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I spent this past spring break with the Phillips Brook House Association, volunteering as a teacher’s assistant in a high school in D.C. High school classrooms have never been enclaves of Puritan discipline, but the school’s policy of providing every student with a personal laptop added an extra layer of chaos. Students surfed the internet, quickly clicking to assignments when they sensed me approach. Some kept one earplug in as the teacher spoke. It was even more unnerving, however, to stand at the front of the classroom and make eye contact with nobody. There were just twenty glowing pupils, fixed somewhere and in some other time.
I can’t blame the students. I never used a laptop in school until I came to Harvard, but the habit is easily acquired, and I’m typing this during a lecture. I can’t imagine what it would have been like, and how I would be different, if I had grown up with a screen in all my classrooms. Beyond the (deservedly researched and debated) sub-question of whether we learn better in digital or analog is the question of how screens have eroded our crucial relationship to the spatial and temporal world. The ability to devote sustained attention to the place and moment at hand is not only valuable to our pursuits, but also key to having autonomy in and enjoying life. It is also something that all of us are increasingly relinquishing.
As part of the PBHA trip, we toured museums and memorials around the capital. People kept taking selfies with the Lincoln Memorial: running to the foot of the statue, extending their arms, and leaving. Their visits to the memorials, spaces meticulously designed to shape their visitors’ reflections, became just another place and time occupied by social media, cellphone photography, and email. It could have been a bedroom, the subway, a restaurant, a mountain summit; everywhere we are, everyone we are with, everything we have experienced, rather than retaining an individual sense of time and place and event, is preserved in the blue glow of a screen. The environment of which we are most conscious is the screen, which collapses time and space and severs us from a previously unquestionable state of existence—as three-dimensional beings in corporeal environments. We lose touch with the world’s fabric, which seems increasingly broken up by various white rectangles.
This topic, beyond being pertinent to my column’s theme of physical spaces and the way they shape us, is a personal vendetta. I periodically grumble about Snapchat—god, I hate Snapchat—or my tortured relationship with my iPhone. I’m sure I sound like a naïve, past-romanticizing grouch to these technologies’ dedicated users, who are many in number; and so, in drafts of this column, I tried to distance myself from my personal conviction.
I tried including the scientific aspect: what effect does all this screen time actually have on our physiological and neurological processes? Is it actually bad for us? I tried analyzing philosophical aspects: What is a “space”? Is the Internet a real space? What is “real”? I tried using things I have learned from my environmental history tutorial: using broader concepts of “space” and “environment”—for example, understanding the body as an environment, and space as anything from the span of a continent to the distance from plant to predator in food chains—we saw how alterations to these relationships can change everything, from our bodies to the development of modern civilization.
But while I think it is important to be able to learn most efficiently, to preserve eyesight, to stop pining for others’ lives, and to understand how physical distributions still very concretely shape our reality—and while I also understand that there are myriad ways in which screen technologies have drastically increased quality of life—my irrepressible, unscientific vitriol stems from the fact that I am viscerally afraid. I am afraid that screens are terminally accelerating life; I am afraid that as everything streams away in little lost moments, I will be left with no tangible sense of where and when I’ve been, only the impression of thousands of webpages surfed and emails read and videos watched. To move from update to notification to photo-op, from link to link, is to always be anticipating and never be “there,” in the mental or physical sense.
The Information Age demands data, but maybe the best information I can offer is experiential: There’s a small but tremendously positive difference to actually see sunlight first thing in the morning instead of a soulless, white, pixelated glare and in hearing snippets of bizarre, poignant, infuriating, and enlightening dialogue in passing. My month without any social media this winter break was the first time I’d felt truly awake in a long, long time, which made the quality of my memories denser and richer.
And so I feared not only for those D.C. students’ educational experiences and ability to learn, but also for their lives, and for all of ours. Any lecturer here looking into his audience will also see the pearly forms of Apple logos and downcast eyes.
When I talk to Harvard graduates, or even older students, many express regret that their time here felt like it went by too fast, that they were gone before they were ever really here. I hope that when I walk across the stage in Tercentenary Theater, I will have done the most I can to avoid that. It’s hard, and by all appearances I’m a stinking hypocrite: I’ve spent at least five hours staring at screens today, some by necessity and quite a bit out of compulsion. I can shut my laptop down when I don’t need it, keep my phone squirreled deeply and inconveniently in my backpack. Maybe someday I’ll build up to the discipline to get the flip phone I’ve been lusting after. At the very least, I look forward to walking down Garden Street after I finish this, and enjoying the buildings around me, the air on my face, the green span of Cambridge Common, the staccato spacing of stone slabs in the Old Burial Ground, and the luxury of a solitary walk. The automatons may be coming for our jobs, and the Snapchat lovers may be coming for my blood, but personal-use screens don’t have to take my world just yet.
Emily Zhao ’19, a former Crimson Arts executive, lives in Cabot House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.
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