THE ISLAND SYNDROME
Part 1: Understanding the Island Syndrome
(August 12, 2010)
When we examine the life of our college student we see that, like many other young people, he lives in what I have called the "Bubble". If you were a college student in the olden days (before the 1990s), you thought of yourself as living in a fixed location — your home — such as a dorm room, a house, an apartment, or a fraternity or sorority. The reason was simple: all your stuff was there including your communication devices (telephone and mailbox). If someone wanted to reach you, he or she had to visit you at home, telephone you at home, or write you a letter and mail it to you.
Today, a student's most important "stuff" — his or her phone, laptop, and music player — are all portable, which means they can be carried from one place to another, thereby creating the Bubble. Although college students may have a domicile in which they store their clothes and where they usually sleep, in a real sense, most of the live in the Bubble, and the Bubble stays with them as they move to and fro.
When students graduate and begin to work full time, their new life becomes, as you would expect, a variation of the old. For example, when college graduates start work, they keep their mobile phones, their music players, and their laptops. Indeed, most young people don't even bother getting their own landline, something their parents and grandparents considered to be one of the first perquisites of adulthood.
Certainly, there are advantages to living in the Bubble. Like the turtle who carries his home on his back, Bubble inhabitants can take their most important possessions wherever they go. No matter where they might be — in a restaurant, in the library, visiting a friend, at a social event, or even traveling — they can answer their phone, call other people, send and receive messages, access their computer files, use the Internet, play games, and listen to music (literally, thousands of different songs). The convenience and comfort of such capabilities is obvious.
Although the information may be meaningless, the need to connect soon grows out of control.
However, there are important disadvantages, the most serious being that, in the long run, the Bubble is not a good place for human beings to live. Over the last generation, the vast changes in technology have enhanced communications and information management to the point where it is easy to, unwittingly, live outside our biological comfort range. When this happens, we begin to compensate unconsciously. For example, if we can't tolerate isolation, we will "connect" to other people many times a day. Although the information may be meaningless, the need to connect soon grows out of control. In fact, it is nothing less than an inner cry for emotional relief.
Let us, for a moment, revisit the images I described above: young people ignoring other people within their physical presence to talk, over the phone, with distant friends they can't even see. Is this not one of the definitive images of our times? And is it not a sad image?
Can we push this idea even further? What about frequent communication with people we don't even know. Consider, for example, Twitter, which enables people to use short text messages (no more than 140 characters) to stay in touch with other people all day long, using their phone or the Web. What is both fascinating and sad is that many thousands of people around the world are following frequent updates from people they don't know and will never even meet.
In the world of Facebook, MySpace, and other social networking services, such people are often referred to as "friends". However, as much as they might seem like friends within the Bubble, from the outside it is painfully obvious they are anything but. Whatever your definition of a friend is, it should certainly involve knowing someone in person. The Bubble, however, by its nature, enables us to interact with other people in a way that renders them mere shadows of human beings. In this way, the Bubble keeps us disconnected, not only from our environment, but from other people.
At first, this will seem like a paradox. After all, from within the Bubble, it is ever so easy to connect to someone. We can make a phone call; we can text message, instant message, send email, leave voice mail, send a photo, or record a video. Conversely, as long as we are in the Bubble, it is just as easy for other people to reach us. The paradox arises from the fact that increasing connectivity rarely leads to the type of high-quality communication we need. In fact, if we spend too much time in the Bubble practicing bad technology habits, our ability to create and appreciate satisfying, human-to- human contact is replaced with the results of what we might call "junk communication".
I maintain that, in the long run, consuming too much junk communication is one of the principle causes of the Island Syndrome: the mild, never-ending feelings of anxiety, depression, frustration, fatigue, and discomfort that are so common. Indeed, it is not far-fetched at all to say that too much junk communication does to the human psyche, what too much junk food does to the human body.
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