bombs

I read an article on GOOD that provided statistics about how much college admissions officers stalk check applicants’ Facebooks. Apparently 24% of officers do it, and that number is on the rise.

Now, this is really nothing new. However, what did strike me about the article was this:

Twelve percent of admissions counselors told Kaplan that what they found on social networks hurt an applicant’s admissions prospects—particularly when it involved vulgarity, evidence of alcohol consumption or essay plagiarism, or proof of illegal activity.

 

See anything troubling there?

I do. Several of the things on that list involve activities that are illegal and/or violate most schools’ codes of conduct–underage drinking, plagiarism, and “illegal activity” in general. One, however, does not, and that is vulgarity.

It makes me a little queasy whenever some sort of higher authority attempts to determine what is “moral” and what isn’t. With regards to vulgarity, common courtesy generally prevails–don’t use inappropriate language with employers, interviewers, teachers and professors, other respected elders, and children. If you’re unhappy with someone in a public setting, don’t scream obscenities at them. Etcetera.

But is a person who uses vulgar language with his/her friends a bad person? Should they be denied college admission? Would they be a poor addition to their campus community?

I can see why a college admissions officer would not want to admit an applicant who clearly parties a lot, engages in plagiarism, or otherwise breaks the law. But can you really just assume that someone who uses obscenities is a bad person?

I don’t have any research on this, so I can only really use myself as a case study. I curse. A lot. I always have. I tell dirty jokes, I call politicians dicks, and I say “fuck” a lot.

I have also contributed to my university more than many, if not most, of its other students. I’ve led two student groups, started and led an initiative to bring a peer listening service to campus, served as an RA for a year, participated in a sexual health peer education group, assisted two research projects, written for campus publications, volunteered with campus groups, donated to fundraisers, and generally helped make this campus a better place. I have never received any sort of disciplinary action while I have been at Northwestern, nor have I broken any university policies, aside from keeping an electric kettle in my dorm room so I can drink tea. I have never bullied, harassed, or assaulted another student, and that’s more than I can say for some of my peers. I think that if they had to do it over, Northwestern’s admissions officers would absolutely accept me again.

But what if they’d seen the f-bombs on my Facebook profile?

Really, I think stalking applicants’ Facebooks and other profiles is a practice of dubious ethicality, anyway. Of course, everyone’s all like, “But you made it public! But it’s right there! If you didn’t want every single person in the world to know you shouldn’t have uploaded it!”

Perhaps. But there are certain boundaries that I think we should respect when it comes to others. Just because something is public doesn’t mean it’s intended for public viewing. For instance, if I’m walking on campus and I overhear a couple having a vicious argument, obviously, they could’ve been more discreet. But does that make it right for me to stand there and eavesdrop?

If I walk past a house with the lights on and the blinds up and see, say, a couple having sex, should they have been more careful? Probably. But does that mean I should stand there and stare at them doing it? No. That’s creepy as hell.

So suffice it to say that I oppose creeping on people’s lives electronically, too. And I should point out that aside from the vulgarity issue, which I’ve only recently found out about anyway, I don’t have a dog in this fight. I don’t drink or party, so there are no Facebook photos of me drinking and partying. I don’t do anything illegal. I don’t brag about my sexual conquests. There’s nothing on my profile that I’d be ashamed of anyone else seeing.

But I do at times use obscenities when I feel the desire to express myself that way. And it doesn’t make me any less of a suitable candidate for a spot at a university, a job, or anything else.

Now, I’m also not stupid, so knowing what I now know, I’m definitely going to put my Facebook on super-duper private or just temporarily change the name on it when I’m applying for stuff. I’ve checked how my profile looks to someone who’s not friends with me and it doesn’t show any of my foul language.

But on the other hand, I also don’t want to work for an employer who’s moronic enough to overlook my strong resume and assume that I won’t know how to behave in the office–especially after interviewing me. My decorum and sense of morality are quite intact, thank you very much. But they’re not something you can judge by glancing over an online profile.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Breast Cancer Awareness

If you have ever seen a bunch of women posting Facebook statuses with a random color, or a location where they “like it,” and felt a mix of confusion and frustration, you are not alone.

These memes are part of an effort for breast cancer “awareness,” a word that I use cynically here and only in quotation marks. The color meme referred to women’s bra color, and the location one referred to where they like to put their purses. Of course, they made it sound sexual to attract more attention: “X likes it by the bed”, “Y likes it in the closet,” etc.

Now, an acquiantance of mine (who also happens to be the Director of Health Promotion and Wellness at Northwestern University, and therefore isn’t entirely ignorant about these things) has reported that this stupid trend still has not died.

Perhaps even less sensically, the latest iteration of this meme is people posting stuff like “is going to New York for five months” or “is going to Las Vegas for twelve months,” and this, too, is supposed to elicit friends’ queries and be met with the response that it’s for breast cancer “awareness.”

As anyone with even a modicum of critical thinking skills can tell you, such a status, when finally deciphered, tells you exactly one thing: “There is a thing called breast cancer and you should know about it.”

Yes, yes there is. But could we finally get beyond that?

For instance, here are some actual facts about breast cancer:

If you’d like to do some actual good, why not spread this information around?

Besides that, here are some other ways you can help:

  • Volunteer to provide support for people battling breast cancer. (This is even easier if you know of such a person. You can help by driving them to doctor’s appointments, making them meals if they’re too tired, babysitting their kids, or just being there to listen.)
  • Donate to charities that provide such support, or to organizations that fund research on breast cancer. Here are some to get your started: Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the National Breast Cancer Foundation, and the National Breast Cancer Coalition. With a quick Google search, you could find local charities, charities that cater towards a particular demographic that you belong to, and so on.
  • If you want to go beyond simply giving money, participate in charities’ fundraising events, such as Susan G. Komen’s Race for the Cure. That way you get to raise money while meeting other people who care and physically showing your support for survivors and people battling breast cancer.
  • If you’re politically liberal, be an activist for government initiatives that fund cancer research, education initiatives, support for cancer patients, expanded insurance coverage, etc. One good place to start: ask your representative to support H.R. 3067, the Accelerating the End of Breast Cancer Act of 2011, which proposes an initiative to end breast cancer by 2020.
  • If you’re studying medicine or biomedical engineering, consider making cancer research your focus. Or work as a research assistant in a lab that studies cancer.
  • Buy products from companies that donate to breast cancer research (but beware of pinkwashing).
  • Similarly, if you happen to own a business or want to start one (and I know many of you Northwestern students do), consider donating a percentage of your profits to breast cancer research.
  • If you’re going into journalism and you’re interested in health, consider writing about breast cancer. Not everyone has enough knowledge to decipher academic articles; you can be the one who makes that information accessible to those who need it.

As you can see, some of these require your time and money. Others do not. The few seconds that it takes you to type your stupid status could be better spent posting a link to an important recent article about breast cancer.

And now, I get it. Cancer is a terrifying thing. The amount of information available about it could fill books upon books, and some of it is constantly going obsolete or being revised. Even I felt a bit overwhelmed just looking at the few websites I looked at to research this article.
I also get that when your friends are posting oh-so-funny things on Facebook, you want to join in the fun. Trust me, I was in middle school once, I know.

But I have some unfortunate news for some of you: neither I, nor breast cancer survivors, nor families of breast cancer victims give a flying fuck what color your bra is or where you like to put your purse, cutesy sexual innuendo notwithstanding.

If you’re old enough to make sexual innuendo, you’re old enough to educate yourself and others about breast cancer (and, for that matter, anything else you think people should be educated about). Let’s stop selling ourselves short here.

*edit* Another reason I just thought of to hate these memes–they are generally restricted to women only, and women aren’t “supposed” to tell men what they mean, thus constructing breast cancer as a “girl thing.” Not only do men witness their friends, girlfriends, wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, etc. fighting breast cancer, but some men actually get breast cancer, so it’s not only a women’s problem.

Anyway, there is enough of a stigma placed on men who get breast cancer without its promotion through this meme.

Update (2/2/2012): In case anyone’s going through my archives and reading old posts, let it be known that I officially withdraw my support for the Susan G. Komen Foundation in light of its defunding of Planned Parenthood.

Facebooking in Class–Symptom, not Disease

FINALLY I get to use this meme in a serious context.

I think I’m going to have a series of posts criticizing GOOD’s pathetic education section, which is currently failing even harder than my insomniac classmates are at their finals.

This is an older article, but I decided to dig it up and poke fun at it anyway.

This article suggests that having a “15-minute tech break” for each half-hour of class would help students focus because they’d do all their Facebooking in those 15 minutes and then put their phones away.

The people who propose these initiatives seemingly have a complete lack of understanding of how young people actually use technology, and for what purpose. For instance:

Rosen says his tech break concept “works amazingly.” For every half-hour of focused work, he recommends allowing a 15-minute tech break. Once a students sees that nothing is happening on Facebook or send a friend that critical text message—they’re able to refocus, he says.

That’s not the way Facebook and texting work, though. You don’t just check it and then forget about it. You like to be on it. What’s to stop people from having their phones out under their desks outside of the “tech break?”

Furthermore, I don’t see how this is even doable. This would increase class time by a whopping 50%—ludicrous when everyone, both students and teachers, are already severely overbooked. (In fact, that may be why students use their phones in class to begin with.)

In addition, like it or not, multitasking is here to stay. If students are forced to learn how to integrate technology with learning rather than strictly separating the two, they’ll be better equipped to handle modern work environments, where you’re usually required to answer phones/emails/messages while working, and so on.

Finally, I still don’t understand why people see Facebooking/texting in class as some sort of crisis of epic proportions that requires a complete restructuring of the school day. Are students actually becoming dumber? Are their grades dropping? And even if they are, might it be because of much-needed and still-lacking education reforms, and not because of Evil Technology?

I obviously haven’t done research on this (though, by the looks of it, this guy hasn’t either), but I’d guess that Facebooking and texting in class aren’t a cause of distraction–they’re a symptom. Back in the day, kids would doodle or pass notes or just stare into space. These days they text and go on Facebook. What’s the difference? Oh, right, there’s a convenient piece of Evil Technology to blame.

That, ultimately, is the argument that I believe overrules everything else I’ve just said. If the problem is–shocker–not Those Darn Kids but the fact that school is worthlessly boring, then it’s time to have a completely different dialogue. This dialogue will have to be about how to make school both educational and fun and not about how to get Those Darn Kids to do what we want them to do.

On People Who Think They’re so Damn Funny

[Snark Warning]

Like many depressives, I have a love-hate relationship with humor. A well-crafted joke, anecdote, or cartoon can cheer me up during the worst times, but because of the various cognitive deficits associated with depression, I have a lot of trouble processing humor when it’s directed at me or my life.

Enter another thing I have a love-hate relationship with: Facebook. As one of those rare people who’s “out” about having a mental illness (to shamelessly borrow terminology from the LGBT community), I occasionally post something related to my current troubles on my Facebook. Most of the people who bother reading it are fairly good friends of mine who know what’s going on and often stop by and leave a nice comment or a simple “<3” on those posts.

But then there are people who insist on trying to force a joke about the situation. These well-intentioned but insufferably clueless people are the bane of any depressive’s life. They’re our friends, sometimes even pretty good ones, and as much as we know that they mean well, it can be very painful to have a really difficult aspect of your life reduced to a dumb joke like that. And it’s nearly impossible to find a way to respond–any suggestion that the joke was out of place is inevitably met with “but I was just trying to lighten the mood” or “I just wanted to cheer you up.”

Here’s the thing, though–you can’t fix a depressed person anyway. (Sometimes, you can’t even fix a depressed person if you’re a psychiatrist or psychologist.) The most you can do is offer a message of support and refrain from trying to turn a depressed person’s misery into a big huge joke.

Honestly, I doubt that even healthy people are actually “cheered up” by jokes made at their expense. I can’t imagine that’s pleasant for anyone who’s already in kind of a bad mood. But it’s especially unpleasant for a depressed person and can trigger all sorts of nasty stuff.

I think people have a huge fear of others’ unhappiness. The moment you see a sad person, you immediately want to drag them, kicking and screaming, out of their sadness, whether they asked you to or not. This is understandable, but it should be avoided, not only because there’s so little you can really do, but because you should try to understand people before you try to help them.

If anyone ever bothered to ask me what they could do to help me feel better, you can guarantee I wouldn’t say “crack a dumb joke at my expense.” And, don’t worry, I wouldn’t say “sit here for hours and listen to me cry,” either. I would probably ask you to have a conversation about something interesting, like politics or culture, with me. Or I’d ask you to come over and bring a good movie. Or I’d ask you to bake some cookies with me. Or, I’d say, “Nothing, but thanks for asking.”

What people don’t understand about depression is that it’s different from normal sadness not only in quantity, but in quality. To put it more simply, it’s just a different kind of sadness. When someone has a depressive episode, they go to a really dark place that healthy people don’t go to ever. Not even when their significant other breaks up with them or something like that. It’s a darkness that can’t be lit up by a stupid joke. Really, it can’t be fully lit up by anything. But human connection, love, and support can sometimes help.

Obviously, not everybody is willing to provide that for everybody else. That’s fine, and that’s how it should be. But if you can’t give me what I need to feel better, don’t give me something that makes me feel worse, either.

Like many problems that I come across in my life, this turns out to be something that’s actually a much larger issue. I believe that the reason people are so desperate to immediately try to “lighten the mood” the instant they see something unpleasant is because our culture has an extreme fear of negative emotion. We avoid it like the plague, and it comes as no surprise to me that most of our culture’s solutions for achieving happiness seem to focus on eliminating things like fear, sadness, and anger entirely, rather than incorporating them into one’s life in a normal, healthy way. Clearly, what I have isn’t healthy, but it’s only the extreme end of spectrum. I see this sort of blind and terrified avoidance of anything that’s sad, whether it’s severe like depression or totally normal, everywhere I look.

If you’ve just read this and realized that what I’m describing sounds exactly like you, I hope you’re not offended. If you are, my apologies. But I hope you trust that behind all this snark is a lot of pain.

And, if you’re still reading, I have a challenge for you. Next time you come across a post from a friend that’s unhappy in some way, don’t rush to make a joke about it. Don’t try to drag your friend away from what they’re feeling. If you absolutely need to comment on it somehow, say “I’m sorry, that really sucks,” or “I hope you feel better.” I guarantee that unless you happen to be Jon Stewart, that’ll work better than any joke.

I’ll leave you with a quote by Dutch priest and writer Henri Nouwen:

“The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion… that is a friend who cares.”