Early in the semester, I discussed how two years in the army without access to the internet made me a social media amateur. I was hopelessly lost when it came to figuring out the new features on each platform, and very confused as to why Vine had suddenly gone under—it was such a hot app when I enlisted in 2014. But obviously, adjusting to the new norms of social media was not a serious issue. Digesting two years’ worth of updates in one day was a relatively painless experience, and perhaps even a comedic one now that I look back on it.
What was less amusing however, was everything else I had missed. After being discharged on May 17th of 2016, I took the 17-hour flight from Seoul to Boston just in time for the 2016 BC senior week and graduation—the one I would have partaken in, had I not taken the gap years. On my first night back here, my friends hosted a welcome back party, and they jokingly played a playlist featuring only songs from 2014 and before, the entire night. It was a thoughtful gesture to slowly ease me into the culture shock, but I didn’t think much of it at the time. When we relocated to a bar later, the protective bubble burst—everybody was singing the lyrics to every recent hit song at the top of their lungs, and I was thinking “what a great song” every time. Of course, that didn’t bother me or affect the night one bit.
Over the next couple days though, during the few hours of downtime that senior week grants, there was finally some time talk. I filled them in about my experience, and they tried to explain what happened in BC and around the world while I was gone. Needless to say, I had missed out on quite a lot. Two entire seasons of the critically acclaimed Game of Thrones, the pilot season of Narcos, and all the blockbuster movies in the last 24 months, including Interstellar, Whiplash, The Imitation Game, Mad Max, The Martian, The Big Short, The Revenant and so much more. As the week progressed, I began to realize how behind I was in pop culture, making it difficult at times to jump in on conversations, and there were times when my friends would intentionally change the subject so that I could better relate.
You may be surprised to know how often I would get lost in conversation—if you think about it, it’s not very often you find yourself having a casual conversation about things that happened 3 years ago. Yes, it may come up as a reference point, but the primary focus always tends to be what happened yesterday, what is happening today, and what will happen tomorrow.
Not knowing about pop culture or trendy musicians is no grave sin, but when it comes to larger issues like the global political climate, that’s less permissible. I knew the North-South Korea issue like the back of my hand, but I was unaware that pressing issues and events, such as the tragic November 2015 Paris attacks, even happened. On the plane ride back to Seoul, I started by binge watching eight Oscar nominated movies non-stop.
And when I got back home, I knew I had quite a lot of reading to do. It was this need for information that had me glued to my smartphone and laptop for the next couple months. Today, I’m still catching up but I’d like to think I’ve done my fair share, all thanks to my rekindled connection with the web. But at what cost?
Life in the army was primitive. You’re woken up to the sound of trumpets, you bond over training and sports, and if you find yourself at odds with someone you confront him face-to-face—no copping out via text or call. You can’t give anyone a BC look-away, you can’t hide behind your phone in awkward silences, and honestly you don’t have that much to worry about, besides that maniac sitting in his throne across the 38th parallel. I did miss the buzz in my pocket once in a while, and I’m not saying ignorance is bliss, but the simple life there was enjoyable—I made the best of friends while serving not necessarily because I didn’t have a phone, but because there was little else to do.
Hand-written letters from the States were a big morale boost, but what I appreciated most were the magazines, CDs I could play on my “high tech” CD player, American snacks, and books that my friends would send me. There was this one book that I received a week before I was discharged, about half of which I read in base while taking physical notes, and the other half of which I finished in the comfort of my bed taking notes on the computer. And you know what? Nicholas Carr was right, and this surprised me too—I can tell you about the first half very well in detail but not so much about the second half.
This class has followed through with my expectations in that, we discussed and analyzed major events and changes as they came, exploring the consequences and implications of digital evolution. Our exploration of Bitcoin in real time is a great example of this. But the most shocking realization for me, came from last week’s class, when one of the articles shattered my illusion that my behavior and thought process were impregnable by smartphones and electronic devices.
I don’t really think about these things, but back in base, I could honestly read a book in one sitting if given the time. With a phone, now, it’s not easy to even read an article for our small group discussions in one sitting. With that being said, I don’t think I’m doomed for life—I’m sure if I got a Nokia phone and cut my wifi contract with Xfinity, I could regain a longer attention span. But why would I do that? I guess for now, I’ll just have to be more aware of the psychological impact of the smartphone’s presence and be more strategic with its positioning when I’m trying to read. It definitely doesn’t hurt to go back to the simple, primitive life-style once in a while.