Bye-Bye, Phone and Facebook; Hello, World

Erin McDaniel ’15
Assistant Opinions Editor

On the last day of March, I deactivated my Facebook account making this past week the first and only block of time since September 2006 in which I was not an active Facebook user. Earlier this year, I also deleted my Twitter and Tumblr accounts and removed all but the most essential apps on my iPhone, a device which, as a result, I no longer carry with me much of the time.

Originally, this personal quest to unplug grew from several practical desires: to better protect my Internet footprint in the future and to direct more of my present free time toward productive tasks, such as   schoolwork. That internal drive is what led to my dual departures from non-Facebook social media sites and boredom-blasting phone apps. And, almost immediately after those voluntary departures, my technology reductions helped accomplish both of those goals, leaving me more focused than ever on the minutiae of my everyday life.

After living several weeks in a suddenly reduced-technology version of my life, however, I began to notice something much more interesting. Removing myself from technologically-created environments, both on my phone and on the Internet, provided me with a harsh look in the mirror that I’d long managed to avoid due to the ever-evolving technological trends of my generational peers. As I began to spend less of my time glued to my phone or computer – old habits which generally involved my talking to or reading about someone outside of my immediate physical environment – I necessarily began to spend more of that time seriously engaging those around me instead.

Of course, I’d regularly engaged those around me long before my gradual unplugging began – I am not, after all, a techno hermit – but doing so in the absence of technological distractions has revealed to me a disconcerting reality of the social world in which I, and many in our generation, now exist. On the whole, we are increasingly and unknowingly desensitized to the kinds of interpersonal interactions that can only happen sans text messages, “follows” and “likes.” We have eschewed real social connections in favor of superficial, technology-bridged ones. We have become, in many cases, nearly as (socially) robotic as our computers. And that habit-driven pattern of disconnected “connection” – if it can even be called such – is a huge mistake.

Take Facebook, for example. Despite whatever your Internet stalker instincts may suggest, chances are, you have never once actually gotten to know another human being through Facebook. Why? In short, because the ultimate goal of Facebook is to boil an entire human being down to a few pictures of her face and a grouping of random, largely generic words about her. It gives its users complete control over how others will perceive them – leading, of course, to rampant falsification and self-image obsession.

Or, as one of my most astute friends observed, “It more or less turns all people into celebrities.” That is, the act of perusing a person’s Facebook profile really isn’t much different from reading an article about a celebrity in a magazine: you don’t actually know who they are, save for a hand-picked selection of likely cropped and edited photos of them and a series of quotes they choose to make public to a selected audience.

That comparison also holds true for the effect on the viewer: just as artificial and airbrushed photos of beautiful-looking celebrities in magazines wreak havoc on many readers’ self-images, so too do the polished profiles of friends, peers and strangers encourage negatively-slanted comparisons and assessments-by-comparison. Without even realizing it, many Facebook users are facing a constant barrage of words and photos posted by so-called “friends” that have the effect of perpetually challenging their self-worth down to its very roots. Facebook, one might argue, is nothing short of a self-esteem annihilator.

Of course, that strain of thought does not even begin to address the hugely negative and ever-accumulating effects of a world gone largely techno. Think of the times in your life you’ve witnessed a group of people standing or sitting together somewhere – except, as you may have noticed, they’re hardly together, since all of them are on their phones texting, checking social media or playing a game. The lesson in that observation is important, but often forgotten amid the commonness of such scenarios: the basic act of being in the same place as another person or group of people does not constitute a social interaction. The same is true for wall posts, event invites and “likes” on your Facebook: none of those are social interactions, but rather mock-ups of what should be real-life exchanges between living, breathing human beings.

I should note that I am emphatically not anti-technology. I believe that the Internet, in particular, has made the world smaller than ever, and I deeply value the fact that such interconnectivity allows laypeople everywhere to access individuals and ideas from all around the world, often from the comfort of their own homes. I am thankful for technology. I am not banishing it from my life forever. I couldn’t if I tried.

Unplugging from technology has reminded me of a vital old lesson from my parents, though: even the best things in life have downfalls. The main downfall of technology? It is The Great Desensitizer and The Ultimate Disconnector. It completely defies humanity’s long-standing notions of what constitutes a social interaction.

As the aforementioned astute friend once said of the relationship between our college-age peers and technology: “we’ve worn it as a jacket” since middle school or earlier. For many of us, the world has provided instant communication for as long as we can remember, starting with AOL instant messenger and evolving over time to texting, Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat, and onward, ad infinitum. As such, the thought of voluntarily inhabiting a world absent those technologies borders on inconceivable for many among us, a sentiment of which I have recently been reminded by many in my life who don’t understand my recent process of unplugging by choice.

To be clear: I don’t want to get rid of technology. I still have a laptop and an iPhone, both of which I have used multiple times even while writing this article, and I’ve no plans to rid myself of those technologies in the weeks and months ahead. Rather than entering into an anti-technology war, I am simply beginning to engage in a day-to-day battle with myself: to re-immerse myself in a world populated entirely by human voices and facial expressions rather than status updates and profile pictures. A scrolling “news feed” of others’ self-styled messages to the world is simply not enough.

We should be sure to remember that people are more than the pictures they decide to show you and the funny links or pithy political commentaries they post on their walls. They are living, breathing, laughing, crying, dancing, running, fighting, searching, loving human beings. And they deserve to be regarded that way by all people and at all times – no exceptions.

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