Media Deprived

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This post is a response to an experiment conducted for my Media Studies 260 course. For 48 hours I participated in a “media inventory,” listing all of the types of media consumed on a daily basis, and archiving the minutes spent with my phone, Facebook account, e-mail inbox, and various forms of music. Following this inventory, I spent 72 hours “unplugged”–doing all I could to avoid advertising, news, the internet, and the social realm of my iPhone. 

Dewy golf course grass blades clinging to the soles of my running shoes, I plodded across a field of green to settle down with the rest of my Cross Country team.  Chariots of Fire blared from oversized speakers held together precariously with crossing cords—it was 7:30 AM on a Saturday, but the “pump up” playlist of victorious music was in full swing.  The tunes would blast for 6 hours straight—joining the screams of fans as 11 separate races were run throughout the day.  Despite the athletic focus of this event, media was inescapable.  The big screen positioned beside a 20-foot inflatable gopher mascot broadcast the frontrunners in each race, filmed by daring cameramen who squatted in the bouncing back ends of all-terrain vehicles whizzing about the course.  Results were posted in real time, amplified announcements echoed for acres, and there came a point when my coach demanded I break my media fast to call home (or at the very least have them email from a “smart phone”—adamant that for “safety reasons” she needed to have my parents’ permission for me to leave the meet without the team.

Throughout my 72-hour media escape, it was the forced compromises that I noticed more than the absence of phones and email and newspaper.  The act of setting an alarm clock on my phone for 530AM became a guilt-filled touch-screen process deemed necessary so that I wouldn’t miss pre-meet breakfast or the 630AM bus departure.  I sent two “emergency” text messages.  The posters I caught myself reading in the cafeteria (as I tried to cope with the absence of my habitual copy of the New York Times) were another setback.  I felt like a drug addict—constantly making excuses for my “slips.”

In the car on the way to Minnetonka for a weekend of quality media-less time with my boyfriend and his family, I had to beg those in the front seats not to reach for the radio dial.  They were not pleased.  This was not the only time I felt like “media free” was not a socially acceptable option.  Later that evening, smilingly seated, mid-boast about finding an entertaining date activity centered on human input alone, and waiting for a round of Comedy Sportz improv to begin, I was forced to endure piped in music and the bright hues of advertising on three screens.  Everywhere I went, I was surrounded.  Even after my first evening of media seclusion, (spent creating collages and playing a violin I hadn’t “had time” to pick up in months,) I found myself reaching for magazines to cut and paste and playing sheet music adapted from hit Beatles songs.  Despite my most valiant efforts at media withdrawal, I was encased in popular culture.

I found myself coming back to Marshall MacLuhan’s 1980s mantra; “The medium is the message.” In every conversation for three days I managed to mention that I was in “media deprivation. ” This became my identity.  I received sympathy, incredulity, and surprise from my listeners.  My description of deprivation became a twisted excuse.  Without my everyday umbilical attachment to e-mail, text messaging, and Facebook, I was “off the grid. ” No one tried to find me.  If I wanted human connection or a dinner date, I sought one out.  The auto-reply set up on my e-mail account told my peers and professors that I was absent until Monday.  After leaping the first evening’s hurdle of loneliness (complete with abandoning a friendly gathering where video games were involved and resisting many temptations to turn on music,) I realized that being “unplugged” had potential as stress relief.  Rather than struggling to keep up with the inevitable tide of emailed additions to a never-ending to-do list, I stuck to the tasks outlined before Friday.  I recognized the implications of our email-driven college student lives – the message of the email medium being: You are never unavailable.  There is always more to do.  You must have 5 tabs open, be conscious of the future, and feel guilty when you are not being “productive. ”

Juxtaposing my media inventory (totaling an average media intake of more than 15 hours per day) with my media deprivation, I became aware of the power media has over the way I live my life.  Constantly replying, messaging, and seeking the input of those around me, I am never completely alone.  Rarely do I have the space or time to digest the day’s activities—perpetually gravitating to the glowing screen of my iPhone or email for one last message before drifting off to sleep.  This weekend I remembered how to journal.   I wrote with a pen (and without the instant response of the blog post comment. )  I spent two hours drinking wine and talking about the lost traditions of my grandparents’ generation.  I stayed up all night pretzel-legged on a bed just talking.  

What disturbs me most about my media-free experience is the affirmation that in our college culture (and perhaps American culture as well,) we are not allowed to unplug.  Even in a focused state of “media deprivation,” it was impossible to succeed.  To be a productive and functioning member of society is to be constantly connected and synthesizing in 140 characters or less.  To go without media for only three days required planning, creativity, and many failures.  In a country of “freedoms,” we are tethered to our technologies.  Vacations become days where email is checked only twice a day.  We outfit entire schools with iPads and “flip” classrooms to adjust to the changing newsfeed-style brains of budding generations.  Though I am guilty of and addicted to the electronically mediated lifestyle, I still wonder; Is this moving forward? 

Once my 72 hours were up my eager fingers grasped headphones and stroked keys. I spent two hours “catching up” with Grey’s Anatomy, Facebook, and pages of email that didn’t really say anything.

25 text messages, 43 minutes of Hulu programming, and 50 deleted emails later, I couldn’t sleep. I was back to my default state of mild-medium anxiety. I’d missed my constant connection, but its return was less joyous than I’d imagined in the hours before. Settling into a restless semi-sleep, I counted the items on my plate and the hoops to jump through for the week. This was not like counting sheep. Prior to dinnertime, still immersed in media deprivation, I’d spent the afternoon laying in the grass, reading a book for fun, and happily ignorant of the messages piling in my inbox. Hours later, curled into an extra-long twin sized bed and twisting hair between my fingers, I was fighting that sinking stomach feeling of the overwhelmed–again fully “plugged in.” From no media to media saturation. From calm to anxiety. There is a connection.

Will I change my habits for the sake of my mental health? It seems like a no-brainer, but I doubt the answer will be yes. It is hard to swim against the current.

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