Wired

by Gary James '10

July 26, 2010

I’m a Facebook junkie, a texting fool, a newshound, and a YouTube fanatic. Many people use these tools. I’m not unique.

At least I thought I wasn’t until a couple weeks ago.
 
I had been putting off a paper. I knew I had to get started or I would be crushed by the weight of all the work I had to do. So I did some research, printed off some articles, and made camp in a corner of Lilly Library.
 
Not even 20 minutes after I began reading, it happened—the itch: that insatiable urge to know what’s going on in the world and with my friends.
 
I had to scratch it.
 
I logged into Facebook to check status updates. I opened another tab to check my favorite political news sites, Huffington-post and Politico. I chatted with a few people, commented on some status updates, and perused some new headlines. It was like a Vulcan mind-meld, but instead of linking two brains together, one brain—mine—fused with a virtual world.
 
Even after I went back to my studies, I left Facebook up just in case someone tried to get in touch with me.
 
AT THE TIME, I JUST CONSIDERED the phenomenon as a type of Facebook-induced attention-deficit disorder. But studies show that I might actually have a problem, along with nearly two-thirds of Americans, most under the age of 50.
 
Addiction experts would describe my behavior as signs consistent with disconnection anxiety, that discomforting feeling that gnaws at one’s psyche when one has been separated from her or his cell phone or the Internet.
 
A 2008 study by Solutions Research Group found 27 per-cent of Americans suffer regularly from disconnection anxiety and 41 percent experience occasional anxiety from that disconnection.
 
Apparently, I’m not alone.
 
Perhaps I’m not the only one who considers the day his par-ents signed him up for unlimited texting as one of the happiest days of his life.
 
Perhaps I’m not the only one who dreads going home because his family doesn’t have high-speed Internet.
 
Perhaps I’m not the only one who checks his phone when he awakes and right before he falls asleep and at regular intervals during the day even when he isn’t expecting a call or text.
 
Perhaps I’m not the only one who struggles to start and finish one task in one sitting without technological distractions, which inevitably impose themselves onto his life.
 
And perhaps I’m not the only one who wonders if he has a problem.
 
What do these behaviors say about me and people like me? Why do I need to be connected in this way? How did I get to this point? Should I be concerned about my burgeoning inability to focus and to finish one task at a time? Should others?
 
In a word, yes. We should be concerned, but we should not be disturbed.
 
YES, WE SHOULD BE CONCERNED if technology is interfering with our lives to such a degree that we go through withdrawals when we are disconnected.
 
Yes, we should be concerned that some teachers are finding textspeak in their students’ work.
 
Yes, we should concerned if we are having trouble functioning in professional settings where Facebook is not allowed or where distractions like Facebook or text messages are grounds for dismissal.
 
But we should be concerned if anything functions this way—food, television, sports, shopping, or even our jobs. People need balance in their lives. This is not unique to modern technology.
 
New technologies always bring certain externalities, and not all of them are bad. The telephone and email brought more convenient ways of communicating with other people, but they also erected walls between people that reduced face-to-face contact.
 
Similarly, social networking, texting, and the Internet can isolate people—in their rooms, offices, and cubicles. But they can also bring people together and help them accomplish tasks more efficiently and conveniently.
 
As editor in chief of The Bachelor, I did most of my work via text and some via Facebook. If I needed to keep working on a story but needed more interviews, I could send texts or Facebook messages to random people to see who was available to comment. If a columnist dropped a story, I would text people I knew had something to say and let them know the situation. Someone, often several people, would come through with an opinion piece when we needed it.
 
SOMETIMES, THOUGH, THESE TECHNOLOGIES can feel oppressive. Sometimes, I can’t escape them.
 
But by realizing when something has moved from being an important part of our lives to overtaking our lives, we can begin the process of negotiating a balance.
 
So when I feel technology is overtaking my life—when I feel my phone and my various email, Facebook, and other accounts have become extensions of my body parts—I go into stealth mode. I leave my phone in my room or shut it off. I avoid computers. I wear pants or shorts without pockets, even if it’s just for a few hours.
 
I wrest control back from the machines. But I do not fear them.
 
MANY OF MY FRIENDS AND I live our lives, at least in part, in a virtual space, as digital avatars represented by a profile, a screen name, or a number in someone’s phone. But it doesn’t have to be a problem that more of our communication with other people occurs through mediated platforms, and not face-to-face or even voice-to-voice.
 
As long as people keep themselves grounded in the real world, technology can be a blessing instead of a curse. I’m from a small town, and digital communication technology, social networking, and the Internet brought the entire world onto my computer and cellphone screens. It opened up a new world for me.
 
While trying to figure out how and why I became a tech-savvy youth, I traced my own technological journey. I found my obsession with the Internet and my cell phone is directly linked to feelings of isolation during my younger years.
 
I can say without hesitation that I was the only out, gay, black, Mormon in my small, rural Southern town. Growing up, I was always outside the circle in some way. Because my local school system was inadequate, my parents moved me around to different relatives around the country so I could get a better education.
 
For many reasons, I often felt alone.
 
When my parents got the Internet, a new world was revealed. I found people like me. I found that I wasn’t alone. I became part of online communities I couldn’t tap into before—communities that did not exist in my small town.
 
Perhaps this is why I see these technological changes as fundamentally good, as a positive way for people to reach out to others—because they helped me.
 
I think of the iconoclast in her or his small town, suburb, or inner city who feels as though she or he doesn’t quite fit in. These technologies give those people hope. They give them convenient ways to stay connected with others who can comfort them and understand and share their interests and insights, even when the people around them think they are full of crap.
 
This ability to insert oneself into a community of her or his choosing for me redeems many of the possible ills of our cultural and technological changes. It helps people realize they are not by themselves. These are changes worth embracing.
 
So at the end of the day, one could say my addiction isn’t really an addiction at all. It’s a powerful embodiment of a very natural, human desire to belong.
 
With that understanding, perhaps we can use the technologies at our disposal not to fear the future, but to shape it—to shape a future in which people are more cooperative and more connected in the virtual world, and in the real one.
 
Gary James ’10 is the former editor in chief of The Bachelor, a two-time winner of the College’s Jim Leas Outstanding Student in Journalism award, and the 2009 runner-up for Indiana Student Journalist of the Year. He began his work with Teach for America this summer.

 


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