- Lost and confused: Without media, many students felt adrift. The difficulty was not just that students literally did not know what to do with themselves, but that they had problems articulating what they were feeling or even who they were if they couldn’t connect at will to friends and family. Students reported that media – especially their mobile phones – have literally become an extension of themselves. Going without media, therefore, made it seem like they had lost part of themselves.
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- Directionally challenged: Students not only were at an existential loss, they reported that they were at a literal loss as well when they didn’t have recourse to all the tools on the Internet and to on-demand access to others: How to connect with friends? How to navigate someplace they’ve never been? How to spontaneously adapt to new circumstances? One student from Hong Kong wrote with pride about her purchase of a very old-media technology that still seemed to work: a folding travel map!
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- Watches? Alarm clocks? Answers to trivia?: Digital media smooths out the struggles – even the little ones – in students’ lives. Quite a few students wrote of their bemusement that they had forgotten how to do certain basic things, such as telling time: how DO you read an analog watch anyway? They also noted how dependent they had become on instant answers to nagging, but unimportant questions.
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What is happening? Students around the world reported that media are integral to their personal identities: media shape how others think of them and how they think about themselves. Going without media, therefore, meant that the students not only had to confront their media habits, but their sense of self. Who were they, if they weren’t plugged in?
- Chile: “When it was like 6 pm, I felt weird: I felt like something is not good, I felt uncomfortable, disconnected… I went for a walk… I still felt the same.”
- Uganda: “It was not an easy experience because I felt I was in kind of another world – left out. I felt so lonely that I even started regretting why I had volunteered to carry out this task.”
- USA: “Taking all of that [media] away made me feel like a homeless person; after all, the people with the means to do so usually refuse to be disconnected from the world.”
- China: “I was unable to describe the feelings without media, just like something important was drawn out from my life.”
- Mexico: “I did not speak with anyone outside my family, a fact that shocked me. It was an unpleasant surprise to realize that I am in a state of constant distraction, as if my real life and my virtual life were coexisting in different planes, but in equal time.”
Extensions of self: Students noted how much they physically missed their phones. They wanted to know they were “there” – available at a moment’s notice to text, call, surf, play games. Phones, more even than MP3 players, had become critical to students’ comfort. And when they were taken away, students felt bereft, as if they were 5-year-olds parted from their security blankets.
- Lebanon: “The idea of my phone kept jumping into my mind. I was not eager to message or call anyone, I was more eager to just ‘see’ my phone in front of me.”
“To even feel awkward not holding my phone embarrassed me. I guess it has become such a habit to constantly have it in my hand that when it wasn’t there I kept thinking that I lost it, and would search my bag for it.” — USA
Navigating through life: Students across the board noted that with their 24/7 access to media, they had become used to making spontaneous decisions to gather friends, to travel out of town, to return home at a different time than planned. Without media at their fingertips, students were flummoxed. Meeting with friends became difficult or impossible, finding the way to a destination without an online map or access to the Internet became a problem, and simply organizing an evening at home became a challenge.
- USA: “The assignment opened my eyes to the world that we are living in and how society as a whole, not just me, is almost addicted to technology. Another example is when I had to go to my Aunt’s house later in the day I wouldn’t even know how to begin figuring out how to get there without technology. What did people do before GPS systems or MapQuest? My generation most likely couldn’t read a map if our trip depended on it.”
- Hong Kong: “What I should mentioned here is that I bought a MAP for this trip. Maps are a kind of media, but they were the only media I [was allowed] to have. I think the reason why we cannot live without media is that it’s informative and information gives us a sense of safety. Surviving without media for twenty-four hours is not bad for a trip because we hope to experience something unexpected on the trip. But as for a common day when we have to go to school or to do some projects, media is really important.”
- Mexico: “Tasks so easy as locating family members or make contact with my boyfriend were impossible. It seemed that I only could be there, sitting, waiting. I felt I had no access to any new information and therefore I could not do activities based on this new information. The result was a sense of a day without work or a day of rest – along with a sense of ignorance. ”
What is the ‘life’ that media now support? As students analyzed their own lives, they noted all the things they couldn’t do without easy access to cell phones, the Internet, TV, radio, and all things digital.
“Unplugging my ethernet cable feels like turning off a life support system. No longer would I be able to at a whim check what people I hadn’t seen or spoken to in 10 years were having for lunch, and no longer would I be able to tell the same people what I was having.” — UK
But while work and social life certainly were impacted by going unplugged, and students could use dramatic language to complain about their losses, what the students enumerated as troubling, didn’t always appear to rise to the level of real concern.
- Lebanon: “Reading the time on our analogue watches was a confusing task, we kept asking ‘Is it 3:45 or 2:45?’”
- UK: “Having to check the time using a clock all day was a weird concept for me too.”
- UK: “I kept thinking of stuff that I wanted to look up on the computer. This charity I’d heard about, this cinema that was meant to be good, the Google map to get to the cinema, whether my library books were overdue, whether anyone on eBay had a blue parlor chair for sale, if Christina Rossetti had written ‘When I am dead, my dearest’ (she had), if ‘The Wizard Of Oz’ was Channel 4’s number one musical (it wasn’t) and speaking of which how are MGM? The constant train of thought is immense in the silence.”
As one U.S.-based student noted, there is another life out there when all media are absent: “The void where media should be, is replaced by other things your environment provides. It can be anything at all. For example, when I don’t have media present in my car, my void is filled with creative thought.”
Quotes on this page may have been edited to regularize spelling and grammar.