Monday, December 15, 2008

Virtual Off Campus

A very long time ago, when I graduated from high school, going to college meant an almost complete break with one’s previous life. There might be a few people from your high school going to the same college. One or two of them might be friends or at least acquaintances. But for the most part you were being dropped into an entirely new world.

It was an opportunity to abandon forever, or at least until your next visit home, the nickname you had been given in second grade. It was an opportunity, with luck, to change your image, the picture of who and what you were held by those around you. But there was was also the frightening prospect of a world where you had no friends, where nobody knew you, where you would have to rebuild in months the social networks that you built, or had built around you, over the past many years.

That was before the Internet. For college freshmen as for the rest of us, the online world provides portable friendships. I can fly to Paris or London, connect to my hotel’s Wi-fi, and continue a conversation started a day or two earlier from San Jose. A new student arrives at college complete with a network of online friends.

Here too there are advantages and disadvantages. The first day is surely less frightening if you know that, back at your dorm room, lots of friends are waiting for you via email, facebook, or your evening WoW raid. On the other hand, knowing that reduces the need to go out of your dorm room looking for new friends. As one colleague I discussed the matter with suggested, the situation of a student in the dorms in the world of the Internet is rather like that of a student, in the old days, who lived off campus. His classroom life was shared with fellow students; his social life might well not be.


At 2:10 PM, December 15, 2008, Blogger dWj said...

I set out to hike the Appalachian Trail in March, and while I ended up capitulating after 1200 miles in July (after having to take a few breaks), I did spend long continuous stretches on the trail, including six weeks at the beginning among a number of other people doing the same thing. There were a few people out there who had come out in pairs, but most people had nobody they knew with them, and there were no large groups. And it reminded me exactly of my first year of college.

On the AT, the internet isn't as readily available, though typically one will be in town about once a week, and one sometimes has cell phone (especially text message) reception. By and large, people formed small groups within the first couple of days and stuck together with those groups for, at the very least, weeks at a time.

A lot of the people I met hiking are now my friends on facebook, and in the past month I've received unexpected text messages from two people I met in my first couple days in Georgia.

At 12:57 AM, December 17, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This remaining in the electronic bosom of your peer group is one of the main points discussed in Mark Bauerlein's "The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupifies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, Or Don't Trust Anyone Under Thirty". The other main point is the acceleration of the death of reading. It's an interesting read. If like me you were one of the few readers around when you were growing up, the statistics he presents will help you realize there are far fewer now. He also points out that there is relatively little real information on the WWW even now - if you do not read books, you are ignorant.

At 12:48 PM, December 17, 2008, Blogger David Friedman said...

Billswift points at a book arguing that young people are increasingly dumb, and the fault is partly with the web. I have read the parts of it available for free on Amazon, and based on that sample don't plan to buy the book. Those parts, at least, are strong on polemic, thin on facts.

On the general issue of the web vs books, I can offer at least anecdotal evidence. Our children have had unlimited internet access since they were little and both read a lot. My daughter's application materials for college included a list of about 400 books she had read.

And I don't see any reason to think that the web is a worse source of information than books. One advantage of the web is that, since it is obviously an unfiltered medium, it teaches the lesson that you have to figure out for yourself what sources of information to believe, instead of taking it for granted that if it's in a book it is true.

At 9:03 PM, December 18, 2008, Blogger Fester said...

I expect that although there are some downsides, I think the overall effect should have a net positive. I have never been a supporter of the idea that young people should be only socialized with people in the exact same situation as them. They will still meet many of their college peers, but this will likely give them a chance to see how their high school friends who took different paths (military, work, etc.) lives are different from theirs.

At 9:35 AM, December 20, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll apologize ahead of time for not having read the book billswift refers to, but the idea that the internet makes people dumber strikes me as extremely counter-intuitive.

Let's take a look at the costs and benefits of gathering information now as opposed to 50 years ago.

Say we want to learn a foreign language like Spanish. Would it have been easier or harder to do this 50 years ago?

It seems plainly obvious to me that it is easier now and would have been harder back then, if we look at the fact that the costs and benefits of learning a language have changed.


The internet has created a network of pages that make learning a foreign language very easy and if not for free then something close to it.

The cost of learning a foreign language 50 years ago was greater because this network did not exist, so all learning had to be done in school, through a tutor or by reading a self-help book (of which there were far fewer 50 years ago). In every way, the costs are lower now than they were.


Because of the internet it is now possible for me to make friendships or establish business relations with people all over the world at no cost. My knowledge of Spanish is more useful to me now than it would have been 50 years ago (controlling for things like immigration and the rolls that Spanish-speaking countries have played over time).

And I don't see any indication that this applies only to foreign languages but rather to any and all pieces of information.

At 7:52 AM, December 27, 2008, Blogger Andrew said...

Though book sales and newspaper sales may be down, the number of people reading is up due largely to the web.


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