Monday, August 18, 2008

Home & Away: Physical vs. Electronic Communities

This blog posting is by a guest blogger. She discusses how the Internet is changing another facet of life. While her experience is with boarding schools, I believe her findings apply to residence dorms for universities & colleges.

I work for a private, senior school. The school is a traditional school that fosters and emphasizes a family atmosphere for its boarding students. In previous times, this culture of family was reinforced by the physical distance separating the students from their families and the social networks of their home places. The close, integrated network created between the students and the residential staff (and with the school in general) is an integral part of the traditional boarding experience; it helped the students branch out from comfortable niches of home and family and establish lasting, meaningful relationships with the impromptu “family” offered at their “home away from home.”

With the emergence of recent Internet-based technologies (webcams, MSN, Facebook, MySpace, etc.) the world has changed dramatically. Without going too much into the general impact of these technologies on society in general, I will offer that these technologies have redefined physical spaces and social connections. It is entirely possible to construct a meaningful, diverse social life without any attention to geographical space. As a consequence, the veritable physical isolation that characterized the traditional boarding school experience is broken down. I will offer that this results in the essential breakdown of the traditional boarding house relationship network. Physical proximity means less, therefore it is not as necessary to form lasting, or even meaningful relationships with the people you share a physical space with – you can essentially continue your social network (almost without missing a beat) even though you have transplanted your body half way around the globe. There is no pressing need to establish new relationships or overcome differences (or expand culturally) by interacting with the small global village housed within the boarding house’s walls; technologies have made it so that essentially you never left.

The consequences have been myriad. Students often do not even attempt to learn the language or cultures of the other students surrounding them, they immerse themselves entirely in their familiar cultures online and electronically. Microphone-type telephones (they operate like international walkie-talkies) boom across the hallways in an essential dog’s breakfast of languages. Students can walk around the campus while conversing with a group of students across the world doing the same thing. It is the strangest sensation to be in the middle of a technological gaggle of teenagers when there is only one body to account for. Almost every facet of one’s familiar cultural landscape can be recreated or revisited online. It is an unfortunate truth of human behaviour that we often need to be pushed into engaging with an unfamiliar culture by our veritable submersion within it. This is not to say that I am arguing for homogenization, just that part of the traditional boarding school experience is a veritable broadening of horizons by immersion in cultures and experiences unfamiliar to oneself. This is part of the experience touted by organizations as a positive by-product of the residential school experience. This is broken down by electronic and Internet technologies that have gone beyond providing essential connections to home and family to allowing boarders to essentially live at home while abroad. These changes are evolutionary; they are part of the restructuring of modern times, yet the pace that these technologies develop is rapid.

The organization has attempted to control this change by closely stipulating personal laptop specifications, monitoring bandwidth and Internet activity, and setting up well-demarcated times and physical places for computer use. The problem I see is that technology adapts more quickly and more seductively than the control agents can operate. Furthermore, even though the time and medium might be restricted, the cognitive commitment to these cultural bubbles created and reinforced by even the least amount of time online and on-phone cannot be controlled. Also it is a serious infringement on personal freedoms to limit access to home, family, and one’s culture; it is unanimous that no one wants to limit this.

My proposal is limited at this point. I would suggest that the tradition of the school needs to change – clearly the elements of physical isolation and close proximity to diversity that formerly characterized the boarding house experience are negated by these emergent technologies. The boarding school needs to reflect, incorporate, and encourage these technologies in a self-reflexive way – the school needs to create technological systems that foster connections between students through these same mediums. It seems absurd given the physical proximity of the students to each other and the campus, but I would argue that the same effect that shrinks international spaces creates distance where there is none. While monitoring and limiting the use of these technologies is a challenging and slippery slope, creating new, dare I say sexy technologies that will encourage online participation with a local network will be the proverbial carrot to the stick.

1 comment:

KVM Switches said...

Awesome article! It gives a inspiration to do some thing new away from home which would be comfortable niches of home and family and establish lasting.