Columns

Shin ’17: A sad colony of the digital

By
Opinions Columnist
Monday, October 20, 2014

Over the fall weekend, as I was enjoying leisurely post-midterm cleanup in the afternoon sunlight, I came across a copy of Patrick Suskind’s “The Story of Mr. Sommer” helplessly squashed underneath a pile of overbearing textbooks. Tucked inside the book was a receipt showing that it was purchased in May and a fancy bookmark. Such an unexpected “book reunion,” as Wendy Welch calls it in her memoir “The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap,” reminded me of my chronic inability to finish a book in one sitting. I cannot even start counting the times I have come across unfinished books sitting on the bookshelf covered in dust, which I am confident is an experience shared by many.

That I was busy with schoolwork and had no time to read texts other than those required for class is but a pathetic excuse. As a matter of fact, I do have free time, and when I do, I throw myself into the virtual world, going into Facebook autopilot or idly web surfing while constantly reassuring myself that I am immersed in a restorative activity that does not require any thinking so as to “rest” the brain and relieve the stress.

Taking refuge in the pseudo-reality where you can temporarily bury your anxiety in oblivion has more destructive ramifications than constructive, however. Many tend to overlook, or simply ignore, the addictive power of such media and how it can gradually and formidably infiltrate the mind.

I am sure many students have sat in front of their laptops to search for  something only to find their fingers unconsciously typing “f+enter” in the search bar, like a heavy smoker customarily digs into his pocket. They waste another 30 minutes that seem like five, grow anxious after looking at the clock, curse at the pathetic self, go back to studying but fail to concentrate because of the very anxiety and dive back into the sea of opiatic contents to relieve the angst — a vicious cycle.

The extensive accessibility of information through the Internet and the unprecedented convenience with which we are able to search it have driven us far from our bookshelves and toward digital interfaces. For one thing, students seldom visit the Sciences Library or the Rockefeller Library to actually read books or find information, a task more easily and swiftly achieved by Google, smartphones and social media. More importantly, the dull black and white of books, so bland and not sufficiently provocative to keep you awake, act as the cue that instantaneously makes you fall asleep as if one of Pavlov’s dogs.

As we grow addicted to the fast pace of the digital world, we become more and more incapable of reading longer texts in one breath and digging deeper into one question with perseverance. Such impatience and lack of attention are manifestations of our undue reliance on convenient technology that does the thinking for us.

In response, a new phenomenon called “slow reading” has arisen in accordance with the “slow” trend in food, fashion and city life.

Members of the Slow Reading Club in Wellington, New Zealand, gather weekly to enjoy an hour of comprehensive reading in perfect silence, no electronic devices allowed. Their goal is straightforward: not lose focus for the whole hour and get through a book. This is something many actually find to be difficult, as they are overly habituated to convenient tweets and bites of information and unable to read beyond 140 characters.

Changing this habit of inattentive and fragmented reading in college students, consolidated by years of fast reading and skimming to pinpoint key words and information, is a formidable challenge. An eye-tracking visualization study conducted in 2006 actually revealed an F-shaped reading pattern for reading web content in which users tend to scan the first sentence horizontally, move vertically down the page to find the next crucial information, read it across and then move back down, forming an “F.” Such shallow reading catalyzed by the advent of smartphones, tablet PCs and social media in general significantly hampers critical thinking and profound understanding of the material.

If you look around, you will find a significantly large number of heavy media users preoccupied with virtual reality but ignorant of actual physical reality. They are always habitually touching their devices, casually “phubbing” during conversations or walking precariously while looking down at their phones. It is thus no surprise that the number of cellphone-related pedestrian injuries, from broken arms to concussions, treated in emergency rooms skyrocketed sixfold between 2005 and 2010 — with more than half of injured people below the age of 25. And, of course, there is the abundance of anecdotal evidence of those not treated in hospitals, from bumping into a tree to the near-death experience of almost bumping into a car.

Heavy users, while constantly denying their level of addiction, cannot pass a day without logging on to social networks at least once, reporting their daily warts-and-all, prying into other people’s lives, uploading selfies as if to prove their existence to the world, throwing in philosophical aphorisms, political sarcasms and other patronizing comments to enlighten the ignorant masses, or valiantly voicing their opposition to someone or some issue behind the screen — all while bystanders are consistently sharing and spreading these words.

Though social networks facilitate good and healthy communication many times, we have inevitably fallen into the age of communication overload. Meaningless gossip, regurgitations of unoriginal content and snowballing rumors are all excesses that poison the world in the name of communication. Even more detrimentally, this overload gives rise to psychologically unstable individuals who cannot stop themselves from constantly checking up on other people’s progress and comparing their lives with those of others.

To be sure, online social networking has certainly changed the landscape of social interaction and provided various channels for engaging people. Nonetheless, it has done more harm than good to many anxious and pressured students, especially during their first year — including me — who have grown more insecure and overwhelmed by others’ successes and perpetually sunny lives, embellished or not.

A word of advice to all those suffering from “social media anxiety disorder”: Go outside to have some actual communication with your fellow students. Instead of toying with the latest gadgets and web surfing, toy with books and surf in thoughts. Participate in class discussions and see your rough ideas develop into profound theories as they collide, react and merge — a synergic reaction beyond a mere assemblage of superficial remarks. Shut off your phones and devote all your attention to the very moment you are reading, studying or talking with a friend. Be in control of your life, and you will be able to get through or even enjoy your first year at Brown to the fullest.

 

 Julie HyeBin Shin ’17 finished reading “The Story of Mr. Sommer” over the break and loved it. She can be reached at hye_bin_shin@brown.edu.