Lessons in Silence: Navigating our Digital World

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Illustrations by Rebecca Tarnopol
Tuesday, September 12, 2017 - 6:10pm

Some dreary November day my junior year of high school, I plugged away at a calculus test. As I calculated how quickly the height of water was changing in a tank draining at some fixed rate, I felt it emanating from my right pocket. Buzz. I knew exactly what it was: a group chat of my friends who attended another high school, texting over their lunch hour. This wasn’t an uncommon occurrence — my phone often blew up during this class, text after text, notification after notification.

But this time its incessant buzzing was certainly audible in the silent test room. When I turned in the test, a mixture of embarrassment and indignation prompted me to set my phone on silent. It has remained on silent ever since.

***

I got my first smartphone — an iPhone 5S — in 2013. I was 16 years old. Even then, I entered the smartphone world late. In 2012, the average age children got their first smartphone was 12. By 2016, this age lowered to 10.

Nonetheless, I now stand among the majority of American adults who own smartphones. According to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey, 77 percent of U.S. adults own smartphones, compared to 43 percent in September 2012. This skyrocketing trend suggests these numbers will only increase, especially as younger generations enter adulthood: 99 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds in the U.S. owned smartphones as of 2016.

The ubiquity of smartphones and social media usage — particularly among young people — has prompted criticism from researchers and writers alike. But the statistics show smartphones are here to stay, at least until the next thing comes to replace them. Perhaps instead of lamenting the damage, we should examine how exactly smartphones change our interactions with the world around us.

***

When I left for the New England Literature Program this spring, the concept of living without electronics was not novel to me. From the age of ten, I was lucky enough to attend overnight summer camps with strict “no cellphone” policies. I regard these summers as formative to the person I am today, largely due to the community created in an environment free of digital distractions.

It was this community-driven environment that initially attracted me to NELP, a University of Michigan program in which students spend six weeks in rural New Hampshire reading the works of New England authors, writing voraciously in journals and exploring the New England landscape — all without technology.

But NELP marked the first time in four years I had been device-less (staff at my summer camp had the “privilege” of bringing their phones to use on off hours), and perhaps the first time in my academic career I had an entirely analog educational experience (barring the Play-Doh and spaghetti paint half-days of preschool).

In the days leading up to NELP, I worried about the severance from my primary mechanism of communication. What will my friends be talking about without me? What if someone important emails me about an opportunity I’d regret to miss? What memes would crop up while I was gone?

Don’t get me wrong: Even in my phone’s silence, it commands my attention. My editing job at the Daily often demands I attend to texts and emails quickly, and course sites like Canvas allow instructors to update assignments at any hour of the day, beckoning an obsessive student like myself to check in as often as possible.

Yet I’d be lying if I said I only obsessively checked my phone for business. I often receive compliments for my Facebook presence, and any of my friends can tell you I respond to texts and Snapchats at a record pace — for the most part (sorry, Mom). My arrival at NELP killed many long-standing Snapstreaks, the longest of which lasted 397 days before I turned in my phone for the spring (sorry, Jess).

The initial unease of turning in my phone at the beginning of NELP wasn’t enough to make me realize my dependency on it. Within hours I had forgotten about my phone, and I never once wished I had it. It wasn’t until weeks into the program, when I subconsciously reached for my phone in my pocket, feeling for its weight as if it were some ghost limb, that it hit me how ingrained in my life my phone had become.

***

“When I meet new people and they hear about my job, often their first question is something like: ‘Whoa, how do you deal with taking phones away from your students? That must be really hard,’” Aric Knuth, director of NELP, said. “But the fact is, it’s not hard. I think today people … are excited to see what life looks like and feels like without the phone.”

Sun poured into Aric’s office the September morning I visited him. He attended NELP as a student in 1997, years before smartphones made their debut, and has taught at the program ever since. Even those not familiar with him can gather that NELP is core to his identity. His office door is plastered with remnants of NELPs past: flyers for mass meetings and reunions, notes from former students, a lithograph of Henry David Thoreau. Now, he sits in front of me, bespectacled and eager to talk.

“Things don’t feel that different to me, which is a strange thing to say because the world has changed so much,” Aric said. “But the fact is, in 1997 and ’98 and ’99 — when I was at NELP before phones — NELP was phoneless. And now, NELP is still phoneless.”

He attributes NELP’s unchanged atmosphere to the fact that once students turn in their phones, they don’t lament their absence. Rather, it seems they merely forget about them, clicking into the lifestyle the program facilitates without much trouble. The story seems to turn after students receive their phones at the end of the program.

“Before smartphones, it was not uncommon for a NELP student to get their cellphone back and smash it with a rock. I saw that a few times,” Aric said. “But if you’re smashing your iPhone with a rock, you’re losing a lot of money,” he added, contemplating the implications of society’s current investment in technology.

“When I say ‘invest,’ I mean that word in all the ways you might mean that word. It’s a financial investment, but your life is invested in it in all these ways too.”

***

“Investment” is a rather apt way to describe the relationship between humans and smartphones.  Global revenue from smartphones sales reached $435.1 billion in 2016. Despite the iPhone X’s sticker price of $999, sales are still projected to break records

Where there is an investment in money, there also is an investment in time. Look around any room, and you’re likely to see blue light illuminating someone’s face. On campus, I see students text and Snapchat as they wait for class to start, particularly in large lecture courses. People text away during class, during passing times, during meals. I rarely take an elevator ride where at least one person isn’t avoiding conversation by scrolling through Facebook or Instagram on their phone. I myself am guilty of using my phone in all of these situations.

Research corroborates the large time investment I observed. In a 2017 ReportLinker survey, 46 percent of respondents reported checking their phone first thing when they wake up in the morning and 53 percent reported checking their phone before going to bed. People continue to check their phones constantly throughout the day. A 2015 Gallup poll reported more than half of U.S. smartphone owners check their phones at least once an hour, with 11 percent of respondents reporting checking their phones every few minutes. This amounts to U.S. consumers using their phones for an average of five hours over the course of a day.

Another 2015 Gallup poll revealed nearly half of U.S. smartphone owners could not imagine their lives without smartphones, a phenomenon they call “smartphone amnesia.” In practice, smartphone amnesia is likely more common, as a smartphone’s convenience often hides itself subtly in our daily lives. Last week in my medieval travel literature course, my professor posed the question: “What do you use when you travel?” The immediate answers were dominated by digital tools: smartphones, Google Maps, apps like GroupOn and Uber.

I couldn’t help but think about how just four months before my friends and I had been dropped off at a random location in rural New Hampshire, given a map and a compass and were told to get back to camp by dinner time. How foreign this analog way of travel had become.

***

Back in Aric’s office, he professed his fascination with the ways technology interacts with our daily lives.

“I do think often about how these technologies totally shape our vision of the world, in ways that isn’t (sic) always cool,” Aric continued. “The social media stuff, the Facebook algorithm that determines what you see. … The fact that there’s just a thousand people in the world, and my sense of the community I’m a part of is really shaped by this algorithm.”

Facebook’s algorithms have grown notorious for their ability to tailor content specifically to each of its users’ tastes. These algorithms have proven to be incredibly powerful at shaping our perceptions. In 2012, Facebook conducted a behavioral experiment wherein algorithms curated people’s newsfeeds to selectively include either uplifting or upsetting content, and researchers found users’ moods shifted accordingly.

As he wrapped up a story about an inconsistency in Apple Maps that left him lost in the woods a few weeks earlier, Aric provided a note of caution. “There’s that danger of relying so much on the technology and the way it represents and can misrepresent the world.”

***

Misrepresentation is certainly a problem on social media, whose platforms host content that is highly curated both by the people posting it and by the algorithms calculating what exactly each user wants to see.

Considering the amount of time people spend on social media, this misrepresentation becomes especially problematic. A 2016 Nielsen report revealed that U.S. adults ages 18 to 34 spend an average of six hours and 19 minutes on social media per week; U.S. adults ages 35 to 49 spend even more — six hours and 58 minutes per week. This means that U.S. adults spend significant amounts of time pouring over the carefully curated highlight reels of other people’s lives.

It’s no surprise, then, that research has revealed overwhelmingly negative correlations between social media usage and mental well-being. A 2013 study conducted by psychology researchers at the University found that Facebook usage correlated with a decline in “subjective well-being” of young adults. Studies have also cited Instagram as a particularly odious platform for mental well-being.

These effects are particularly troubling for a demographic Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, coined as the “iGen.” She defines the “iGen” as people born between 1995 and 2012, whose childhoods were dominated by the internet and rise of smartphones. By these standards, most University undergraduates are members of the “iGen.”

Twenge found higher rates of loneliness, sleep deprivation, depression and suicide among “iGen” teens in the years since smartphones became household items. Twenge fears these ailments will devastate a generation, as these problems will likely linger into adulthood.

***

Week five, day six of NELP, I sat on a dock with my friend Kelly, watching the still waters of Lake Winnipesaukee. With the end of the program growing palpably near, we griped about how our phones would soon bombard us with information. I dreaded sifting through the hundreds of texts and emails that would populate my phone as it woke from its six-week slumber.

I remember feeling this incredible sadness that NELP inevitably had to end, and I’d have to return to this sea of endless information. My time at NELP had left me content — if not happy — for the longest duration than I had been perhaps since my last phoneless days at camp in 2013. I woke up excited to see what each day would bring. I did not need worry about some exam, some meeting, some post-graduate opportunity lingering in the distant future often made urgent by the constant pestering of a smartphone.

But to attribute the happiness I felt at NELP solely to my separation from technology would be inaccurate. There were other factors, too: the rigorous yet supportive academic environment, the regular hiking trips through the New England wilderness, the opportunity to witness the blooming of spring for the second time in a year, the two dogs who laid patiently on the porch daily.

If anything, NELP offered a sense of clarity I hadn’t experienced in a long time. All that mattered in the world for those six weeks was right in front of me. I could sit on the dock staring out onto Winnipesaukee, basking in the present, asking myself, to borrow words from Kurt Vonnegut: “how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.”

***

At NELP, we weren’t at all strangers to the ideas of technological detractors. Hell, I even took a class about the Unabomber, who was certainly no advocate for technological advancement. Before even leaving for NELP, we were instructed to read the “Economy” chapter of “Walden.” There, among his criticisms of American capitalist culture, Thoreau also denounces advents in communication technologies.

“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate," Thoreau writes. "We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.”

In essence, Thoreau detests the construction of the telegraph because it creates noise that diminishes whatever utility the shiny new technology might have had to begin with. Still, the novelty of the invention draws people to it, despite its uselessness.

150 years later, Thoreau’s words still hold truth — perhaps more so now than ever before. Social media has granted us the opportunity to communicate (instantly) from Maine to Tehran, Iran, and Princess Adelaide’s affliction has been supplanted by clickbait imploring you to discover whatever shocking ensemble Kylie Jenner wore to dinner the other night.

There’s a sort of self-consciousness that surrounds social media usage. I’m keen to believe many of us know we shouldn’t care about our middle school classmate’s trip to the Bahamas or what Kylie Jenner wore to dinner that night. But thousands of years of human social evolution didn’t hardwire us to resist our urges to return yet again to these platforms which radically change the way humans interact with each other. The iPhone itself is only 10 years old, and apps just nine. These are our modern day magnetic telegraphs, and we haven’t yet figured out how to filter out the noise.

***

When I returned to “real world” Ann Arbor for the summer, I found myself frustrated at how quickly I fell back into my old habits, spending empty hours leafing aimlessly through Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. I had gone six weeks without social media and didn’t miss anything important at all — why was it that I now felt as if I’d be missing out on something if I wasn’t always checking my phone?

It took me a while to realize NELP was a fantasy land: We were isolated unto ourselves, all 53 of us operating on the same rigid daily schedule. If I wanted to hang out with someone, I only had to walk 500 feet to find them. And we were still able to get access to memes if we wanted them — we’d just have to wait for them to arrive in the mail.

The world as we know it doesn’t operate so neatly. We live in large societies, populated by people living incredibly different lives on incredibly different schedules. If I were to walk to a friend’s house unannounced, I’d be lucky if they actually happened to be there. As much as I didn’t like it, I came to realize my phone offered the most efficient way of controlling the entropy of everyday life, to coordinate my life with those around me.

It was just that my next task had to be finding balance.

***

Where I find fault in much of the current discourse about smartphones and social media usage is its failure to treat what it means to be a human navigating a world that grows increasingly digital with adequate sensitivity. Too often smartphones are written off as entirely detrimental to our existence, when the inventions themselves are not inherently evil.

For example, in an op-ed for the New York Times, Cal Newport, associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, claims that using social media ravages our ability to do important work. Surely, he argues, if we channeled the same energy into our work as we do into perfecting our LinkedIn profiles or crafting our Instagram aesthetic, perhaps we would actually accomplish something of worth.

But claiming that social media is of no value to important work is just as egregious as claiming that it is harmless. I, for one, hope to become a research scientist and I think some of the most important work scientists do is share their research on social media. As is, the bulk of scientific knowledge is inaccessible to the general public, either from the thick jargon that litters scientific discourse or the steep subscription fees for scientific journals.

In our current cultural moment, the general public is much more apt to believe political pandering than actual scientific data, an issue particularly relevant to climate change. For scientists to forgo the opportunity to reach millions of people on a platform they use by choice — for free, might I add — is irresponsible and possibly even destructive to scientific careers. After all, much basic research is funded by the general public’s tax dollars.

Beyond the professional world, social media has also served as a springboard for social change. Social media has given historically subjugated voices a platform to come to the forefront of conversations and organize massive movements. (Though these platforms remain admittedly imperfect on these fronts.) Black Lives Matter, perhaps one of the largest social movements in recent history, started as a hashtag on Twitter. January’s Women’s March grew from a Facebook event into an international affair.

At the end of the day, smartphones and social media have made our worlds infinitely larger, and, by extension, have offered us more resources and opportunities than we have time to take up. Sure, there are completely inconsequential opportunities we often engage in — adding that stranger on LinkedIn or picking the right Instagram filter for that photo of your brunch. But if we use these technologies in a measured and mindful way, we can do some truly amazing work.

***

Here I am now, back in the noisy world of Canvas announcements, Daily emails and push notifications. It’s been a strange return to the traditional classroom, where the roundtables and notebooks that characterized my NELP education have been replaced by rows of desks and laptops. Other things have come more naturally: My Snapstreaks are slowly regaining traction, the longest of which now clocking in at a measly 79 days.

I have taken steps, though, to limit my phone usage, to try to re-establish that clarity I felt at NELP. I keep my phone tucked away in my backpack during class. I ride my bike around campus to keep from texting as I commute. I leave my phone to charge on my desk overnight, far from arm’s reach. Of course, I keep my phone in the same state it has been in since 2013: silent.