THE ISLAND SYNDROME
Part 1: Understanding the Island Syndrome
(August 12, 2010)
To start our discussion about the Bubble, let me share three images with you. I bet they will sound familiar:
• I was driving back from Las Vegas with a friend, her 17-year-old daughter, and one of the daughter's girlfriends. The drive across the desert was a long one, so from time to time, we stopped for a break. The moment we stopped, each girl ignored everyone else, opened her mobile phone, and called a distant friend. They then began to chat about nothing in particular until we were ready to get back in the car, at which time we made them put away their phones.
• One night, I drove to Pasadena, California, to meet an old friend and her son for dinner. After dinner, we took a walk down a wide, pleasant street to a nearby bookstore. As we were walking, we passed two teenage girls out for an evening together. The girls were standing next to one another on the sidewalk and each of them was on her cell phone, talking to someone else.
• I live near a major university. If I visit the area on a Friday or Saturday night, I see groups of students walking more or less aimlessly, up and down the street. As they walk, many of the students are ignoring the people around them. Instead, they are talking on their phones to other friends who are somewhere else. I sometimes see couples strolling together, and both the boy and the girl are talking on their phones to other people as they walk.
What do these images have in common? First, they all involve teenagers or college students. Second, as the young people talk on their phones, they are ignoring other people nearby, in order to talk to someone they can't even see.
What is interesting is that most of the conversations don't seem all that important. Eavesdrop on young people chatting on their cell phones (or text messaging or instant messaging) and you will find that much of the time, the content of the conversation is mostly meaningless. What meaning there is lies in the connection itself. That is, connecting for the sake of connecting. Why this should be the case we will deal with in due course.
Before we do, let me draw you a picture of a modern-day college student. He (or she) has his own phone, his own laptop computer, and his own music player. Wherever he goes, day or night, he takes the phone and his music player with him. Much of the time, he also takes the laptop, especially if he needs to do school work. He certainly will not leave town without all three machines.
(Note: Some students get by with two machines, because a smartphone can double is a music players. Nevertheless, many students still prefer to have a separate music player, as it can be more convenient than a smartphone, for example, while exercising.)
Every day, our student spends much of his spare time using his phone to call or text message his friends and relatives, sometimes several times an hour or more. Whenever possible, he will never go more than a short time without checking his voice mail, just in case he has missed a message. For example, when he goes to a movie, the first thing he will do after the movie is check his phone. (Stand outside a movie theater as people leave, and you will see what I mean.) When he eats dinner with his grandparents — who don't allow cell phones at the table — he refuses to turn off the phone. "I'll turn down the sound," he says, making sure the phone is close enough to his plate that he can monitor it. "After all, I'm old enough to make my own decisions."
As important as talking and text messaging may be, our student depends on his phone for a lot more. He uses it to play games when he is bored, to access the Internet, to take photos and record video (both of which he may send to other people), to listen to music, and to store information.
The laptop is, by far, our student's most important educational tool. In this sense, the laptop is more important than any particular textbook or any other device. The student uses it for researching on the Web, for typing essays, for programming (if he is a programmer), and on and on. Moreover, the laptop is a lot more than a study aid: it is also a social tool, second only to the mobile phone in importance. Without his laptop, our student would be unable to check Facebook or MySpace, something he will do many times a day as time permits.
As such, the laptop is the ultimate multitasking machine. It allows our student to carry out a variety of activities simultaneously, even while he is studying. For instance, when you see him in the library reading books and typing notes, he will also be instant messaging three or four people, looking at Web sites, checking email, watching YouTube, and so on. From time to time, he will also be checking his phone for messages or texting his friends.
The third machine, the music player, usually an iPod, is our student's constant companion. As a general rule, when he is not doing anything else, he is listening to music. As a matter of fact, even when he is doing something else, he is often listening to music.
As long as there have been people, there have been ways to escape the pressures of day-to- day life temporarily.
Can we make sense out of this? To be sure, the idea of simple mental escapes from the outside world is not new. The Sony Walkman, the first popular portable tape player, debuted in 1979 (in Japan). Even earlier, the first popular portable radio was introduced in 1955, also by Sony. (By the way, at the time, "Sony" was actually the name of the product, not the company.) Of course, music devices were not the first portable distractions. Before radio, there were books, newspapers, magazines, and comic books. In fact, as long as there have been people, there have been ways to escape the pressures of day-to-day life temporarily, the simplest being daydreaming.
Being able to ignore the outside world for brief periods of time is a fundamental human need, a safety-valve we all require every now and then. However, it is obvious that daydreaming, reading a book, or listening to the radio once in a while, is a long way from what we see when we look at our student. He has a strong need to have some type of visual or auditory stimulation (or both) at all times. Why?
After so many years of TV, video, music players, computers, games, and radio, our student is not able to tolerate even small amounts of silence or boredom or isolation. Thus, you will see his music player plugged into his ears as he walks around campus, rides on the bus, stands in any type of line, eats his meals, or exercises. He will even listen to music or watch TV or YouTube as he does his homework and prepares for exams. Indeed, if the school would let him do it, he would listen to his iPod during an exam.
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