David Stairs

I never thought I’d get so old that I’d begin to sound like Andy Rooney. What is he, about 95? But I realize now that the infernal buzzing of human electronic communications media has me longing for the quietude Obi-Wan enjoyed in his adobe hut on Tatooine.

I teach design at a large public university in the middle west. Every few years there is a noticeable decrease in my ability to communicate with my students. It first happened in 2002 when I returned from two years abroad to find the entire student population had been outfitted with cell phones during my absence. They were now networked in an exclusive way, empowered by an expensive new tribal technology.

It happened again in 2007, when I returned from yet another year abroad, and all of my students had joined Facebook. Every time class began and ended, and often during class, students were grazing at this site. Generally, if something funny or controversial was said in class, it would be published simultaneously. Now students no longer needed to use ratemyprofessor.com for their flames, they just posted libelous comments to their wall.

I think it happened again yesterday. I was in an advanced typography studio, trying to encourage my students to work on their assigned projects. A couple of them were busying themselves trying to develop a logo for a local contest that carried a $200 prize. They had been alerted to this contest by one of my colleagues, apparently unaware or unconcerned that students are not disciplined enough to resist no-spec temptations. Unfortunately, superficiality is now the stock-in-trade of much university-level design coursework. Branding is all anyone cares about. The world lives and dies by the portfolio.

Of course, these examples are only part and parcel of the dumbification afflicting society. Time Magazine informs me of what Ford Motor Company has already stated in their ads, that new model cars will now be wirelessly connected, easier for the 35% of American drivers who surf while driving to access Breakup Notifier from their vehicles. As for the social network, I just opted out. Never received one interesting communication through it, and got real tired of getting junk mail from unknown people who’ve been messaged by one of my “friends” and feel the need to listserv me in response.

It’s not that I abhor networking, it’s just that I don’t know what bugs me more, uncontrolled narcissism or loss of privacy. I have 96 contacts at LinkedIn, all requests made to me. I refuse to send out those obnoxious form invitations. 75 people say they are following my tweets. That’s good, since they contain nothing personal. Me, I follow no one. I understand e-mail usage is way down among 15-19 year-olds due to social networking, but e-mail is just fine for my level of involvement. I can communicate instantly with anyone I know in the world. That’s what I need. I don’t need to be hassled by people I don’t want to know.

Most of my students are pretty well socialized to staring at the palms of their hands. The hunger for trivial bits of news and infotainment is so strong that I find them constantly accessing their media during class, throughout lectures, even during conversations. This is pretty hard core addiction. I’ve had to make one of my studios an internet-free-zone to enable the students to get work done. This isn’t just an isolated problem, it’s an epidemic.

The definition of “work” is changing, too, especially creative work. Every time I assign a topic, half the class immediately surfs to Google or Wikipedia or their favorite design blog to see what’s there. They consider this “looking for ideas.” Some even dare to call it “research.” I can’t convince them to simply observe the world around them in all its infinite detail and draw ideas from it. To the majority, the Internet is the world. Originality is dead.

I know, I know, some will say invoking intellectual activity among design students is an oxymoron. But when I was in art school imitation was not considered an asset. My students recently renamed their AIGA-affiliated student design chapter “Design Herd.” No one seemed the least bit concerned by the connotation of conformity such a name implies.

I shouldn’t lay all of this at the tender feet of young men and women. Our society is crapulous with distraction. Google and its million-hit searches is typical of a choice-ridden society. Primetime television advertising has become self-referential. Seems advertisers, like Best Buy, agree with Ray Kurzweil’s predictions about the exponential rate of technological change. Too bad Best Buy has not seen fit to cite recent studies about the exponential failure rates of multitaskers in its advertising.

Recently a friend of mine had a piece published on a popular design blog. He’d been trying to get a piece placed with them for some time. The editors finally accepted with emendations. They wanted to change the title for the sake of SEO (search engine optimization). My friend’s response was, “I HATE such shit, buckling to the Google spiders, but I had given up, and there wasn’t much use to fight over it. Here it was …the technology rules.” Sigh.

Just as we’ve allowed Fortune 500s to defile the environmental commons, we’ve been lulled by the illusion of choice into accepting the contamination of our airwaves, satellite feeds, and DSL uplinks. I used to like to watch college basketball, but the volume of insipid advertising jammed into one gag-er-ific forty minute game has me running to see live contests locally, and just catching up with the rankings and box scores of my national favorites in the midweek newspaper.

And the choice extends beyond the airwaves to the mega-amplification of “tech lust.” How deeply in suspense can Apple hold customers over their next iPad upgrade? Their 5G iPhone release? Whether Steve Jobs will live forever?

Which brings me back to Tatooine. There’s something so satisfying about being incommunicado, unable to be reached while drifting alone in the cosmic wind from a binary star, drinking tea far from the annoyance of pop-ups and spam, waiting for the revolution to come to you.

Don’t have a panic attack pulling the plug on your hand-held media. Feel the force!

David Stairs is the founding editor of Design-Altruism-Project

3 Responses to “Obi-Wan Kenobi on Tatooine”

  1. Eric Says:

    Obi-Wan ran away to hide from the Dark side, which had bested his vaunted Force. He knew when he was beaten. The constant dust of Tatooine assaulted his lungs like his cynicism of the Dark side assaulted his Midi-chlorians.

    If i remember correctly, it was the younger generation (in Luke) that brought the Revolution to his quiet solitude. Obi-wan’s knowledge of the Force led him to improve the younger genration and finally make the ultimate self sacrifice in the name of said Revolution. Then again, dying for the Force to improve the powers of one young Jedi was an easy option for him. After all, he was old.

  2. Jimmy Koz Says:

    I think it is a good idea for students to take time away from technology and actually come to a class lecture/pow-wow to listen, day dream, formulate, theorize, and above all else, communicate face to face – without technology. Technology is not a bad thing and being LinkedIn, tweeted, followed, liked and overall internet social is a great way to express and stay connected. But allowing oneself to explore, solve and grind without technology at hand is great way for padawan designers to learn, grow and develop their own skills within the comforts of their friendly university design community. Using technology in design, especially early in the growth process, needs to be used with restraint. Interruptions from technology (twitter, Facebook, etc.) need to be limited.

    Great thing here is that in the business world, smart phones, netbooks, iPads, laptops – all with Facebook, Twitter, Google Buzz and what not are common norm in meetings. Numerous times have I had meetings with CEO’s and VP’s and all are glued to their iPads, trying to listen and digest the buzz in the meeting while reading tweets online.

    Now I hope everyone can see the irony here of an Obi-Wan designer, getting on the internet and voicing his opinion/dislike for infernal buzzing of human electronic communications media – for all the internet blog community to read.

    Side note: As a former member of the Students of Design, the name “Design Herd” just will not do. There needs to be a redo here – new name along with some corporate identity. Get your students to work on this Stairs.

  3. Jess Says:

    “To the majority, the Internet is the world.”

    This is it. We’ve allowed our experiences, our environments, and our selves to be utterly defined by technological tools. It’s changing all sorts of perceptions – of the world and of how we should live in it.

    And since perception is reality, there ya go.