This story is part of a paper I’ve been working on for sometime. For folks not privy to narrative inquiry as a research method, this is a narrative excerpt loosely based on an actual experience I have had. The paper will eventually feature excerpts like it and the stories of others. By illustrating what it’s like to live with technology – where human interaction is parceled by social media – my hope is to find a unique and provocative way into a discussion about what Sherry Turkle (2011) calls “a war with ourselves” against the “seductive simulations that propose themselves as places to live” (p. 296). Taking a social psychological approach in her book Alone Together: Why expect more from technology and less from each other, she fears the larger, social narrative that threatens personal intimacy and eliminates the essential place that solitude has in everyday life. As a result, commonplace hyperbolic use of technology in social settings, she argues, may foreclose on moments when we could be in dialogue with ourselves, each other, and the larger world.
Dialogue, in the words of Martin Buber, is a possibility that may or may not arise between people who “turn toward” each other as they “turn away” from those things in life that occupy their attention, time, and resources. For both Buber and Turkle, being in dialogue – whether with oneself, with others, or with the world-at-large – is what makes us human. It’s in the spirit of this conversation that my exploration of digital interruptions begins, exposing the realities of humanness in a digital world.
Class is over. The teacher is passing back papers as students filter through desks neatly arranged in rows, heading toward the door as quickly as possible. Like water down a drain, they move, fluidly, swirling around desks and out the door, spilling into the hallway. He looks up at each as they pass, sorting through messy stacks of papers. One of them stands in the way, blocking others who make faces at her as they pass.
She’s brunette, wears glasses and holds her backpack by a strap as it sits at her feet, taking up another body’s worth of space. She’s oblivious. By the looks of her droopy eyes and lazy presentation, she’s tired. Too tired. One after another, students trip on her bag as they brush past, unapologetic, some not even noticing. The teacher intervenes.
“Do you want your paper?” he asks, holding it out like bait, trying to get her to move. Her head dropped and her arms bent, she furiously mashes buttons with fingers and thumbs, typing away on a Blackberry. He stares, hoping she’ll feel the gaze and look up.
It’s a stand-off.
“Wha-?” She lifts her head, half pronouncing words, still texting as they make eye contact.
“Here, take this and get out of the way. You’re gonna get run over.” He motions her to come near. She looks at him confused with an open mouth and a blank stare, doubling her finger speed.
“Okay. Just a minute,” she says, “I’m deep in text.” She looks back at her phone, suspending her finger in air to hold his patience, shifting her weight to one leg. He turns away and shakes his head in surrender, cracking a smile in disbelief as he sets her paper on his desk. A minute later, she’s bright and attentive, waiting for him.
They meet with a smile.
“‘Deep in text,’ eh?” he asks, ribbing, pointing out her play on words. “Can a person be ‘deep in text’?”
She wakes up a bit. “Sure! Haven’t you ever had a conversation with someone over text that just couldn’t wait?”
“I suppose so. Not in class, though!” He points out that texting in class is against the rules, playing teacher for the moment. “What could possibly be so pressing for you to text in my class?”
“I was talking to my Mom. She teaches kindergarten and started a new job today. She was really nervous when she left the house.” Grabbing her paper, she heads for the door, leaving him surprised and impressed as he shuts down his computer and he follows her out.
“Funny,” he says, “I wanted my Mom to learn how to text so she’d quit calling every day. Now I get a text every hour, on the hour. I’ve created a monster.” She laughs as they walk out of the building.
“Maybe you should text her more often, or at least text her back. I’m sure it would make her happy.” She’s probably right, he thinks. That probably would make it less irritating. “See ya!” she says, wrestling her bag for a key and sunglasses. They walk in separate directions.
He thinks about her suggestion. A few steps later his thoughts are interrupted as his pocket vibrates. Stopping in the middle of the sidewalk he pulls out his phone and checks his messages in a single motion: <Mom>.
Just then, a student on a bike whizzes by, almost hitting him, cursing at him as he passes. They trade unfriendly glares and he steps off the concrete, into the grass, out of the way. Looking down, he laughs at the irony, catching the attention of some tired students who carry cell phones, hurrying past.
Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. (1 ed.). New York: Basic Books