The Age of iSolation

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After my three hour committee meeting, one of my colleagues, Steve, and I had a conversation that began with Twitter and ended up as a general discussion about the coming age of iSolation (trademarked).

Steve told a story of the eerie silence as he approached his classroom and how what greeted him was not an empty room, but a room full of students all interacting with their smart phones, tablets and other devices. No one spoke or paid the least attention to anyone around him or her. I added my own tale of feeling vaguely disturbed by students walking in groups, yet interacting only with their phones and not each other. Unless, perhaps, they were Tweeting or texting the people with them.

The conversation then turned to the push for online learning and how it might be the case that we will see the last generation of students who get to choose between being taught in person and being taught online. Naturally, the push for online learning is driven mostly by economic concerns: having masses of students enrolled in online only classes that are auto-graded (or graded by low paid graders) would replicate the exploitative or automated model (or both) of factories. This would mean far lower costs and thus far higher profits for those owning the machines of education and the lucky few left to run the process.

We did, however, set aside the economic motivation to consider an important question (at least for educators): would the online model be better than the traditional model in terms of providing quality education?

This sparked a side discussion about digital books and digital music. Steve is Jazz person and is of the school of thought that the analog approach is superior to the digital approach-not just in terms of the music but also in terms of the social aspect. He spoke of how he used to go to music stores and be able to discuss music with others of like interest. The idea of joining a Facebook group to post about Jazz had little appeal to him, perhaps even less than the vision of people downloading digital music in iSolation from each other.

I added in my view of books-namely that while I find the Kindle very appealing because it allows me to carry hundreds of books when I travel, I still value the experience of reading an actual book.

Thinking about this, I realized that my preference was based not in any rejection of digital books (I like my Kindle and love the books I sell for the Kindle). Rather, I value the full aesthetic experience of reading an actual book. There is, I contend, a different aesthetic experience when it comes to a physical book: its design, the weight in one’s hand, the act of turning the pages, and so on all create an experience that has aesthetic value and one that cannot be (as of yet) replicated by a digital book. In support of this claim, I made an analogy between seeing a movie and going to a play based on the same story. While the movie will provide an aesthetic experience, the play will provide a different one in virtue of its nature. Likewise, the same would seem to hold for digital books and actual books.

Being a philosopher, I did note that our concern over the shift to the digital world might simply be a manifestation of the usual lamentations of people as they grow older and things are not as they were when they were kids. I imagined my ancestors of long ago lamenting the kids and their new-fangled writing and how it would wreck everything. Why not, I imagined them saying, just stick with speaking and remembering? As such, I believe it is important to consider that my concerns are fueled not by reason but by feeling.

That said, I believe it is equally important to consider that my concerns might have a foundation-that is, worrying about the age of iSolation is not just a matter of yelling at the damn kids to get off my lawn, but a point of legitimate worry regarding the road we are now following.

In conclusion, buy my damn books.  Then get off my damn lawn. 🙂

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  1. I have a pretty decent computer, a top of the range smart phone a land line at home a TV and radio of course. I do not Twitter, Text, or do Facebook although I am on it under a Pseudonym as it is useful for tracing people at times. A Kindle does not appeal to me it seems an artificial way of reading a book and so far as I know it is not possible to underline or make marginal notes on a Kindle. From what I see of Facebook it is largely a mutual admiration society and how can one really have 800 “friends”. I never have a desire to tell people of my current mood, or to let them know I have just had a drink or seen a film or twitter to them about the latest tennis match I have watched. If really necessary I can phone them up using my Smart phone, land line or send an email.
    I note all the professional philosophers I know are on Facebook but I never apply to be their friend as I assume they are on it in the main for professional reasons, which I can understand. Actually I do find using a smart phone a somewhat fiddly, one handed business but certain applications “Apps” like Google Sky are brilliant. I went shopping with a friend recently a younger person than myself for a large part of the time he was fiddling with this small instrument in his hand absolutely absorbed, texting and receiving texts from his girl friend it was like walking around with some sort of zombie. I can well imagine the scenario which has been described here of “the eerie silence as he approached his classroom and how what greeted him was not an empty room, but a room full of students all interacting with their smart phones, tablets and other devices. No one spoke or paid the least attention to anyone around him or her.” This to me is a frightening prospect because one is deprived of the sight of one’s correspondent the sound of their voice the feel of their bodily presence. A loss of face to face interactions. There probably already is, and undoubtedly there is in the offing, some brilliant science fiction, addressing this matter and what it may eventually lead to, a terrible isolation, perhaps denial of essential sensory input. Face to face input is important, and the loss of it could have serious consequences, a theme which is not appropriate to develop here, other than to say the psychological composition of nearly all animals does seem to entail face to face environments which no doubt has been selected for by the evolutionary process.
    So for these reasons I am not in favour of the online model of education. Having been exposed to it and similar models. Additionally having being educated full time at a university, this in my opinion was by far superior to so called online tuition. I have written elsewhere in more detail concerning this.
    I am probably just an old fashioned has been, but I do use modern technology where it suits my purpose, and I suppose my personality and desires, but I do fear for the future.
    As an afterthought there are advantages to Twitter and Facebook in that news of current events throughout the world especially disasters, and political developments, can be made available by those on the spot, who otherwise might have been prevented from informing the rest of the world as to what is going on.

  2. I would say that until we should withhold judgment until we know what the kids are doing on their smartphones.

    In the last year, I have begun mastering the art of procuring publications and storing them in my growing online library. I have a growing que of papers to add to my library and read, so whenever I have a few minutes, I try to obtain one. This is best done on campus, since their IP address gives me access to about 12-15 times as much material as my home IP address.

    Since I have learned how to do this, I have been able to read at least two more papers a week than I would have otherwise. Also, my works cited sections on papers tend to be much larger since I am continuously acquainting myself with the material I need to write papers.

    All this to say, I am often on my iPhone before class for rather pragmatic academic reasons. I take it that that this is as good or better than talking to my neighbor about my weekend.

    That being said. I am willing to concede that smartphone use can be bad. The fact that Angry Birds has been the bestselling app for a couple years now is proof that smartphones are not famous for enriching our lives. If anything they are famous for distracting us. If we could show people how the technology could be used for good, then perhaps this would change…but I doubt it.

    For those who want to know how to do this:
    (1) Get a free dropbox (or Google Drive) account. Get the app on your phone (free). Login.
    (2) Contact your university’s IT office and ask what app to use to access the campus network via VPN (for when you are not on campus).
    (3) Get “Downloader” from iPhone App Store (free) or “Rapid Downloader” from Google Play.
    (4) Go to in Downloader and begin searching for papers.
    (5) After downloading paper, click “cite” and import the citation into whatever citationa manager you use (RefWorks, EndNote, etc.).

    With practice, this could obtain a paper in about 90 seconds…about the time you have while waiting for class to start.

  3. Have a look at Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: how the internet is changing the way we read, think,and remember.

  4. Carr’s book is valuable indeed, but we should be clear that the effects Carr mentions in his book (e.g. short attention span, inability to endure a full-length book, poorer academic performance, etc.) would not be limited to frequent internet use. We should not be surprised if frequent television watching and video game playing have effects. Since neither of these things are rare among philosophers, we should aim our criticism at ourselves as much as our students.

  5. Movies and plays are art forms, as is some literature: all have different things to offer and can’t be compared one over the other, although the translation of a book into either a play or movie can be unsatisfactory as art. A digital book offers the exact same material as in book form but the difference is sensual. I like the easy availability of a favorite book and, most of all, its feel and smell.
    As for alienation, everybody always has been in one form or another: tight, organized societies, as in some religious sects, offer a kind of sociability and personal interaction but it is very narrow. Society has always been organized according to class, with each alienated from the others. So much for the good old days. On-line education could be coordinated with universities to the benefit of all.
    If you find the arts, literature, philosophy, science and history interesting and inspirational and have access to them either online, or better still, in books, libraries, theaters, museums and art galleries etc,. you are in communication with the best of humanity. Personal relationships can be satisfying or devastating, and we shouldn’t expect so much from them. Balance is all. But this has little to do with the fact you cannot much trust people you don’t personally know these days, as was the case in previous times.

  6. I read Carr’s book. In my opinion his book is one of the best about this topic.

  7. Carr wrote a piece in the Atlantic a few years back that might interest some unfamiliar with the book:

  8. .
    In restless dreams I walked alone
    Narrow streets of cobblestone
    ‘Neath the halo of a street lamp
    I turn my collar to the cold and damp
    When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
    That split the night
    And touched the sound of silence

    And in the naked light I saw
    Ten thousand people maybe more
    People talking without speaking
    People hearing without listening
    People writing songs that voices never shared
    No one dared
    Disturb the sound of silence

  9. There are other considerations that haven’t been addressed. For one, with the current population growth and the resulting environmental problems, how can one make an argument for paper books over digital books? At a certain point, there simply won’t be enough resources to make paper books for all the individuals who may want them if they’re promoted in this way (we mostly want one thing or another based on advertising and the mainstream opinion)? Then only the rich get to read actual books?

    And in terms of education, I think it would be a tragedy if students ended up forced into low-quality online courses, but I think the reality of what online education will provide will have much more variety than that. Just as there are better and worse schools in real life, the same will be true for online. My generation does have problems (I’m 23-years-old) and I’m sure we’ll create quite a few more problems for ourselves, but we’re also finding solutions and using our creativity to provide ourselves with more freedom, autonomy, and options. The problems mentioned are mainly a result of addiction, and they should be addressed as such. A beer a day reduces stress and blood pressure, for example, while alcoholism can kill you. I think you’re speaking of a problem with moderation, that may be a result of individuals not having proper access to mental health counseling (partly having to do with its cost, and partly with the negative image). One result of the advent of online education is free online courses. I went to a traditional college, and I certainly valued the experience, but I can’t help but sympathize with certain individuals who have no real interest in the structure that traditional colleges demand, and how they aren’t provided with adequate alternatives to suit their learning style. I think things like Wikipedia, open-source information hubs made for free by self-organized individuals, can be a great force in fighting the power structures that all too often disproportionately benefit those in the position to make decisions.

    So yes, there are legitimate problems that have arisen from the new technological age, but there are also benefits. We can utilize these new communication platforms to create a more free, egalitarian world. It’s up to how people think about it.

  10. Mike LaBossiere,

    Mike I think you might be misreading the situation. These are young people. They tend to be neurotic, shy, and afraid of each other. They play with their phones to avoid conversation. Authentic communication can be traumatic, inauthentic communication can be tiring – so fiddling with your i-pad makes you look like you’re too busy to talk.

  11. If that is the case, it is worse than I thought.

  12. As a professor and a clinical psychologist I can attest that things are indeed bad. In therapy, I will often ask a client something like: “did you express to him/her how you felt?” … even when I get a “yes,” I have learned to ask the follow-up question: “did you do this in person, or through text messaging?” I am truly astounded by how many people try to maintain social relationships through the exchange of symbolic scribbles on a small glowing screen.

  13. Mike LaBossiere,

    “If that is the case, it is worse than I thought.”

    I think it’s even worse than you can imagine. Do you know what these kids are doing on social media? If you think they’re sharing authentic intimacies with 700 of their closest friends on Facebook, you’d be wrong. The kids have it drummed into them from an early age that a slip on the internet could derail their future prospects.

    There are employers and recruiters these days who think nothing of asking for access to an applicants Facebook. And what they do then is even more absurd. A recruiter told me, she looked for pictures of the person partying. If she saw too few, she would decide the person is an anti-social loner and shouldn’t be hired, too many and the person was an alcoholic. There was even recently the incidence of several women being fired from their jobs, because their ex-boyfriends had posted intimate photographs on a “revenge” website.

    Are things getting worse, or has it always been like this? William Deresiewicz’s The Disadvantages of an Elite Education is an interesting read. There’s a kind of socialisation, that can lead to a highly socialised product; a person. Very high functioning in terms of career, but at a deeper level there can be something very wrong.

    The values being inculcated into young people these days are also problematic. Competitivity, but not in a sporting sense (though that may be the intention), more of a Hobbesian state of nature competitivity. And similarly leadership; not the Mosaic form, something more predatory and tyrannical.

    We live in interesting times, as the Chinese say.

    To illustrate the strangeness of our times, a 1956 Young Repulican’s poster

  14. Brad Peters,

    “I am truly astounded by how many people try to maintain social relationships through the exchange of symbolic scribbles on a small glowing screen.”

    No, this is not a bad thing, because at least they are communicating. And though not in person, it is a direct form of communication. If that channel of communication were not available, there may be no communication.

    Think of it in terms of anxiety and trauma. If someone needs to make a traumatic dialogue. Several things can happen. They may be able to do it – overcome their anxiety and communicate. Or, they may not be able to overcome their anxiety, and they do not communicate – and unintentionally miscommunicate. Or, the worst form; they communicate psychotically. Start a blazing row over something immaterial – or worse, do something very destructive and disruptive in secret – the other person is supposed to divine the issue from the disruption. Communication through puzzles.

  15. Brad Peters 24th Feb.
    My sentiments exactly. I have tried both. Face to face is by far superior. I suppose Facebook could be better than nothing if one is desparate. It is an environment I choose to avoid, there is something, is the word “unhealthy”? about it.

  16. JMRC, you say ‘at least they are communicating,’ but that form of communication is only symbolic, which misses the experience of emotional attunement and ‘feeling felt’ by another flesh and blood human being. I would agree that some communication is better than no communication, but the problem is that the text-based communication is being used as a substitute. Young people feel more comfortable interacting through text messaging… face-to-face communication, if it is not practiced often, then begins to create anxiety… anxiety is then avoided by always having that digital crutch to lean on. The end result is a cohort of highly anxious youth lacking relational confidence and emotional intelligence.

    In a similar way, we might say that self-help books are better than nothing, but they are no substitute for a flesh and blood therapist.

  17. Isn’t it a bit strange to be conversing online, as we are doing, to bemoan how dehumanizing conversing online is?

    If I could have a decent conversation about how dehumanizing internet is or about any of the topics discussed in this blog (or many others) with my neighbors, I’d go converse with them.

    I suspect that most of those who participate in these conversations do so too because they cannot knock on the door of their neighbors and expect to talk about philosophy or psychology or literature or about politics seriously, etc.

  18. Swallerstein,

    Astute observation.

    What this conversation needs to avoid is it sounding too much like old parents afraid of the new fads their kids are getting into. Beware that Rock & Roll.

    The bottom line is, there is not yet enough known about how this sort of technology develops us. Or the effect a lifetime of this might have on us. For example, much research was put into whether or not gamers who communicated via headsets were still communicating in a satisfying way(both socially and physiologically). It turns out that they were.The same chemicals were released in the brains as if they were standing face to face with their partners or Guild-mates. The gamers also said that they felt like they were connecting normally.

    Perhaps the same could be said for online communication. Obviously enough, the distinction to be made is that online or text message chat lacks the verbal, so that may be relevant.

    “…which misses the experience of emotional attunement and ‘feeling felt’ by another flesh and blood human being.”

    This is not always the case. If the two communicators are close enough, they may “feel felt” easily through text communications. They may not. But conversely, some face to face communication can miss this stuff too.

  19. Finally, someone who mentions the ACTUAL evidence. I have been rather surprised by the amount of appeal to anecdote and speculation in this comment thread.

    For those who are not aware, plenty of studies have been conducted about the very questions being asked (and claims being made) in these comments. Very few, if any, of the results indicate that smartphone or Facebook use among college students is inherently bad.

    Evidence in Favor of Facebook for Students

    Evidence in Favor of Neutrality about Facebook

    Evidence that having Facebook friends is not necessarily good (for all populations):

    Evidence in Favor of Facebook for Old-Timers

  20. It seems that our culture has become so diverse that I and the young man sitting besides me in the metro immersed in his smart phone may have little to say to one another besides complaining about the heat in the car.

    He may be texting about musicians whom I’ve never heard of, while I may be reading a work of literature that he has never heard of either.

    Once, there was a central figure or group in the world of popular music, say, Elvis or the Beatles, but now popular music covers universes and universes that no one can hope to keep up with.

    I too may have more to say to someone on the other side of the world who shares my interest in Theodor Adorno. There is no reason for the young man to know who Adorno is.

    Smart phones and computers allow me to connect up with people with similar interests throughout the world. This has been facilated by the adoption of English as a global language.

    I might also point out the situation of “odd” people, misfits, the feminist in an Islamic country, the atheist in the Bible belt, the libertarian in Cuba, anyone with heretical ideas, ideas that go against the grain or which he or she fears to express to those around him or her, because of possible punishment, otracism or just being socially excluded. Those odd people can use Facebook to find peers and that is great.

    (By the way, I myself do not have Facebook.)

    Of course, internet can be overused or abused, but so can even face to face conversation. Heidegger describes the thoughtless use of face to face conversation in
    Being and Time as “idle chatter”.

    Some people have addictive personalities of course, but I doubt that a whole generation of
    young people were born with the genes for addictive personalities and as Ben Myers-Petro
    points out above, it is never prudent to write off whole generations because they listen to rock and roll, dance the Charleston or spend hours in Facebook.

  21. Of course too there is the fact that the average person you meet while eating out for lunch or riding public transportation probably isn’t going to be all that interesting to talk too. If I have to be on a bus for 2 hours every day, I’d much rather keep to myself and find something on my phone to entertain me than try to keep an awkward conversation with a complete stranger going just for the sake of being polite.

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