Has Anything Changed?
What is new media? From one of the new media itself, Wikipedia, comes a succinct definition: “New media refers to on-demand access to content anytime, anywhere, on any digital device, as well as interactive user feedback, and creative participation. Another aspect of new media is the real-time generation of new and unregulated content.” Throughout this discussion, the terms technology, new media, and media are used somewhat interchangeably, more as concepts than actual concrete things.
Before the discussion gets intense, I should disclose several things. First, I’ve been aware of and disgusted by the fact that I have slowly been losing the ability to control my new media usage. I’ve been making a conscious effort to do one thing at a time and never, I mean never, be on my phone when eating with someone or engaging in conversation. I am also aware of, and am actively trying to combat, the fact that new media kills my ability to focus. Those are the baselines I’m working with. Back to the paper.
New Media is something I used, and continue to use, probably more than I should. As an AD/PR major hoping to work in a fast-paced environment in a neurotic and frenetic city like Chicago, I have been told to be “always on.” This has lead to problems in the past-not paying attention when I should have, degradation of my ability to focus on anything for more than a few minutes, and even the dreaded shortness of breath that comes with a ton of anxiety. The problem is that being “always on” has severely hampered my ability to get anything done. Is there a way to balance all this?
My approach for the new media diet was simple: try and reduce my unproductive new media usage by 50%. Unproductive refers to time spent doing things that don’t have a tangible benefit, such as Netflix. This should have been pretty easy – I have a fair amount of “free” time now that I’m not working 60-hour weeks, and a lot of that free time was being used on mindless new media consumption. Cellphone games, Internet browsing, and Netflix, oh dreaded and beautiful Netflix, were all contributing to my problems. I thought that reducing the amount of time I spent using new media simply to use them would lead to a more productive and positive lifestyle.
Did my approach work? Unfortunately, this project came at a bad time. I purchased the new IPhone 6 right in the middle of this project (as a result of switching cell phone plans), and the corresponding increase in time spent on Apple’s wonder device destroyed the progress I had made in my other areas of new media consumption. While I did spend less time watching Netflix and randomly perusing Al Gore’s greatest creation, I had the brushed aluminum, Siri-enabled, Gorilla Glass beauty to explore.
Did my overall media usage change? Yes. I worked out the distribution of the time I spend awake each day, and figured out that before I became more aware of my media usage, I spent about two to three hours of my daily six-hour free time on new media. That lead to posture problems and even problems with my eyesight. During and after the project, I became much more aware of the time I spend every day, and managed to cut down media usage in my free-time by about 50%.
During the project, I did think quite a bit about my relationship with new media, and the way I use technology overall. While reading Rushkoff’s book, several big topics stood out (and not just because they are earlier chapters): Time, Place, and Complexity all resonated with me.
Reading more about our tendency to always have a device within arm’s reach, or always have a computer screen up and running, is terrifying. Instead of being able to use our devices for productive things, we have become conditioned to respond to every buzz, blip, and beep these metallic creations throw at us. Over the summer, when I was working a desk job at Baxter International in the suburbs, I was always on. I felt like I had to respond to every email instantaneously, which severely hampered my ability to focus on one thing. My sense of time all but disappeared-I’d look up from my inbox or project to see that four or eight hours had passed (six hours actually passed once, it was a weird day). My sense of what’s truly important had also been lost – responding to Facebook messages was prioritized more than reading the news, and reading about cool new consumer products on Flipboard’s panels took time away from observing nature or sat on public transportation.
This sense of place, of being physically in one place, but also being mentally and digitally in entirely separate worlds, was hard to notice, but once I did, I was saddened by what I found. My friends and I had a hard time actually talking to each other. Conversation suffers because we have our devices out. We want to be current and up to date on everything, often at the expense of actually knowing the full story (the complexity problem). Simply being in one place in every capacity has become a chore. We feel like we’re missing out on some aspect of our lives if we aren’t engaged in multiple spaces. This lead to a huge question I have, which is still unanswered.
Is there a way to use new media and technology, and use them well and engage in our digital society, without actually becoming ingrained in it? Can I retain the core of being a person with human friendships while still participating in a society that places less and less value on human interaction, and more and more value in Twitter and Facebook?
When I worked with public relations practitioners from Fleishman-Hillard this summer (my dream job), I observed their habits and the way their job panned out. Gathering intelligence for my potential career. What I found didn’t excite me. They were always on, always working, their phones always pinging, their client always wanting more information and time and work. Can I do that? The tentative answer I found, at least for now, is to rethink the way I view my time and sense of self. As of now, I don’t have anything too important depending on me. I don’t have a company to run, a crisis center that needs 24/7 guidance, or really anything that will come screeching to a halt if I step away for a little while. Realizing that fact, and marrying it with the realization that there really isn’t any tangible benefit to being up to date with my friend’s Facebook and Twitter feeds was a huge discovery.
Nick Carr writes in his 2008 article, Is Google Making us Stupid, about our tendency to go for the easiest possible route to information, and that it might be making us less experiential and thoughtful as a species. This ties in with Rushkoff’s discussion of complexity perfectly. Google and its incredible power make any discussion a discussion of facts, instead of thoughts and discovery when new information is found. There is something rewarding abut finding a book using Loyola’s library system, then physically moving up steps, in and out of dust-covered stacks of books, till you find the cracked and battered book, and then spend minutes, or even an hour or two until the perfect quote has revealed itself, the information has been divulged and understanding is reached. Quantitative and qualitative skills are engaged, and one’s ability to think is bettered. Now, Google provides answers within literal milliseconds (depending on your Wi-Fi connection), and all of the process disappears. You are left with a fact, and that fact is often a simplified version of a larger issue. What you do with that information without the experiential nature of finding it seems cheaper as a result of its ease.
During the project, I think my relationships improved. By being aware of the fact that technology was hampering interpersonal contact, I stopped using technology in those situations. I don’t really have a way to quantify this, as I didn’t make my friends and acquaintances fill out analysis sheets about my “friend quality,” but I legitimately think I was more attentive, more aware, and most importantly more human, with the people around me.
This awareness also manifested in some annoying ways. Living so close to the Lakeshore campus has its perks, such as being able to walk to class in less than five minutes, but it also means that I live in an area full of 18-22 year olds. That isn’t real life. People walk around with their heads hunched over whatever device they are currently holding, and not many people are aware of their surroundings. I literally saw someone walk into a sign several weeks ago because he was engrossed in his IPhone. I thought that only ever happened in Loony Tunes cartoons…
Doing things like the Media Diet Project, and then actually having an actionable item or plan for change, is an absolute necessity as we develop new ways to entertain and distract ourselves digitally. Understanding that we are people using these things as tools, and not as replacements for our lives, is key to keeping our sense of self, of individuality. Maybe then we can return the Internet to the idyllic paradise it’s supposed to be, and not the current bastion of intolerance and walled gates it has become.