Digital Interruptions: A narrative about dialogue and technology

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

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Digital Interruptions: A narrative about dialogue and technology by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.


Not like this…Not like this

Can the Internet really be blocked?

I was always under the impression that the Internet was a free, open, global network that had the potential to connect anyone to everyone. Knowledge flowed through it; people logged on to it and communicated across it. To me, Cyberspace was always this cultural Leviathan floating behind the visible field of reality—there but not there, like the force. Only, unlike the force, you could get inside it, it wasn’t inside you. Cyberspace seemed to be everywhere, all around us at all times, unable to be touched or smelled, but certainly able to be seen, heard and embodied. It was thestuff of non-space.

Then SOPA and PIPA turned my Facebook newsfeed upside down and I began to scratch my head with uncertainty. How can something that is by its very nature unlimited be limited by a government? How can access be denied to a territory that has no definite boundary, no actual place, border, or barrier? How can you lock a door made of light and sound? It appeared as if the US government quit taking its medication.

An hour later, I read John Palfrey and Jonathon Zittrain’s chapter in Access Denied. “Few would condemn all those who would seek to filter Internet content; in fact, nearly every society filters Internet content in one way or another…The perspective in support of state-mandated Internet filtering is straightforward….The Internet is not exceptional” (p. 43-44). Following a rich analysis of data gathered to elucidate the filtering trends of a myriad of non-Western countries, they expose the complex layers of Internet Filtering as a geopolitical and socio-economic issue. They voice concerns regarding the collaboration of state and private agencies that restrict citizen access to specific content and whole web domains deemed sensitive or inappropriate. Pornography, political propaganda, and personal blogs are just a few examples of content that falls outside of the purview of cultural values and spiritual/social traditions of regions controlled by authoritarian regime leaders, many of which believe they are protecting the interest of their people and insulating cultural values from Western imperialism.

I guess I was wrong. I guess my image of a free and open Internet was nothing more than a romantic fantasy.

Michael Heim discusses romantic thought about the Internet. In Virtual Realism, he describes a proverbial battle between “naive realists” who forget that virtual worlds creatively enhance human social living and “network idealists” who forget that the “as if” quality of virtual-anything often has real consequences in the corporeal world. As Heim traces the genesis of these positions to their philosophical roots, his text embodies the struggle over control of virtualizing technologies. This struggle has resurfaced in the present as Netizens find themselves in the center of the dangerous intersection between Wall Street and Pennsylvania Ave.

Palfrey and Zittrain’s exegesis on Internet blocking has come to the fore in the SOPA and PIPA debacle, and Heim’s Virtual Realist perspective, which navigates the middle of the road without careening users into privacy rights and crashing navigators into the contextual gates of ownership, authority, and personal freedom, would help both concerned citizens and politicians direct online traffic safely.

If politicians did their homework, learned a bit more about the nature and history of the virtual world, took a virtually real position about “rights” and “freedoms”, and considered the cultural context of Internet sharing, they may find a way to write laws that are both necessary and welcomed by the masses, as Palfrey and Zittrain claim they could be. We do need a digital ethics, but as Switch from The Matrix states before she’s unplugged from the virtual world and killed the real one, “Not like this…Not like this.”

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PLE's Not like this…Not like this by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
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First post toast

Hey there…

Welcome to my blog! My name’s Nicholas and I have a few thoughts worth sharing. I thought you might find them interesting…

The title of my blog, “Cat in a Tree” comes from an editorial column I authored in high school that had vast readership (if a student population of a few hundred counts as vast to a 16 year old). I was frequently disciplined for writing things that the administration deemed “unfit” for the student readership. I often wrote about them, their policies, and what I perceived as unorthodox and unnecessary measures of discipline and control.

That column was eventually censored and I was fired from the school newspaper, much to the chagrin of my friends, family, and loyal readers. But in the age of cyberspace, nothing  deleted forever. I thought it only appropriate to name my blog in homage.

And don’t worry, my radical views have only been calcified by more years of schooling. Currently, I study Communication as a PhD student at the University of South Florida. If you would like to view some of my work and take a peek at my academic identity, my scholarship and research interests, surf over to and take a gander. My profile will be back up and running shortly.

My personal interests include the Internet, Reality, Identity, Communication, Spirituality, Love and Relationships, and Live Music. Most of my posts will focus on these major themes, but who knows – it could get exciting. I could stray just a bit and find my way into uncharted territory. I do hope you’ll come along, acting as a guide when you’re familiar with a new found area of interest and a fellow traveler when your interests compel you to follow me into my own familiar space.

Either way, stick around. We all might learn something.

Glad you’re here. That’s all for now

More to come.