Don't Blame it on the Tech

[Snark Warning]

A modified version of this piece also appeared as my column in the Daily Northwestern.

Technology gets a bad rap.

You wouldn’t think so–obviously, we all love it–but in a way it does.

You can’t really go a day anymore without encountering a book, article, or person spewing some variation of the following: “Oh, these days, everyone’s just so plugged in to their laptops/iPods/iPads/iPhones/Kindles/Blackberrys/etc,” always with a tone that combines whininess with nostalgia.

Sometimes it’s in the context of promoting physical activity, face-to-face interaction, getting out into nature, ink-and-paper books, live music, or any other number of virtuous things. Sometimes–paradoxically, since this usually appears online–it’s in an article about some brave soul who has eschewed Facebook, email, or–gasp!–the Internet altogether. Sometimes it’s embedded in smug pieces with titles like “Why I Don’t Have a Smartphone” or “Why I Don’t Text My Boyfriend.”

For a while, I really couldn’t figure out what it is about these remarks that drives me so far up the wall. I thought perhaps it was the repetition and sheer clicheness of such comments, or just my contrarian nature.

However, I think I’ve finally figured it out. These lamentations annoy me because I read them, accurately or otherwise, as attempts to shift responsibility for running our own lives off of ourselves and onto the technology that we willingly invent, purchase, and use.

In other words, it’s not that I can’t be bothered to spend time with my family. It’s that the evil Apple device prevents me.

Of course, I exaggerate. Most people don’t really feel like they can’t control their technological activities (although there are exceptions). But I do get the sense that gadgets get an unfair amount of blame.

I also think that people often choose to cut themselves off from technology, at least temporarily or partially, rather than learning how to achieve some sort of balance in their use thereof. What else explains the preponderance of browser extensions and desktop software that blocks “time-wasting” websites or programs? If the only thing preventing you from typing www.facebook.com in the address bar is a special browser add-on, you’re not actually learning how to control your urges in the moment they arise.

I also know of people who literally deactivate their Facebook accounts or have a friend change the password during critical academic periods. Of course, part of me just wants o say, more power to them. But another part wonders why people can’t just restrain themselves from going to the website.

In other words, Facebook doesn’t waste your time. You waste your time.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in connection with what I wrote about in my last post. When I observed Shabbat this past weekend, that meant I had to spend 24 hours without using any technological device.

Aside from the fact that my nephew was born that day and I really wanted to check in with my family, I can’t say that the obligatory technology fast affected me much. I didn’t die of boredom without the Internet, but neither did I revel in the feeling of being “free” from all that pesky technology.

Ironically, I think this trend started off as a contrarian one. At some point within the last decade or two, some skeptic probably wrote an article to the tune of, “You know all that technology we think is so awesome? Yeah well it’s not.” (In fact, that person is probably Nicholas Carr.)

But now I’d say that this has become a mainstream opinion–one that I don’t necessarily disagree with, but one that seems completely oversimplified to me. I don’t believe that there’s anything special about today’s technology that causes it to sap all of our attention. As with most social trends and problems, I believe that what’s going on here is actually much more complex.

For instance, everyone loves to bemoan the fact that people now communicate mostly through technology. There’s the old cliche about texting or IMing someone who’s just in the next room–or in the same room, and the preponderance of college students who use Facebook to run their entire social lives.

But what’s really happening here? Could it be that the expectation for young people to go away to college, move frequently, and put off making permanent bonds with others until later is driving the increased emphasis on digital communication? Could it be that most people never learn effective communication skills and thus feel more comfortable talking to others from behind a screen? Or, perhaps, that technology takes away the fear of rejection that people face when they try to, say, invite someone to hang out in person or come up and engage them in conversation?

I’m really just throwing out suggestions here, because I don’t know. But I do have a very strong sense that technology is really just the medium through which already-existing problems in our culture and our psychology are being revealed.

For instance, everyone hates the nasty trolls that seem to inhabit every website with open commenting. However, the Internet and the anonymity it provides do not cause trolling; they simply allow it. What probably does cause it are boredom, frustration, and a general inability to empathize and care for people you cannot see or even imagine. And those are problems that reside within ourselves, and not within the technology we’ve constructed.

Technology makes an easy target. It’s new, it’s hard to understand, and it’s changing our culture faster than we can churn out books and articles that analyze it.

But it bothers me that choosing to disconnect from technology has acquired a moral value, and that we bitch and moan about technology instead of some of the larger, deeper problems with our culture.

Those problems are much harder to tease out and analyze. It’s easier to just write a piece blaming everything on iPhones.

But gadgets come and go. Culture usually does not.

The Gym: the Poor Man's Runway

But don't try TOO hard. Like this girl.

Yesterday, one of the main student publications at my illustrious university came out with this gem, titled “Dressing to Impress at the Gym.” After the title and byline, the article takes an unfortunately predictable route:

So the gym might not be the sexiest place on earth. But, who says that it can’t be one of the most social? However unlikely, SPAC, Blomquist and the Evanston Athletic Club are some of the best places to meet guys on campus. Yes, The Keg or a fraternity party would be obvious choices, but those get old quickly. Guys flock to the gym from all corners of the university and, like it or not, they could be on the prowl.

Oh, dear heavens no! Guys could be “on the prowl!”

First of all, I just want to congratulate the author of this article for her implied success in “meeting guys” at the Keg or at a frat party. I have never been able to find decent specimens there, but clearly, this girl is just more skillful than I am.

Anyway. The article goes on to list helpful tips for girls who are super duper concerned with the scant possibility that someone may look at them while they’re working out. Most of the tips involve buying severely overpriced clothing and accessories at places like Lululemon and Gap. One of them involves wearing a bright-colored bra (way to attract attention while also looking completely fucking ridiculous).

The one that really gets me, though, is the last tip:

Don’t be that girl. “You can tell when a girl is trying too hard,” Medill sophomore Antonia Cereijido said. “They’ll wear no clothing and walk on the treadmill rather than actually getting a workout. They just look kind of silly.”

That’s right, ladies–don’t be that girl who “tries so hard” and cares so much about how she looks while working out, but do go ahead and read an entire article that tells you how to look good while working out.

There are so many things wrong with this article. Where to begin?! Well, first of all, with the assumption–never stated in this article, but implied nonetheless–that no matter what a woman happens to be doing, what matters most is always how she looks doing it.

We’ve seen this before with women like Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Elena Kagan–women who are helping to run the country but find themselves subjected to neverending commentary about their looks.

What I didn’t expect, however, was to find this same principle at work in the student magazine of what I had hoped–before I got here, that is–was a fairly intellectual college. Women, according to this article, exist to be looked at (by men, of course). And this completely ignores the fact that many men find it really sexy when a woman is working out and doesn’t care how she looks.

The second major problem I had with this piece was the implication that even if you’re not at the gym in order to pick up guys, you should still concern yourself with the fact that you may be looked at. As the introduction says, “Guys flock to the gym from all corners of the university and, like it or not, they could be on the prowl.”

Like it or not? Well, I suppose I don’t, but what the hell do I care if they look? It’s not my job to make sure that no man is ever, G-d forbid, offended by my appearance–especially not while I’m at the gym. I don’t owe anyone anything, and if they look at me and don’t like what they see, they are free to look elsewhere.

But no. According to this article, girls should always care that they’re being looked at, which is why they should always look good, even while working out, even if they’re not even looking to meet any guys. How empowering!

A third issue here is the implication that the gym is only for people who are able to fit their bodies into the cute, tight little shorts and tops that the article practically advertises. Um, last I checked, many people go to the gym in order to lose weight and/or become more fit, not to show off their already-perfect bodies.

But then again, the article isn’t really aimed at those people, is it? Because, after all, who on earth would want to look at them, anyway?

And that’s just the thing. Articles like this always imply that gyms are for attractive people only, which is just as ludicrous as saying that French class is for people who speak French fluently, and art class is for people who can already paint.

Finally, even though the article is obviously aimed at women (men, after all, don’t need to concern themselves with such petty issues as appearance), it nevertheless constructs the gym as a man’s space–one that women may occupy only as long as they follow the rules. As a guy quoted in the beginning of the article says, “I think it’s good that girls take care of their bodies and that they’re not afraid to go into the gym where there’s guys lifting heavy weights and stuff.”

Not afraid to go into the gym? Please.

Of course, the fearlessness that this guy finds so incredible comes with strings attached–women must always look good at the gym, or else…well, I don’t know what happens then. Do our memberships get revoked?

What’s really disappointing about all of this is that I’ve always thought of the gym as a great equalizer, of sorts. Anyone can go there, anyone can benefit from going there. It’s the one place where I’ve never felt like my appearance was being scrutinized, and I’ve always felt comfortable letting go and getting into the flow of exercising.

But clearly, some of the people I go to school with don’t see it that way. You’d think that there are few pursuits more self-directed than exercise, but to them, the gym is just another place to “be seen,” and its health benefits are secondary.

Of course, the author would argue with me here. She even writes at one point, “Remember ladies, health is important, so when at the gym you should still be the number one priority.”

But if she really feels that way, why didn’t she write an article about, say, how to figure out what your heart rate should be while exercising? Or how to use all those damn strength training machines I still haven’t figured out how to use? Or how to work out as many different muscle groups as possible in as few different exercises as possible? Or any number of other health-related topics?

I’m very idealistic about journalism. I think that all journalists, even students at a campus publication, are, in a way, setting the agenda for us as a society. Every moment spent writing piece-of-shit articles like this is a moment not spent writing about stuff that actually matters.

Rather than writing an article that practically shits out the same sexist tropes we’ve all grown up with–that women owe it to men to look good, that only thin athletic women are worth looking at, that men are only attracted to women who actively try to look good rather than just doing what they love with abandon–this student could’ve written an article about why it doesn’t fucking matter what you look like when you’re working out.

But she didn’t do that. She chose to promote the sexist tropes instead, thus doing her small part to keep an unfortunate aspect of our culture going strong.

On Ambition

I used to be what most people would call an ambitious person. That is to say, I knew exactly where I wanted to go in life, and it was a place that everyone respected. I was also willing to do everything necessary to get there–the perfect grades, prestigious college, and on and on.

What my actual ambition was doesn’t matter, because I had several phases that I went through. I remember at one point I wanted to be a psychologist. Then an architect, then a physicist, then a lawyer, then a statistician, then an economist, then a sociologist, and then, finally, a journalist. That was the dream that ultimately led to the breakdown of all the other dreams.

My parents were always very proud of me for being so ambitious, even if what I actually wanted to do was always changing. That, after all, was only natural, and it was clear to everyone that I had what it takes to get to the top of any field I chose. My parents were certain that once I started college, I’d immediately settle down with whatever major happened to be conveniently available to me and begin the process of climbing up the totem pole like a good little girl.

Well, what they forgot to tell me was that it’s pretty damn hard to be ambitious when you no longer know what the hell you want to do with your life. Journalism sucked, sociology might as well have been Political Correctness 101, and I’m terrible at science, so I picked psychology. But then I started having doubts. What if I’d make the most amazing computer programmer in the world? Or photographer, or novelist, or graphic designer, or architect, or engineer?

But all of these paths were closed off to me, because most of them don’t even have departments at my school, and those that do are special programs that one needs to apply for (much like my nemesis, journalism). Furthermore, I could no longer afford to take any more random classes if I wanted to graduate on time (which I must, given the cost of attending college). The uncomfortable truth was that you really can’t be whatever you want to be. If I wanted to study architecture or engineering, I should’ve thought of that earlier. But I didn’t, and besides, there was still no guarantee I’d like any of those, either. I was now, I realized, completely and inexorably stuck. And that’s when I lost my ambition–and my faith in myself.

I don’t know how, at 18 years old, I was supposed to just magically know what I want to do for the rest of my life. I certainly didn’t get any room for experimentation. I spent freshman year slaving away in the name of journalism and ended up choosing psychology because it seems to be the only subject I’m good at. But as for architecture and other subjects not even offered at my school, who knows? Maybe in a parallel universe, I could’ve designed a revolutionary green skyscraper or the next crazy-popular Apple gadget, or coded a new Google project or a better version of Windows. Not in this universe, though.

Life without ambition is a new experience for me. These days I couldn’t care less about my future. I don’t really try that hard in my classes, and I avoid internships like the plague. All I want to do is read books and lie by the pool. After all, if I’m going to get trapped into a life I never wanted anyway, why bother working hard for it? Might as well enjoy whatever freedom I have left.

If that seems nihilistic, well, most people hate their jobs. This is nothing unusual. I’ve just realized earlier than most people that all that bullshit they tell you about how any dream is achievable is really just bullshit. It’s really all just a matter of luck. Some people get lucky and happen upon the right calling, and others don’t.

Exhibitionist Journalism

So, yesterday this little gem was posted on Salon.com, an online news magazine that I generally like a lot but that, unfortunately, frequently falls into the trap of sensationalism. The piece, by Holly Kretschmar, describes the author’s experience with cooking and eating her placenta after giving birth to her first baby–a course of action recommended by her doula, which I understand is some sort of earthy midwife whose services Kretschmar was inspired to engage after she miraculously conceived despite fertility problems and a doctor’s estimate that her chances of conceiving naturally were .0001 percent. Apparently, this arbitrary, albeit fortuitous, glitch is reason enough to throw out the concept of science entirely and resort to all manner of cuckoo rituals.

Anyway, the doula recommended a placenta recipe and Kretschmar enthusiastically tried it, chronicling her experience in this article that Salon for some unknowable reason decided to publish. The piece went into terrific detail about how the placenta tasted and what texture it had, and Kretschmar, a vegetarian, pontificated on the joys of eating of oneself: “It occurred to me that this meat of mine was truly sustainable, a renewable resource created without killing. In a way, our culinary experiment was the ultimate act of consumption: eating life without taking life.”

I’m not even going to go into the numerous reasons this entire enterprise is repulsive (for instance, that silly little taboo called cannibalism), because, when it comes down to it, Kretschmar made a personal choice to eat her own placenta. Okay. It’s a free country. But the more important question (at least to me) is this: why the hell write and publish an article about it?

The fact that she finds it interesting is not (or should not) be enough. Plenty of people find their bowel movements interesting, but I’ve yet to see a published article about that. Websites like Salon generally have standards for publication, the standards we all learn in journalism school–newsworthiness, timeliness, and impact, for instance. Articles about personal experiences that ought to be kept private, like bowel movements and, yes, placenta eating, just don’t make the cut. Usually.

To me, it seems that this article served a dual purpose for Kretschmar and for Salon. The author gets to exhibit herself to the world as some sort of new-age open-minded hippie and satisfy her own need for attention, and Salon gets to drive up pageviews by disgusting and angering its readership. (A quick peek at the comment thread of the article confirms this result.) The only party that doesn’t win in this scenario? The readers.

This is exactly what’s wrong with journalism nowadays. It used to be that publication was reserved for the best of the best–articles that could inform or inspire. Then blogs and other social tools appeared on the scene to fill the niche of personal media. And then, respectable publications like Salon decided to steal blogs’ audience by publishing just the sort of self-serving drivel they’d previously (and rightfully) ignored.

I’m not saying blogs don’t serve a purpose. They do. Perhaps Kretschmar’s friends would’ve loved to read about her foray into placentophagy. But the rest of us don’t need to know, and most people who read websites like Salon are intelligent enough to know a blatant publicity stunt when they see one. Give us more respect, Salon.

Bookman's Heaven

Note: This short piece has the rather unusual (for me, anyways) distinction of having achieved a grade of 100% in my journalism class, which I’m very proud of and happy about, so I hope you enjoy it too. :D

If history were a place, it would be Bookman’s Alley.

A fixture of Evanston, Illinois for the past 31 years, this bookstore is the sort of place a bibliophile can enter in the morning and emerge from in the late afternoon, squinting at the sun, wondering where the hours went.

Walking into Bookman’s Alley reveals a serene white-haired man sitting at a desk cluttered with books. He talks easily and casually with regular patrons, but to a first-time visitor, he says nothing.

The store seems tiny and cramped, and the hardwood floor—creaking quietly with each step—is covered with afghan rugs of varying colors and sizes. Piano jazz flows from somewhere near the ceiling. Artwork covers every inch of wall that a bookshelf hasn’t already appropriated, and prints and posters for sale call for attention from baskets on the floor. Full of mismatched chairs for reading and relaxing, the store smells like dusty paper and rugs that haven’t been aired out in decades.

The bowl of pastel-colored gumdrops near the door is an anachronism. Their rough texture and syrupy taste are a jolt from the present.

Reach the end of the front room and you will find a miracle. The room opens up into another, then another. The rooms overflow with dusty tomes, sometimes autographed, sometimes available nowhere else but this bookstore, hidden in an alley. Each bookshelf has a label, such as “Nautical,” “China,” “Magic,“ “Literary Biography,” or, curiously, “Nostalgia.”

Some books peer out from glass cabinets, and some—such as the $1,400 first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned—are too precious to be seen and are denoted by a handwritten card instead. Antiques, though not for sale, accompany the books—Civil War uniforms, model ships, a falconer’s costume, and even a 19th-century printing press.

This is a place where history lives and breathes.