I Can’t Hear You

Eavesdropping and listening in to others conversations seems to be a natural habit in a public environment. When alone in the community it can often prove difficult to tune out to the stories of strangers. Only yesterday I listened to an animated daughter tell her attentive mother about her recent adventure in Europe. This vibrant conversation provided a welcome source of entertainment during my hour train ride from Ferntree Gully to the city.

But when asked to be actively aware of social interaction and tune in to others conversations around my university campus in a storytelling class today, the task proved to be more difficult than initially thought.

As I walked around the university slower and more attentively than I ever had before, the lack of conversation and physical interaction between students made me feel slightly disconnected and isolated. Students sat cross legged and alone on benches on Bowen Street at lunch time. Heads were lowered and eyes were fixed on screens while fingertips rapidly tapped and scrolled.

A university campus is a hive of mostly similar aged and like minded students. But despite belonging to a shared university community, we effectively distance and isolate ourselves by using technology to create our own private bubble.

Technology has the ability to create private territories. Responding to text or Facebook messages, checking incoming emails and liking photos on Instagram are personal and private actions. The ability to be connected 24 hours of the day with our smart phones and iPads may be causing a disconnection from our immediate reality. Distracted walkers move through public spaces like they have their own private bubble, rapidly scanning their Twitter feed or Facebook messages. Today while on the hunt for conversations I was surrounded by many people at university, but I felt alone.

On average, Australians spend 4.1 hours on a laptop or desktop and 1.5 hours via a mobile device on the internet each day according to ‘We Are Social’.

Technology such as smart phones have changed the way we communicate. But these new methods of communication can be solitary, lonely and effectively reduce the time we spend interacting face-to-face with others. Some social scientists have said technology is increasing the risk of loneliness.

It is easy to forget the power of a conversation in a technologically advanced society, especially the effect of one with a stranger. But it is these random, often meaningless conversations, like chatting about the weather with the check-out chick, which help us realise online experiences can be superficial and lacking emotional context and depth.

My search for an engaging conversation to tune in to lead me past Bowen Street to Melbourne Central’s food court. I casually sat myself next to two young university students sitting side by side at a food court table. Their conversation was brief and disconnected and they both scrolled through their Facebook news feeds on their iPhones for the majority of the five minutes I sat next to them. I was intrigued by the idea that not only were they captivated by their phones instead of talking over lunch, they weren’t even sitting opposite each other to allow a face-to-face conversation.

Am I the only one who feels this sense of disconnection while others constantly feel connected by technology?

Not only are technology users disengaged from the people immediately around them, they are also detached from their physical surroundings. Swiss playwright and novelist Max Frisch said technology was “the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it”.

Yes, the smart phone may be the perfect tool to avoid awkward eye contact or gazing into space while waiting for public transport. But I don’t think I am the only one in fear of an introverted society. There were five people holding “free hugs” signs on the steps of Flinders Street on an icy Friday night last week. Other shoppers also cue at the Coles checkout when the self-serve checkout is empty. And visitors still ask the red clad city of Melbourne guides for directions at Flinders Street instead of turning to Google Maps.

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