Alumni Column – Lost In Translation

Devon Skerritt

While digesting our bountiful Thanksgiving meal last week, I listened passively as my mother and my fianc?ee talked about the recent proliferation of Bluetooth headsets, devices a bit bigger than a Sony headphone earpiece which look like something out of Star Trek or a device designed for the latest Saw film. Their brief conversation sounded like the musings of an older generation begrudgingly acknowledging another unwelcome neighbor to their familiar community, and it reminded me of how technology has impacted the “skills of communication” I learned as a Colgate student. There is nothing new to a harsh reaction by those standing headfirst to the winds of change, but the scope of technology’s rapid transformative effects is captivating. In the relatively brief time since I graduated in 2000, cell phones turned from a luxury item into a communications necessity, portable CD players have been replaced by the ubiquitous iPod and wireless technology has become as important to communicating as Napster was to my generation’s habits of procrastination.

This fall, when first contemplating a topic for this column, I was introduced to Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death, a 20-year-old opinion on the nature of technology and media as medium and the adverse effects on our notions of truth and public discourse. Obviously this sounds like weighty stuff and my one-sentence description certainly doesn’t do the book justice. But the topic got me thinking about what technology means to today’s college students and how things have changed since I graduated. My coursework as a Colgate undergrad was marked by intensive history readings (my major), philosophical discussions and sociological debates. The “skills of communication” I learned included reading piles of textbooks, novels and studies, discerning the assumptions from the facts, and articulating cogent arguments with an open mind to the arguments of my professors and classmates. The Colgate of today is still centered around those same skills, but in the age of iPods, IM, text messaging and Facebook, the methods and content of communication are changing immensely.

Competence in technology is described by scholars, economists, and politicians as a necessity for graduating college students today and it has been since I was an undergraduate. Now, as a student affairs administrator at a New England liberal arts college, my colleagues and I often discuss what results from the intersection of technology and communication for the current generation of college students. We ponder complex questions like: does competence in using technology mean that today’s students understand how technology is and is not useful? And do students know how to make do without technology as an ever-present force shaping our activities every day?

Agree or disagree with this passage at the beginning of Postman’s work:

“It is an argument that fixes its attention on the forms of human conversation…I use the word “conversation” metaphorically to refer not only to speech but to all techniques and technologies that permit people of a particular culture to exchange messages. In this sense, all culture is a conversation or, more precisely, a corporation of conversations, conducted in a variety of symbolic modes. Our attention here is on how forms of public discourse regulate and even dictate what kind of content can issue from such forms,” (Postman, 1985, p. 6).

I take Postman’s postulation to mean that how we communicate is as important as what we communicate. With all of the benefits of new, more sophisticated means of communication, we can retrieve information and “converse” with people of many different languages, instantaneously, all across the globe. What worried Postman, and I think he was on to something, is questioning whether something gets lost in the translation.

In more concrete terms, are there ways in which face-to-face contact is being diminished? I wonder how much students will visit each other down the hall or across campus when an email or instant message or text message can transpire much quicker. Working with college students today, I come across unfortunate interpersonal conflicts that seem to simmer until a boiling point. The steam builds because some college students today don’t seem to have meaningful conversations, at least not when the topic is uncomfortable. The potential for conflict and tension is avoided easily in a technological society where emotion can be avoided (although also in some cases overanalyzed) through a few blank letters and characters. I’m not saying this is all college students, but I wonder how technology has shaped not only our modes of communication, but our messages.

There are lots of things that fascinate me about technology and college students today. Everyone seems to have an opinion about online communities and social networking sites (I admit to having both MySpace and Facebook pages) today. Faculty and administrators fret over conceptions of knowledge and truth when Google and Wikipedia are known as popular sources of information. But the idea that technology is shaping the content of our interpersonal communications really has me going these days so I’ve contemplated taking up a challenge that I would like to share-consider it a “teachable moment.” A group of first-year students at my college were asked to go on an “e-fast” for 24 hours. The “e-fast” was defined for them as not using laptops or computers, no cell phones, no video games, no television. Those students were challenged to spend a day communicating with others and reflecting themselves without the appendages which technology has given. I’m pretty sure many students didn’t follow through (I can imagine someone must have been texting what a preposterous idea it was to begin with). But I wonder how much I have changed and how my ideas and conversations might change in a day without technology at my fingertips. It seems to me that everyone could learn a little something about themselves and a little more about each other with a break from technology’s ever-expanding reach.