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Jerry Lanson Headshot

Is Digital Reality Supplanting the Real Thing?

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I've given it a name, the silent digital army that each year is taking over more and more of my students' souls. I call it the Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the Sequel.

I see its sinister impact all around me. There are the young adults, oblivious to a beautiful fall day, staggering down the street with two hands clutching smart phones, two thumbs jabbing at the phones' faces in a frenetic orgy of texting. There are six students, jammed shoulder to shoulder in a too-small Emerson College elevator, all plugged into ear buds -- and totally tuned out to those around them.

In my travel writing class, my students' laptops surely send out secret signals. The students open them in mid-conversation, half close them, then open them again. Gotta check the latest tweet.

Ten days ago, I thought I'd try something new: a counterattack. I sent the class an email titled "the problem of competing with your electronic devices."

First I thanked those who had contributed in class -- and most truly had. Then I got to the real reason for writing.

A few of you today just couldn't stay off your computers. I understand the temptation. My wife often hollers at me for spending too much time online.

But in class, it's a distraction to me and to those [who are] engaged to see others engaged in something completely different. It's also annoying to everyone for me to stop the class and comment on it more than once, as I did today. Suggestion: if you can't resist the temptation to surf, to text friends, to jump on Facebook, simply keep your laptops closed during discussion. I notice it. I won't mention it again; I'll simply mark those doing it absent.

So how, you ask, did this experiment work out? Well, the next class, students kept their laptops closed. Hey. Progress. And the next week? We were pretty much back to square one.

Now I don't claim to be the world's most scintillating instructor. But even with creaky knees, I'm not bad. I've won a couple of teaching awards, the last just five years ago. I like to engage, to mix it up, to run an interactive classroom.

That, however, always demands students willing to engage back. Or in case of the body-snatched, should I ask, able to engage at all?

What I'm seeing in this ever-more electronic age is a level of distraction in increasing numbers of students that comes at times to border on addiction. It's a problem that's been growing for perhaps three or four years.

I have to wonder. How can anyone write about travel, in their own city or anyplace else, if they aren't looking up from their phones or keyboards, or listening to the world around them long enough to see what's changed or to hear bird, laughing kids and the chime of church bells?

How as a society can we ever hope to communicate across differences of all kinds when we program our lives only to our own reality, roil around in the echo chamber of our own facts?

Because in truth, I shouldn't be picking on my students at all. Emerson is filled with cool, creative young minds. The phenomenon I'm describing is universal.

I recall walking through the Boston Common one gorgeous summer day. I passed eight people in the short walk from the garage to my office. Six were either on their phones, texting or plugged into music. And four of these were walking in pairs. I see couples sitting at restaurants all the time, each texting in their own world (wait, maybe they are texting each other? Talk is such hard work). I see college staff and faculty sitting at meetings, playing around on i-Pads as a dean or chief academic officer or even the president is trying to lead a discussion.

It's distracting, people! And ultimately it diminishes daily life. It saps the joy of wandering and travel. It eliminates the chance to be surprised. In early September, Frank Bruni of The New York Times penned a column titled "Traveling without seeing."

When he travels, he confessed, he has to force himself to turn off his i-Pad, to keep from watching the same TV shows, reading the same book and magazines, living in the same world that he does at home. He wrote:

I'm talking about our unprecedented ability to tote around and dwell in a snugly tailored reality of our own creation, a monochromatic gallery of our own curation.

This coddling involves more than earphones, touch pads, palm-sized screens and gigabytes of memory. It's a function of how so many of us use this technology and how we let it use us. We tune out by tucking ourselves into virtual enclaves in which our ingrained tastes are mirrored and our established opinions reflected back at us.

It's a world, at home as well as abroad, that's coming to dominate not just Emerson College life, but American life. Beware of the digital body snatchers. Don't let 'em take your souls.