Information Vacuum

As seen in the Oregon Daily Emerald!

Every night, like clockwork, I’m roused from my J202-induced stupor by an eruption of honking and angry shouting from the street outside my apartment. I used to run and look every time in case someone had been hit by a car (I don’t have a television so my entertainment options are limited, you see), but by now I’ve come to understand the source of the commotion: Someone, most likely a student, has walked into the street without bothering to see if any traffic is coming and very nearly reenacted a scene from Grand Theft Auto 4.

We college students are sort of lost in our own world a lot of the time. I conducted a little research (something that I had promised myself I’d never do when I first took this job) and found that of the 20 bicyclists I asked, some 40% had hit or nearly hit an oblivious pedestrian who had stepped out in front of them. Sure, the sample size is small, but I’m lazy and we’ve all seen at least one near-disaster caused by a walking student’s lack of spatial awareness. This is no rare or isolated issue.

What’s going on? Where do our minds go when we’re on the way to and from class? The same students who can hold an intelligent dialogue about Plato’s call for a philosopher king can leave class and five minutes later nearly blunder their way into the front end of a bike. The immediate culprit, of course, is technology.

I’m always amazed by the people who I see walking, texting, and listening to their iPods at the same time while I can barely take a sip of Diet Coke unless I’m standing dead still. We’re a high tech generation, and we so often surround ourselves with Dave Matthews in our ears and phones in our hands and potential emoticons in our minds that we lose track of what’s going on in the world around us, as the absent minded pedestrians in the street outside my apartment prove night after night.

This problem is bigger than any one college campus. This past July, the American College of Emergency Physicians issued an alert warning that texting while walking can – and has – lead to serious injury and, in two cases, death. A dozen or so states have drafted legislation to outlaw texting while driving, in part because in 2006 nearly 30 children were injured when a school bus in Pennsylvania crashed on the Interstate because the driver was fiddling with his phone. This, you understand, is how the robotic uprising will begin: First they’ll distract us pretty music and LED displays until we all get run over, and then they break out the robo-velociraptors to finish off whoever’s left. You may think I’m crazy, but consider this – for years, the principal distractions for our generation had been iPods and cell phones, up until they revealed the logical combination of the two, the iPhone. The machines are evolving. They’re getting stronger and more adept at finding ways to remove us from the physical world. However, I feel like our isolation from the outside world is broader than just spatial awareness issues.

When I’m at my house in Portland, I feel like I do a pretty good job of keeping abreast of current events. Given the fact that my parents are both Democrats, one of whom is a card-carrying member of the ACLU, National Public Radio is a mighty presence around my house. More often than not we have at least three radios tuned in to our local member station at any given time, making it impossible to escape the news. However, when I come down to school, it’s as though I’ve unwittingly entered an information vacuum. Down here, it took me a couple of days to find out about the Blagojavich scandal (by way of a forwarded Daily Show YouTube video, no less), whereas at home news of the incident would have come on swift wings, courtesy of the mellow tones of NPR’s Washington correspondent.

The information vacuum is widespread. Despite an abundance of radios, televisions, computers, and multiple free newspapers advocating multiple points of view, much of the world’s day to day goings on seem to be slipping by the majority of today’s college students. Why else would professors give quizzes over current events? Sure, the drama of the election permeated our lives, but it helped a lot that one of the candidates was a media celebrity who made extensive use of the Internet and had his own Facebook page.

We college students are isolated because our lifestyle keeps our noses constantly buried in our cell phones and our ears awash in The Decemberists (or whatever it is you kids listen to these days). After all, these are the tools we use to block out the campus activists, from Greenpeace to Planned Parenthood to Christianity, trying to get us involved in the issues of the outside world. It seems counterintuitive that in the 21st century, when communications technology is cheap enough that we can stay connected to the outside world at all times, we may well be more in the dark than ever because we use that technology to avoid the world rather than take part in it.

Our obsession with technology is unlikely to ever end, but the least we can do is use it to our advantage rather than our detriment. Maybe use your cell phone to check CNN in addition to ESPN once in a while, or download a news podcast along with whatever new song about sex Kayne West has on iTunes. Don’t quit using your iPhone entirely; just be sure to spend a few minutes with it each day keeping up on current events.

But for God’s sake, look both ways before you cross the street.