Electronics as an extension of our physical selves

Author: Lourdes Long ’09

Lourdes Long

Hello. My name is Lourdes and I have a problem. I first realized my addiction when I found myself checking my email at a stoplight. I didn’t have any new mail, but I “refreshed” my inbox anyway. It’s compulsive. I’ve crossed the threshold into obscene technological dependence: I have an iPhone.

A few weeks ago I was already a pretty diligent technologist. I had the standard suite of gadgets: cell phone, computer, iPod. I’d routinely check my phone for messages. My email was open continuously whenever my computer was on, so I had developed a reputation for quick and reliable responses. I’d grown reliant on running with my iPod.

Now I do it all at once. I’ve got music playing while I respond to a professor’s email until my mom calls, when Miles Davis fades out and my ringtone takes over. Now not only do I require a soundtrack to work out, but I’ve grown accustomed to walking with music playing. I’m practicing the art of walking and emailing — far more challenging than just the old-fashioned walk and talk. You’ll know I’m giving your email immediate attention if my response ends with “Sent from my iPhone.”

I check email in class. Well, just the classes I don’t like. That’s not true. I check it whenever I don’t feel too guilty or too conspicuous. If waiting for a particular response, I’ll take a surreptitious glance to read Yes or Haha or 10 pm. In any case, I enjoy knowing that I’ll have several messages waiting for me as soon as the lecture ends.

I like to think I’m a more effective student and leader because I can respond to emails in record time. But I worry that I’ll miss a chance for Eye Contact, walking down the quad reading The New York Times on the tiny screen. At once, this new iPhone culture is efficient and distracting, connecting and distancing. Perhaps that’s the compromise we accept for our culture of technology — convenience for compulsion, benefits with challenges. For technology, like culture, is complex and ever-changing.

Not so friendly

You see her on the quad. You see her everywhere. And when you do, you whip out your cell phone and pretend you’ve got a text message.

It’s her. The Girl Who Is Your Facebook Friend But Isn’t Actually Your Friend. She creepily “friended” you freshman year, but you’ve never officially met. Why do you avoid eye contact on the quad? Because you feel guilty. You’re embarrassed that you know as much as you do about this person. You wonder why she was having such a hard time last week. Her Facebook status didn’t fully explain. It’s probably because she went from In a Relationship to Single. You once clicked through 100 pictures of her, so you know she was a firefighter for Halloween (a slutty firefighter, in a highly flammable costume).

When you finally do meet, you will both pretend to be surprised to realize the friends you have in common. Eighteen. The worst was when she invited you to one of those I lost my phone doing something dumb drunk — Give me your numbers events. She doesn’t need your phone number because she never had it in the first place. You’re not actually friends.


Technology weaves its way through our world, through our interactions, through our identity. It helps structure every aspect of our lives, positions us in a social order contingent upon our ability to adopt or adapt to other rapidly evolving technologies, fixes us in an entire culture constructed around the gadgets, applications and systems we use daily.

A culture in which a wager or dispute is easily resolved by a quick search:

“Hey, what’s nuclear spent fuel reprocessing?”

“Psh. I don’t know. Google it.”

Google and other Internet tools connect us instantaneously and dynamically to the realities of the world. Wikipedia yields anything from the name of Led Zeppelin’s drummer (John Bonham) to the population of Honduras (7,483,763). MapQuest directs us anywhere from Blockbuster to Boston. CNN streams video of a Tibetan protest halfway across the world. And featured just below that is video of an infant forced to smoke pot. We learn to filter the broad spectrum of information coming our way. We expect conflict and discrepancy, and are confident in our ability to navigate dissenting opinion. We can bookmark The Drudge Report and NYTimes.com, Al Jazeera and Fox News. We take in both and find our own way.

Digital networks spread faster and wider than other connections. This means we’re reachable almost everywhere. Most professors have perfected the art of lecturing over the audible vibration of a cell phone or an embarrassing pop ringtone. The playing field is leveled when his or her own phone goes off. Students and teachers alike check their phones on the way out the door. Access to this range of technologies can make us less patient with one another. The time frame for responding to a text message is fairly narrow. Take too long, and you just might bruise some feelings or earn a concerned follow-up call.

We relish our rapid connection to one another, especially to those at a distance. We Skype our friends abroad, thousands of miles away, putting up with intermittent service just to hear a faceless but familiar voice. I only learn about the loss of yet another high school classmate when someone invites me to the Facebook RIP group.

Technology allows us to be more honest and immediate about what we’re doing, how we’re feeling and what we’re thinking. We grew up posting away messages, somehow compelled to provide our entire Buddy List a full account of our activities, strangely at ease with sharing song lyrics that reflected our mood. We blog. We MySpace. We turn nouns into verbs. We think that someone out there, thousands out there, care about what we’ve got to say.

And we acknowledge that technology can also make us less honest, allowing more control of how we portray ourselves and how we are perceived. Facebook has created an entire networking world where we are judged not only by how we self-represent with our profiles but by the ways in which we interact with others in this sphere. What we say, post and join on Facebook is noticed. That’s why you “un-tag” unflattering or incriminating photos. No one actually looks like they do in their Facebook profile pictures.

Technology builds digital realms for interaction, and we insist on imprinting ourselves on these domains as well. As with any material item, the electronics we own and use can shape how we are perceived. Technology has always been an acceptable topic of conversation — who’s got the latest phone, a new iPod, that cool computer. These items are fair game to comment on, same as, “I like your shoes.” Technology is shared culturally, a common language we speak. The color of your cell phone, the way in which you punctuate emails, the use or derision of emoticons, the groups you join on Facebook all communicate personality, uniqueness to those you encounter. We’ve shaped technology into yet another mode of self-expression.

Enter the digital camera. We’ve reached a new dimension of vanity. With the advent of this relatively accessible, inexpensive gadget, we’ve come to demand instant graphic gratification. We’re deluded in believing every moment of our social life is worth documenting and presenting in public places. Thousands of pictures accumulate — us wearing similar outfits, standing with similar people, doing similar things. And if that last life moment was not a Kodak Moment, we’ll delete it and try again.

Hey, can you take a picture of us? Sure.

He puts his arm around her as I find the shutter button. Click.

How does it look? You wanna see?

Ew, I look fat. Can you take another?

I take several more. As I walk away, they pull together to self-document. He stretches out his arm as far as possible, as she leans away from the camera and smiles. They inspect. Take 10 more.Sometimes electronics seem to be an extension of our physical selves, like the girl who sends text messages without looking, her fingers so familiar with the shape of the phone, who exclaims, “I like freak out if I don’t have my phone with me. It’s like someone cut off my hand or something.” In a culture structured around the use of these electronics, an inability to keep up with the rapid evolution of technology can feel isolating. To be deprived of conveniences we rely on daily, even for short periods of time, excludes us from a shared sphere of interaction.

Tara dropped her phone in a snow bank and so was sans-cell for a whole week. It sounds dramatic, but her temporary Luddite status seemed to decrease her quality of life, at least according to the standards many of us are used to. She had to make going-out plans in advance and actually had to stick to them once out. Not so major in the grand scheme of things, but she missed dinner with our friends because she wasn’t around and didn’t know where to meet us.

But full participation in this technological culture also can create physical divides that interrupt meaningful personal relations. We’re told that technology increases convenience, allowing us to do several things at once. At times, though, we feel that technology is increasing the tempo of life and we cannot keep pace. “Just shoot me an email,” we offer, though we can barely process the volume of daily email we receive.

Email is supposed to be quick and painless, but I daily find myself spending hours with my inbox. Occasionally, I stress myself out over the content and language of a one-paragraph message. I calm myself by saying, “It’s just email. They’re going to spend three seconds reading this.” But this is even worse, the prospect that our reliance on email — on quick, casual exchange — may downgrade meaning, diminish quality of communication.

Playing it cool

I laugh when I refresh my inbox and this arrives:

To: Lourdes Long
From: Steve@nd.edu

Lourdes, would you like to meet with me again, maybe with a glass of wine this time?

He asked me out over email? Does that even count as asking me out? How much time did he spend on that one sentence? Did he want me to think he just nonchalantly pushed “send”? I’m glad he didn’t call — that might have been awkward.

At least now I can freak out in my room, forward this to my six closest friends, consult my roommate and then carefully craft my response. I’ll wait several minutes. Play it cool. Over email, I can revise, delete and run it by at least 10 people to decide exactly how I want to sound. Three hours and 14 minutes later I go with:

To: Steve@nd.edu
From: Lourdes Long
Subject: Re:
Bcc: Friend@nd.edu, roommate@nd.edu

Sounds good! Let’s find a time when we’re free.

I push “send” and immediately regret the exclamation mark.

Lourdes Long, a senior from Woodside, California, is a co-founder of GreeND.