It’s a common sight on the Williams campus: students with their heads down, staring at a five-by-three-inch rectangle. Whether they’re walking between classes, studying in the library or even eating a meal in the dining halls, students are constantly checking their smartphones. While smartphones definitely have many benefits, one wonders whether they need to be such a ubiquitous part of everyday life. As technology becomes an increasingly large part of our day-to-day activities, it intrudes on basic human interactions that compose the fabric of social existence. These connections to the digitalized, which are both physical and psychological, are addictive, stimulating our brains’ reward centers by filling our basic needs for belonging, collective interaction and social security. It becomes easy to hide behind 21st-century technology, burying our true selves amongst a barrage of SMS messages, emoticons, blogs and emails.
Widespread smartphone addiction has a number of repercussions on a small liberal arts campus. We will engage three issues that may conflict with the idea of community that Williams College fosters.
1. Need for speed. Williams students are pressed for time and they often feel that they cannot make time to just see friends. Texting gets quickly substituted for actual conversation, as two entrymates in different libraries can carry on a conversation while continuing to plug away at problem sets and papers. This is probably a good thing – here, cell phones can add some joy to an otherwise monotonous night of studying. But where things go awry is when we use cell phones to speak compulsively and with little regard for consequence. We seem to think our devices give us a sense of invincibility and – perhaps more alarmingly – reversibility. If a mistake in conversation is made, we feel it is more easily corrected over text than face-to-face. Our desire to solve issues quickly and without “wasting time” by actually coming into contact with each other creates a shallow, disconnected atmosphere. Does our ability to hit “reply” in an instant, without the context of facial expressions and body language to help, improve the quality of conversation?
2. Constant accessibility. Remember the friends you made on Williams Outdoor Orientation for Living as First-Years? Leaving the phone behind for a few days and being truly “unreachable” can create incredible social situations where the focus is on those you are with and not a barrage of nebulous networks. There is no question that we feel more secure with our cell phones in our backpacks. Not only do they provide an instant “out” from awkward situations, but they also give us a heightened sense of social capability: confidence. It is precisely this capability that leads to problems: We can easily slip out of a boring dinner by feigning a phone call, avoid a conversation with an old friend by texting or simply avoid eye contact with someone while crossing Route 2 by focusing on our screens. Paradoxically, it is this constant state of accessibility that makes us most vulnerable to feelings of emptiness. Think back to the last time you lost your phone and the panic you felt at that moment. Perhaps you felt truly alone for a while or grew worried that you might have to enter a situation without your phone as your bodyguard. These feelings of “non-place-ness” are a new phenomenon that can only be attributed to our newfound fear of being alone.
3. Egomania. This month, I (Celeste) attended the FreshGrass Music Festival in North Adams. My brother and I waited in the thick of the crowd to hear banjo duo Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn play some blues. When they walked onstage, the restless crowd cheered, shouted and … pulled out their iPhones. I felt infuriated that hundreds of people were blocking my view of Bela with their screens, yet at the same time, I had an urge to take out my phone and snap a picture. It seems that our constant access to technology now ails us with an exaggerated sense of ego. We feel the need to record the most interesting moments of our lives on camera and subsequently post the best shots on Facebook or Instagram. We frame our lives through our screens, trying to prove that we were there – that whatever we did meant something. Are we simply trying to connect with the world in all the ways our technology allows for? Or is our constant sharing of only our best moments disingenuous?
Williams encourages its students to have ‘“deep” meaningful conversations that develop real interpersonal connections that ultimately help break down socioeconomic, gender and race barriers. Entries are predicated on this idea, for the Williams experience goes beyond the academic as the College aims to develop worldly and sociable citizens, not mindless machines shackled by the overwhelming technological firestorm of the 21st century.
While it is also dangerous to romanticize social interactions before Generation X and the technology boom, rarely are our best moments spent staring at a screen. On a more basic level, it’s simply rude to give more attention to your phone than to the person sitting across from you. So the next time you are at dinner with friends, staring at a picturesque view of the Berkshires, or simply walking around campus, resist the urge to check your messages, Instagram your view, play that super-addicting game or watch that crazy video. Live in the present and avoid disconnecting with reality through a medium that only gives you a vacuous perception of sociality. Most importantly, do not forget to engage with the people around you, for a smile, unlike an emoticon, can truly make someone’s day.
Celeste Pepitone-Nahas ’17 is from Lake Oswego, Ore. She lives in West. Christopher Wayland ’16 is a Political Economy major from New York, N.Y. He lives in Carter.