Oberlin Blogs

Talk to Me

February 3, 2010

Marsha Lynn Bragg

Technology is a wonderful tool that enhances the quality and efficiency of life for countless individuals. No sooner than one gadget hits the market, a new one is in the development stage. From 13-inch flat screen TVs to hand-held computers, from Kindles to iPods and now iPads. For people who live-eat-breathe technology, these innovations are thrilling.

I'm not a gadget kinda gal. I tried a PDA, given to me as a gift, a few years ago. Initially reluctant to use it because I was skeptical of its purported ease, I was soon swayed by its compactness, accessibility, and organizational capabilities. I managed my life in a 2x5 metal case using a stylus or my fingertips to add or delete information I thought worth keeping. I managed to store account numbers, birth dates, phone numbers, notes, and to-do lists. No more rifling through my wallet for my medical card. I'd whip out that PDA and voilà: Doctor's name, address, phone, office hours, e-mail, schedule, and insurance number. It was great.

Until my system crashed.

Yes, I backed up information--but not enough to make a difference. My life disappeared unexpectedly. Phone numbers and e-mails that I acquired at chance meetings, networking events, family reunions, and the like were now in the cyber grave. I took the PDA to the Geek Squad and even went to the online help service. "Sorry. Not able to recover any information," they all said. "Maybe you can send it back to the company," one of the Geeks told me in a not-so-convincing voice.

As a result, I returned to what I knew to be a tried-and-true method of maintaining information: The hardcover book planner. And as one who writes for a living, I'm rather glad to be home.

This experience taught me that new and improved doesn't mean it's better. Faster is not always efficient. Cool is not always pertinent. Flashy can simply be annoying. As friends show me all manner of gadgets they've added to their technology arsenal--an Mp3 player, iPhone, Palm Pilot, Blackberry, Smartphone, and the like... I am indeed impressed, even fascinated, but not enough to buy one.

Communication should be clear and simple. Technology makes communication complicated. New stuff to learn and maneuver; too many things get lost in translation. There is no body language or facial expressions to watch, no fluctuation in voice or tone to hear.

Trying to figure out the tone in an e-mail is like trying to guess someone's weight at a carnival. And those little emoticons you can insert in a message are cute but don't quite convey the real sentiment.

I have been pleasantly surprised to see how people communicate at Oberlin. Mostly it is face-to-face, one on one. Yes, the college sends out tweets, has blogs, sends e-mails, and has e-newsletters... all effective ways to stay in touch with the masses. But what of personal communication?

I once worked in a four-person communications department. Our offices were adjacent to one another and about 6 feet apart, at best.

I recall going into my supervisor's office to ask a question. He told me to send him an e-mail. Forget coming into his office or taking by phone... send an e-mail. On that campus, there were people with whom I only communicated by e-mail. Never face-to-face, never by phone. That was the campus culture. Impersonal. Methodical. Chilly. Not as friendly as it could be. Efficient? Depends on who's asking.

My daughter has a cell phone with an unlimited texting feature. I marvel at the speed of her little fingers typing these little messages to her friends. I also marvel at how long it takes for her to get a complete response. Why not make ONE phone call to get all your questions answered instead of sending multiple separate text messages to get multiple replies?

"Mom, nobody uses the phone anymore," she says.

I don't get it. I am not convinced it is a generational thing. I text, tweet, post, upload, save, send, delete, de-friend, befriend, download, e-mail, video, and all the other kinds of communication techniques made available to stay in touch with friends, family, and colleagues.

As for the question of personal communication: Oberlin does not appear to be a campus that has succumbed to the lure and ease of gadgets. When I walk around campus or even go to public places in town, I see people TALKING and TOUCHING and HUGGING and GESTURING and LAUGHING and CONVERSING and WALKING IN GROUPS and just HANGING OUT in Wilder Bowl, in student lounges, while seated on the floor in community rooms, at tables along Main Street, in Azariah's Café...

What I don't see as much of are people with cell phones attached to the side of their heads or earphones dangling from their ears. I don't see scores of folks with laptops in places not typically designed for them. Rather, what I see is what should be happening: face-to-face conversations in real time with real people.

Unlike so many other places where people appear conjoined with their gadget of choice, Oberlin is not like that. Maybe, just maybe, people here have simply learned how to live compatibly with technology and are not governed or driven by it.

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