Comment, Student Life

Advocating the Detox

There’s an unintentionally funny, tiresome practice ‘trending’ on campus- students are often found completely engrossed in the events unfolding on the screens of their phones and laptops. So essential is this daily practice to their mental and physical well-being that they often ignore anyone who tries to engage them in conversation ­, at best, or listen with their ears closed, at worst.  The few people strong enough to resist the seductive screen stand out in the silent crowd gathered outside lecture halls and classrooms across campus. The pattern of behaviour is so ingrained that it seems futile to challenge, yet there are a number of reasons why doing so is crucial. The most obvious, but regularly forgotten, reason is that an individual should control the technology he uses- not the other way round. For the purpose of this article, the purpose of using technology is to use any instrument or practice that makes accomplishing a goal easier. In the case of social media — for instance, Facebook boasts that it enable users to “connect with friends and the world around you” — the result contrary to its purpose is achieved. And this why taking a break from social media and the screen is relevant to optimizing your university experience.

Production time

Count and record the number of times you check social media over the course of the week, and notice when and where you did it. I recorded about five times a day, usually when I was travelling alone on the TTC or when I was bored in class and needed a shot of adrenaline to stay awake. When I briefly disabled my account — as I (try to) practice what I preach— I realized that a massive amount of effort was required to pay attention to the details around me. Facebook allowed me to access a world away from me, providing me with an escape from the world around me. This had translated into a reduced span of attention that I could successfully exercise in the classroom. Across the world similar symptoms have been observed and the phenomenon has been described as “shocking” because, like me, other students seem unable to absorb the content taught “no matter how riveting the lesson.” Apart from disengaging students with academia in the lecture halls, Facebook and other kinds of social media also provide a constantly available distraction when students are studying independently. Quickly logging in and ‘stalking’ other people, checking the news or updating your own profile routinely diminishes students’ productivity levels due to the large number of minutes wasted.

Maintaining the façade

Before digging into a gorgeously plated meal, almost everyone snaps a photograph of the dish and immediately posts it on Instagram. And if you’re really clever and keen, you can ‘share’ the image on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Flickr. If you’re away from friends and family and cannot control the urge to spread the joy, you can send them the image on WhatsApp or WeChat, along with an implied message of ‘Look what you’re missing’. By the time the festivities are over, the food is cold. When somebody does the same to you, it is likely that you experience a feeling of sadness or inadequacy. The reverse may well be true: what you ‘view’ of other people’s lives, particularly if they are miserable students whining about the hopelessness of college life, you may build up a misplaced overconfidence in your own abilities. Projecting constantly happy versions of ourselves is an inescapable part of maintaining an online presence– after all who would ‘share’ their darkest moments with a bunch of strangers. The point is that apart from greatly compromising the spontaneity of life, and thereby making it a lot less enjoyable, maintaining an image is a high pressure job. The New York Times magazine defines it as “keeping it all up can feel like working as an unpaid intern for a Z-list celebrity known as Oneself.”  In an academic environment as demanding and competitive as the one at UofT, we must ask ourselves if the effort involved is worth the result.

The case for continuous connectivity

There are a number of valid reasons why many of you will turn the page and move onto greener pastures. Now, more than ever before, it is easier to study in groups. Simply create a group on Facebook or create a Google doc and you’re good to go. Most students are part of online course unions and course groups. There is a plethora of advice available from upper years and if your peers are so inclined, the glorious potential of shared notes. It’s a great tool to supplement class attendance and self-study. Secondly, most of student social life is connected to their online presence. A friend, who goes home every weekend, recently commented that he does not miss much on campus because he is in touch with both his friends and the occasionally alive campus life at St. George. As I discovered in my brief, sans Facebook sabbatical, one can and will likely experience feelings of isolation once off Facebook due to loss of knowledge. To keep up with events, you will have to visit campus club offices, read the sparsely decorated soft boards, contact your College Registrar or Programme Coordinator ( if you’re at UofT) and —heaven forbid — actually speak to people you meet outside class. Your well trained fingers will itch to type in the domain name for Twitter and the Instagram icon on your phone screen will look even more inviting. Thirdly, if most of your socializing happens via Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp it will seem — at least for the first couple of days — that most of your friends dropped off the face of the earth. And finally, the scariest part is that since it is unlikely that everyone in your life will concurrently abstain from social media you will feel disoriented and confused about how to proceed because everyone around you is part of a world you chose to abandon. Think Neo vomiting after he leaves The Matrix for the first time.

The aftermath

I have the following advice for anybody, should they accept this mission, braving this dark path

  1. Try to stay the course for one week. On the seventh day decide whether or not to log back in.
  2. Write a diary recording your experience. If all else fails, you can recall, at a later stage in your life, and laugh about that crazy thing you did a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
  3. Make it known to your friends, family and acquaintances when you’re logging off your social media and when you decide to begin using it again.
  4. Set a given time for your period of abstinence from social media. Evaluate your feelings on a weekly basis. It helps build the discipline and allows you to regain control over your technology. Alternatively, it helps to regulate the time you spend on your social media accounts when they are alive.
  5. Fill up the time you usually spend on Facebook with other real-time activities like going to the gym, reading or exploring the city. That way the temptation to log back on is limited.

Concluding disclosure:

I use Facebook to promote this blog, but have deactivated my account so that I am not tempted to share this and future posts there to boost readership. Watch this space to see how I hold up.

Food & Culture

A Sign of Hope

Societies across the world have pursued the ideal of beauty and of perfection over the centuries. In the Age of the Internet this exercise has become a sinister routine, largely due to the fact that our thirst for perfection is fueled by the media and by society. Individually and collectively, we become averse to confronting the more uncomfortable realities of life such as social inequality, hunger and poverty and most unfortunately, human disability. But at the SIGNS Bar & Restaurant on 558 Yonge Street in Toronto, an optimistic approach to the challenges of disability can be found.

A range of food is served- chips and guacamole, Vietnamese Banh-Mi (sandwiches), Pad Thai and the omnipresent Indian butter chicken. The last dish appears to have conquered eateries in the city rather like the British conquered its land of origin, but that rant merits a separate article. The ambience of the place is young and cheerful, enhanced by the smiling staff and by the black and white photographs adorning the walls. The drinks cost from 5-10 $ and each dish is priced between 15- 20$, therefore the description of “upscale” on Google is justified. However, this is an eatery one would want to experience more for the servers working there than the food- because they are deaf and mute.

On entering the premises, one is greeted by the silent but smiling staff and seated by a member of the team who can speak. The speaker introduces the server who will be waiting on the table for the evening, providing instructions on how to communicate with him or her. Taking photographs of the menu, which has been designed to include images instructing the reader on how to convey their order in sign language, is forbidden. But one is permitted to take a photograph in, or of, any other part of the restaurant. Alongside the menu a flipbook, containing information about using phrases like ‘Good job’ and ‘More water please’ in sign language, is provided — presumably intended to encourage the server.

Despite the slightly steep prices and fairly conventional menu, visiting this restaurant is worthwhile. It highlights how lucky most of us are — which is often easy to forget in a consumption driven society — simply because all our faculties of communication are working. Communicating with somebody who is handicapped is very challenging, and one would often not want to do so. When one does, one is likely to feel deep pity towards the other person. In fact, in 2011 CBC News reported that “less than half of Canadian adults with disabilities have jobs”. Diane Bergeron — the national director of government relations and advocacy for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind — suggests that the reason visually impaired individuals, and by extension anyone with a physical or mental disability, have scarce employment opportunities is because of “a perception and an assumption that they can’t do the job.” The beauty of SIGNS is that it takes a factor out of the equation — by thematically structuring an economic opportunity around it. In doing so, it provides the people working there with daily experiences of dignity and respect.