The cellphone caddy in my classroom is made out of blue jeans pockets because the one my school provided couldn’t support the weight of the phones and the impact of everyday use. Figuratively speaking, phones carry a lot of mental weight, and I’m wondering if humans can do better than stitched vinyl and plastic or if we need some backup too. Disney’s Wall-e wasn’t my favorite movie, but I’m starting to think that what it foretold is manifesting before my eyes.
These electronic devices seem to be an extension of ourselves. Countless people have researched and documented the ways our digital selves are just as powerful as our physical ones, but that doesn’t seem to be causing anyone to look away long enough to have a discussion about it.
An older version of the South Dakota Driver’s Rules and Regulations was on the table this weekend where I was visiting for Easter. I know two delightful young ladies who are anticipating the day when they will experience the freedom of driving to Target or Twistcone without the tether to mom. Thinking about their transition to adulthood with this right of passage is exciting, but I’m a little nervous. Grandpa supervised driving practice the other day, and he was strict on the no-phone-in-the-car rule. He said the jitters and glancing eyes were telling as the abandoned phones vibrated on the dashboard. It is hard for me to relate to the current teenage experience because, well, I guess I don’t have that many people saying many important things to me on my phone. I could probably sit through a meeting with the president with my phone on full-strength ringer and not be interrupted (I guess having such a meeting would likely cause some communication to come my way, but that’s beside the point.) My digital life just hasn’t caught up with my flesh and bone one to the extent that it has for a lot of other people.
It’s funny how we sometimes end up championing causes without realizing our passion or to what extent we’ll speak up for them. We were at a stop light yesterday, and glancing to my right (I was in the backseat) I saw a lady not yet come to a stop and then reach over, grab her phone, twist it around and start engaging with a message that couldn’t wait. Something overcame me, and I found myself tapping on my window to try to her attention, then I was rolling the window down and speaking loudly. She looked over at me with such surprise at my animated gestures that she must have thought I was in trouble. The truth, I suppose, was that I was in trouble, and so was everyone else on the road. My tactics need some refining, but my message was received by the lady and the driver’s permit-hungry teenager in the car with us—the laughing didn’t stop until after we got home and she recounted the story.
There are a lot of billboards out there touting how no text or post is worth your life, but I’d take that a step further, and say that a lot of texts and posts aren’t really worth anything. We’re like assembly lines of poorly-paid sweatshop employees churning out millions of plastic toys that aren’t even fun to play with but somehow generate a profit. Scrolling through the diversity at my fingertips generated by an Instagram hashtag search is truly awesome; people all over the world eat really interesting things for dinner. Still, beyond the social commentary of this montage of culinary creation, there is a lot of junk being shared through pictures and text with the aid of a cellular device, and I just don’t get it.
Author B.J. Novak has one tough, yet simple message to share regarding this in his short story, “The Man Who Took Pictures of Everything He Ate.” Are we simply a society in need of a community? Social media is such a double-edged sword; it has tremendous power to unite, but an equally chilling ability to cripple. Last night it was great to listen to two teenage girls recount their attempts on Snapchat to support and congratulate the local (easy-on-the-eyes) hockey team. Their fandom was reciprocated, and these ladies are inching closer and closer to actually talking to some boys at the ice cream stand tomorrow.
What happens, however, when strawberry butter yogurts in hand, these girls do strike up a conversation with their digital crushes? Nothing will reduce the awkwardness of that adolescent encounter, but it seems like we should be able to prevent the mishaps later in life. So why was I at a loss for words this afternoon while eating Easter dinner? Sitting down with a giant plate of homemade goodness, Easter lily centering the table, my desire to interact with folks I only see every few months was there, but I couldn’t seem to push the exchange to a depth that warranted remembering. We are connected online, but a ‘like’ here and a pause to share a recipe there doesn’t come close to resembling the relationship I know we all can achieve.
On the way home I listened to the “Speak Up” episode from the TED Radio Hour podcast. In it, I was reminded that we need to not only address communication with the right mindset, but also at the right time. Yes, sitting at a table together, eating delicious food is a great opportunity to have a conversation, but, at the same time, maybe it isn’t. Sometimes I find myself pushing people into topics they know are important and meaningful, but that they just don’t want to discuss—at the moment or maybe even ever. The easy thing is to let it go and proceed through life. The better thing is to find the motivation and ability to allow for the vulnerability needed for both parties to enter into a meaningful dialogue. Face to face can be in opportune and awkward, online can be impersonal and too brief, and phone calls can be similarly intrusive and fleeting. There is, however, another option: paper.
A note found in a locker is a beautiful thing. It has an element of purpose, intention and realness. The writer selected a paper, gazed at its blankness and filled it with meaning. They touched the surface, and let it drop from their fingertips, probably with an ounce of hesitation. It has crinkles and creases; the sound of folding and unfolding it, holding it while it flaps in the wind—these tangible moments are part of an event conjured by one brain for the stimulation of another. And they’re slowly fading. My students don’t use their lockers, and many of them wouldn’t have the patience needed to write a note and wait for a response.
My stationery collection is a source of pride for me. When I pick up a set of notecards from the store or a yard sale I feel like I am building my arsenal of defense against the modern communication lines of instant gratification, shallow conversation and often petty gossip. If I can write one letter every day I can meet people where they are; it will be the recipient’s choice of when to sit down and decipher my handwriting, and their choice to respond. Through this renewed commitment, I hope I can also stand up for some topics and ideas that could use some nurturing and spreading. If you are motivated to write a letter after reading this, then snap a picture and tag me (@bflytrav); social media isn’t going away, but it can be used to build community and share ideas. I’d actually suggest making a list of people you’d like to write a letter to so it is easier to keep track of who you have written to and who you have yet to contact. Alternatively, if you’d like to receive a letter from me—even if we’ve never met—private message me your address.