Subberwal: Millenials have technology anxiety too (column)
Special to the Daily
We know we have a problem. Every day, there’s a new headline. “Science Says Your Cell Phone Use Could Be Hurting Your Relationship.” “Teens spend a ‘mind-boggling’ 9 hours a day using media, report says.” “The Internet May Be Changing Your Brain In Ways You’ve Never Imagined.”
When you glance around a crowded airport terminal, like I am doing now, and see a sea of people looking down at their screens, it is easy to envision a future of phone-zombies, melded to their devices and never interacting with another human again. And how could you not catastrophize, with the daily warnings of the mind-rotting power of the internet, warnings of a coming generation with a like addiction and a complete dearth of social skills?
But it’s OK. This has happened before.
New media have inspired fear since the advent of the written word. For centuries, literacy was reserved for scribes and elites, out of fear of the populist power of the written word. When television first arose, it was considered a dangerous time-sucker, but it has proven to be an important tool of communication and education, as well as entertainment. In some ways, fears of new technology are justified: New media have a massive impact on the way people think and organize their lives. However, this impact is not always dangerous, and it does not always herald the end of the rational thought or of social interaction.
In May 2015, I spoke on a panel hosted by the Summit Reads Program — sponsored by Summit County Library, The Summit Daily News and the Literacy Committee of the Rotary Club of Summit County — to discuss the book “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,” by Nicholas Carr. In the book, Carr laments the neurological impacts of the scattered focus that reading on the internet demands, as opposed to what he depicted as the deep contemplation enjoyed by those who still bother to read books. However, this led me to ask whether it is true that reading a book always equates to reading deeply while reading an article on a website always equates to reading broadly and without focus? And is depth inherently better than breadth? What is the ultimate goal of literature? By reading articles and webpages and the news online, it is possible to expose yourself to a greater diversity of opinions and modes of thought, and reading online need not always come with the sacrifice of depth.
Far from making us dumber, the internet plays a huge role in enhancing our academic lives. It is a vast repository of information; the web essentially contains all of recorded history, from the oldest known written text to news that is updated every minute. Since middle school, I have used the internet to do research, communicate with my teachers, collaborate with my classmates, check my grades and stay organized. In college, each of my classes has a shared online space on the school’s website, and we use it to post discussion threads about our readings and to begin a critical and constructive dialogue that we continue in the classroom. On my social media accounts, I follow accounts that enrich my academic life — journalists, physicists, columnists, researchers and politicians. When used strategically, the internet can be a relevant space in which to grow intellectually.
Above all, the internet is a tool for community building. When I’m at college, it’s how I stay in touch with my family. My sister and I send Snapchats back and forth every day, and my extended family, who are scattered around the globe, stay in touch through the messaging app WhatsApp. Last year, my high school class lost one of our classmates a week before graduation. For us, our group Facebook page and our individual Facebook accounts were a space to express our condolences, to show support, to share memories, to plan a memorial and to mourn. I can use social media to keep up with friends and acquaintances from years ago who I otherwise would have forgotten; these friendships now have a longevity that would have been unthinkable only a decade ago. The community-building power of the internet spans generations: Through Facebook, my parents and even grandparents have been able to connect with classmates and childhood friends who would otherwise have become mere memories.
This is not to say that all internet media is good. It has certainly taken a toll on my attention span, and, like all social spaces, it can give rise to corrosive, unhealthy communities as well as constructive ones. Additionally, we are prone to forming echo chambers in our internet spaces: Personal bubbles in which the news we read and the stories we’re exposed to mesh with our own conceptions and ideologies. It is easy to isolate ourselves from contrary opinions on the internet. However, this doesn’t mean that the internet or social media is inherently bad; it just means that, like any tool, we need to use it strategically. The internet is just a medium for conveying and consuming information: The quality of the information we can convey and consume is up to us.
As a person, and especially a girl, on the tail end of the millennium generation, I am used to being on the receiving end of a “kids these days” mentality about my use of my phone. When I am sitting at the airport or on a subway looking at my phone, it looks from the outside like I am tuning out the world, but really, I am tuning in. I am following world events, communicating with friends and loved ones, reading, writing, organizing and, in many ways, deepening my understanding of the world. Sometimes nothing can replace a face-to-face interaction, but the internet gives us so many more ways to interact and communicate with one another. The web is a tool, and, like any tool, it needs to be used correctly; but, when it is, it can be an immensely enriching, fulfilling and broadening experience.
Kaeli Subberwal graduated from Summit High School in 2015 and just finished her first year at the University of Chicago. She is a summer intern at the Summit Daily.
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