Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Coming Up For Air

As I prepare to present a lecture at Berry College this upcoming April, I find myself thinking about my topic, "Seeking the Public in a Mediated World," in the interstitial portions of my life - especially as I'm walking from place to place. So earlier today I was departing the Engineering Building and heading for Cafe Pomegranate for lunch when I started looking closely at students and their cell phones. I wasn't feeling creepy. Given my topic, this kind of attention felt safely like research. Understanding what students, digital natives, are doing with their phones in public life is an important source of insight as I prepare my remarks. At the same time, I found myself returning to my own years as a college student.

It's a frequent go-to image for me, comparing my undergraduate experience at Berry College, back when their slogan was "aspire to the top," and relating that vision to my current life here at SJSU. My romanticized recollection of those Berry years leads me to see students walking from place to place with their heads tilted slightly upward. That was the point of Berry architecture: all those spires built to draw our attentions toward the heavens. In contrast, despite some fairly monumental architecture here at SJSU, I see students predominantly tilting their heads down, their concentration pulled to their mobile phones. Such a clear distinction: up verses down.

Contemplating that image, I saw one young woman jerk her head upward. Just for a second. She snapped her gaze at my midsection and then, merely a half-beat of time elapsing, returned her focus to her tiny screen. All the while, her fingers jabbed at those buttons. Really, it looked precisely like she was surfacing from a deep ocean, gasping for air. What can I say? That moment gives me hope. The notion that we cannot survive in the digital depths without having to look at people - present, engaged, consequential - represents an essential humanity.

That is until we sprout gills. Then, maybe, we need never surface again.

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