So, the course Digital America is back this fall, but with a twist: the students have to create an “experience” at the end of each unit that somehow relates to our readings/viewings and discussions. There are a few guidelines: the experience has to completed during class, it must be documented in some way, and we cannot break the law. Other than that, it’s wide open. Digital America will follow the experiences of the course throughout the semester on the [link no longer active].

Experience Five: Back to the Land

So, believe it or not, this is it, the final class experience for Digital America. The final group had a great deal of pressure on its shoulders, having to meet and raise the bar, and it did commendably. The class headed off to the James River for a picnic, but there was a catch: during the first half of the picnic, phones were permitted, but during the second half, all phones were taken away. The intention was to analyze how the conversation changed as a result of having no technological distractions, and revolved around the ideas of Sherry Turkle–who insists that digitization is detrimental to communication skills–and Zeynep Tufekci–who argues that digitization is actually helping draw people closer together.

It was the perfect day for a picnic at the James River!
It was the perfect day for a picnic at the James River!

Most students ended up falling into the Turkle camp:

“Although I did not notice others being distracted by their phones during the first part of the experience, I felt that in the second half, some of my classmates were more active in the conversation than they had previously. I cannot say that this is a direct cause of not having one’s phone on their person, but I am led to believe that it part of the reason. Like I said, I think the presence of phone on one’s person can be both a physical and mental distraction. When you remove it from the equation, a person is freer to remove themselves from their reliance on their phone, which gives evidence to Turkle’s argument.” – Brendan

“… when the phones were taken away, even though I had not been using it constantly, I did feel strange and oddly unsettled. I found myself double-checking every so often to see where it had gone. In fact, had the food not been there, (acting as somewhat of a distraction) perhaps I would have become even more restless! Again, my behavior certainly affirms Turkle’s view that not only are we becoming increasingly reliant on technology, but also it is, along with social media, changing the way we act and think. As she notes, ‘We want to be with each other but also elsewhere.’” – Nicola

Nicola snuck in a few Snapchats of the festivities...
Nicola snuck in a few Snapchats of the festivities…

“While it could be argued that the strength of our conversation is evidence of Tufekci’s point, I don’t think our sample of bright, engaged Richmond students represents the average American. Turkle’s examples that she employs to support her claims might be extreme, and as Tufekci points out, she may incorrectly equate social media and social robots, but from personal experience, I think Turkle is on to something when she argues that we’ve come to expect more from technology and less from each other.” – Emily

As Damian pointed out, the strength of the conversation may have been attributable to the context in which it was held:

“As I pointed out to the others, it is difficult to pull off such an experiment during the course of a class period, since the conversation we would be having would be different from any normal conversation, a form of class participation as opposed to merely a voluntary social encounter. The difference between the two must doubtless contribute to the discrepancy between expected results and the actual results. Speaking from experience, though I may from time to time pull my phone out in any normal conversation amongst friends, knowing that I was taking part in a class project shifted my attention and my focus solely to participating and being present, not distracted by my phone, which I figured would hurt my grade anyway.”

 Aisling, on the other hand, emerged from the experience with an optimistic take-away:

 “Overall, this experience actually helped to restore a bit of my faith in humanity and our generation’s ability to hold decent conversation without constantly checking our devices. Turkle has a compelling argument concerning connectivity vs communication, and as I read her article, I found it increasingly easy to nod my head and agree with what she was saying (NYT). Perhaps this article influenced how I imagined the second half of our picnic to be. I had thought that it would be just like the lunch tables I too often sit down at: silent, apart from a few ‘mhmms’ and tapping fingers. I also know how easy it is to appear to be present in a physical conversation while actually being completely consumed by what is happening on my phone. I was honestly surprised and delighted that this didn’t seem to happen during our experience. While I believe that daily life has elements of technology that both nurture and hurt communication, I found that during our experience the technology did not seem to play a large role in either hindering or fostering our conversations.”

The class immensely enjoyed its simple hour of conversation and--of course--snacks!
The class immensely enjoyed its simple hour of conversation and–of course–snacks!

 And Elizabeth, summing things up perfectly, offered a decidedly centrist stance and a call-to-action for her peers in analyzing the implications of digitization for communication:

“Predictably, as I say in many of my experience reflections, I think my solution to the danger of connectedness making us more selfish and separated is awareness and self-reflection. As I mentioned, I feel fairly confident that I have the ability to disconnect and leave my phone behind when I need to. But I could certainly improve, and maybe not pull out my phone at what should have been an exciting and engaging reunion of old friends. I’m not sure there’s a way to restrict time spent on social media for everyone, but perhaps with more knowledge of Turkle’s beliefs, people would be willing to do so on their own. Then, maybe, it would be easier to evaluate Tufekci’s argument and see whose proposal really holds more weight in everyday life.”

It is hard to believe that three and a half months have come and gone so quickly, and certainly it is bittersweet; but even though the students are moving on, new students will arrive next fall, guiding the course forward with new experiences and intriguing perspectives on a litany of important issues.

Experience Four: #cleanURlake

When we last checked in on the Digital America class, they were simulating the digital divide, subjected to a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad hour without computers. Many came to the conclusion afterwards that a real solution could only be brought about through the use of cyberactivism, and so it was exceedingly appropriate that such would be the topic of unit four.

This time around, students were tasked with the responsibility of starting a cyberactivist movement, with a careful balance between the establishment of an online presence and a physical protest. For most of the students, having never participated before in a protest, the experience was a new—and somewhat intimidating—one.

“I was extremely hesitant most of the day leading up to our experiential protest in front of Boatwright Memorial Library. I had already decided that I would not wear a mask or create any sort of anonymity going into the protest as I felt that if I were supporting a cause that I actually do believe in such as the contamination of Westhampton Lake, I should put myself out there and truly establish a position on it. As I walked from my previous class to the library however, to start planning our protest, I felt a deep sense of imminent embarrassment and fear. Putting myself out there and protesting for the lake, with six other classmates, right in front of the library where hundreds of students who I see every day would pass by, was an enormously embarrassing and awkward thought to me.” -Joe

Students protest outside the Boatwright Library. Meghan Rosatelli.
Students protest outside the Boatwright Library. Meghan Rosatelli.

On doubts that online activism could ever replace physical protests:

“…the experience did raise a pertinent issue in the digital age as to whether activism online can ever replace a physical protest. I’m not convinced it can. While it is easy to like or follow an online protest movement, the problems of such “slacktivism” arise. Just because an individual hits ‘Like’ or ‘Share’ on various social media sites, does not solve the issue at hand. It may generate buzz and therefore garner attention in the media, but how long that attention will last is questionable. A new issue may arise and simply push it to the background. This flaw in online activism has seen the failure of such campaigns (I.e. ‘KONY 2012’ and ‘Bring back our girls’ among others).” – Nicola

On cyberactivism and the counterculture movement:

“…it is the physical nature of the protest that as seen in the Anonymous protests and #Occupy that serves as a method for counterculture. These physical demonstrations maintain the values seen in the early days of counterculture with it’s hippie movements, sit-ins and obscure protests. In short, the values of early counterculture are still present today, but the advance of digital society does little to make them more powerful.” – Brendan

Flyers to promote #URecoli and #cleanURlake. Meghan Rosatelli.

On the futility inherent in the comparison of the physical and digital components of protestation:

“It’s impossible to determine whether our ‘IRL’ protest generated the Yik Yak likes, or if they happened without any knowledge that the protest ever happened. It would be easy to say that the online protest was more effective, because it can be quantified by the number of followers and likes. But I don’t think it’s that simple… We are in an age where online protests and ‘IRL’ protests go hand in hand, and valuing one over the other based solely on effectiveness holds the potential of threatening their dual significance.” – Emily

A composite of several images of the #cleanURlake's social network accounts. Nicola Freedman.
A composite of several images of the #cleanURlake’s social network accounts. Nicola Freedman.

On cyberactivism via social networking mediums:

“At first I was pleased with the followers and likes coming through on the Instagram page, however, as I saw more and more friends throughout the week, my feelings changed. I noticed that I was constantly being asked about ‘this eco friendly Instagram page.’ I realized that, for the most part, the people who had followed the account didn’t actually know what they were following. They had only followed it because I had asked them to. They did it for [me] as opposed to @cleanURlake.” – Aisling

On the potential failure of students to keep the movement going:

If students fail to [continue the online campaign], it offers a pungent reminder that in many cases, the users of the Internet are too busy—or too disinterested—to use the freedom at their disposal to do something constructive. Students need to ask themselves why we move on so quickly, why we forget about the movements about which we once professed to care. I recognize that not every student in the class cares about the lake (though they should), and not every student will feel compelled to continuing working to have the lake cleaned. For those students who are concerned, though, we need to be asking these questions, and considering the implications.” -Damian

Damian also created a YouTube video, which can be accessed below:

And, finally, Elizabeth had a more optimistic conclusion to draw:

“…anyone who searches, intentionally or not, #ispyecoli or #cleanURlake online will discover our various social media outlets. This is still a powerful notion to me, even if nothing ever comes of the project, considering that we were just eight students with computers and a cause. And this is certainly an instance where I believe that Saskia Sassen is right to argue that with the help of the Internet, the local can become global and vice versa in a sort of ‘feedback loop’ that makes digital technology an incredible tool and creates a new realm for global activism.”

So maybe it was an intimidating experience for many students, but they caught on steadily, and at least they had computers… One more unit, on social networking, lies ahead, as well as one final experience at the James River! As always, we’ll keep you updated.


Experience Three: The Digital Divide

Now that the class has explored the complex role of governments and multinational corporations in the cybersecurity debate, the focus shifted in our third unit to an exploration of those corporations and the economy in the digital age. For this experience, “Team Business” organized an in-class activity in which students would be allotted an hour to research and type up an analysis of digital copyright, answering the question of whether or not it perpetuates inequality. The catch, however, was that one half of the class could only use smartphones, while the other half could only use books, as a representation of the digital divide experienced by countless students across America. The organizing team thought that allowing students to experience the pressure and demands of researching and writing in the digital age without the tools to perform would be an excellent exercise in humility. In responding to the activity, the students had a lot to say about their experience and lessons taken from it.

Nicola Freedman
Nicola Freedman

“As Mark Poster discusses in his book Information Please: Culture and Politics in the Age of Digital Machines: ‘People object to having not enough information, to a lack of access to information, to exclusion from sources of information, to the unequal distribution of information. The assumption in this position is that information correlates directly with life chances. The more information one has, the better one can live’ (Poster 153-54). This activity really put Poster’s theoretical work into more concrete terms, and certainly convinced me that the ‘assumption’ of a direct relationship between opportunity and information delineated here is an accurate one. A continuation of this point would be that the tools needed to access Poster’s ‘information,’ like the computers that house the digital card catalog in the library, also allow people to live better, and in this case learn and work more easily.” – Elizabeth

On the question of whether or not an Internet connection is a human right:

“As I visited the nicer areas of the capital city Santo Domingo such as the office of the microfinance company who was hosting us there, not only were the houses and buildings nicer, there were computers and Wi-fi access relatively available, and average connection speeds. When we visited a suburban school and a rural sugar cane plantation, there was not a sign of any sort of connection to the digital world, and electricity was extremely patchy if existent at all. These areas were shockingly within no more than 15 miles from the nicer connected area of the city, yet the difference was astonishing. I found myself thinking about the argument of digital access and literacy as a fundamental human right, and wondering how I could even consider it when so many people lack the basic water, healthcare, education, and shelter so survive and maintain a decent quality of life, digital access does not even come into the equation.” – Joe

“I thought the experience succeeded in creating an environment that reflected the lack of digital access seen by many students throughout the world suffering from a digital divide. Both groups struggled with the task, and my group especially lagged behind the other due to our complete inability to use the internet at all. For me, this elucidated the struggles that many kids like those featured in Goodman’s article face in school as they do not have the means to complete assignments on time or efficiently.” -Brendan

Students looking up books in the law library. Meghan Rosatelli
Students looking up books in the law library. Meghan Rosatelli

For group B, it was a horrendous experience. Insulated from the realities of the world faced by those less fortunate than us, we had taken for granted our laptops and smartphones and the instant gratification of the Internet. Deprived of those tools, however, we simply could not perform at a high enough level to keep up even with our counterparts in group A, let alone with other students fortunate enough to have complete access to Internet-connected devices.

Though it may seem simple enough to insist that ours was merely a simulation, and not necessarily an accurate depiction of the tribulations faced by high school students from lower-income households, who might not have access to a smartphone or laptop, the fact nonetheless remains that, whether or not we wish to confront the dismal reality of the experience, a considerable contingent of the high school student population relies on public libraries in such a way. As I write, countless students across the country are working frantically to research in a library, wishing they had access to their own computer and failing to find works that apply directly to a paper they are writing. Many are finding that allotted time for computer usage simply is not conducive to the writing of a thoroughly-researched, well-developed thesis. For too many high school students, our experience was not simply an exception; it was the rule. -Damian


In the end, many students may have seen a pathway forward in online activism, the subject, appropriately enough, of unit four. Indeed, more experiences, answers (and many more questions) lie ahead!

Experience Two: Top Secret

For the second in-class experience, group “Top Secret” worked together to design a simulation of the complex interrelationships of key players in the current cybersecurity debate, including Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and Glenn Greenwald, as well as other organizations and entities like Wikileaks, Silicon Valley, the United States government, and Hong Kong.

In designing the experience, the group planned a simulation and ultimately developed a more complex three-tiered structure, entailing not just the simulation, but also a debate in which students had to act in character as their randomly-chosen individual as well as a more future-oriented hypothetical simulation. Students were asked to bring props that would put them into character for the debate.

A bit more about how the experience was organized:

“In regards to the documentation process, we decided to try and emulate the covert techniques favoured by such government agencies as the NSA. Thus during the experience I, along with other group members, recorded the whole conversation using the voice memo app on my iPhone. By doing so, we hoped to emulate the invasive technology employed as a means of mass surveillance by the American government and their affiliated bodies… Moreover, the audio proved useful in triggering my memory of how the experience played out. I also took profile shots of each participant before the experience commenced as a means of enabling the reader to see how everyone approached their prop assignment (pictures can often be more telling than text alone -see end of post for images). Of course, the additional effect of black and white helps to recreate the air of mystery and tension that has always surrounded the world of espionage. Yet, in using my iPhone I was reminded of the opposing forces between freedom and transparency in our digital age. Although my phone provided a sense of freedom in recording the experience in a multitude of ways, I too was essentially using it as a means of surveillance.” -Nicola

Unbeknownst to the rest of the class, team Top Secret recorded the entire debate and published the recording online. We discussed how we felt about being secretly recorded, and ultimately, the students engaged a bit deeper in their thinking.

(Video by Damian)

All in all, the simulation brought a few weeks of discussion to life:

 “To have any hope for the future with regards to the Internet, and reclaiming not only privacy rights but, more centrally, a more globalized and democratic autonomy, one must, to some extent, ascribe to the idealistic notions that pervaded the philosophies of earlier thinkers like Norbert Wiener and still pervade the thoughts of men like Stewart Brand, the late Poster, and even Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. Digital utopianism as a general concept remains a central force in this geopolitical struggle, in the hope that the multitudinous capabilities presented by the digital age may be harnessed so as to tear down the walls of traditional bureaucracies as seen heretofore, effecting a change so revolutionary that it irrevocably alters the very definition of culture.” – Damian

“It made me think about how easily we give ourselves away but yet how horrified we feel when the NSA begins to look for similar information. If you went to Waffle House for breakfast and Instagramed a picture of your waffles, that is perfectly okay, and people will know where and what you ate for breakfast. However, when the NSA puts it on your ‘paper trail,’ you get a feeling that your liberty has been violated. It creates an interesting dichotomy. Although I understand that the NSA/ USA government’s actions run much deeper than collecting paper trails, and I still cannot say I agree 100% with their surveillance programs, it is not hard for me to admit that experience 2 helped me to view the NSA in a new light, and to begin to try and understand it from different points of view.” -Aisling

“The question highlighted what I think was the most important observation I made during the experience: that the discussion of cyber freedom and cyber security is highlighted by the relationships held between multiple parties and how the decisions of one can drastically impact the situations of the other parties. It was enlightening to consider the interactions between figures like Greenwald and Russia, who although are not directly related, indirectly have huge connections to each other regarding cyber security and freedom.  The immersive experience allowed me to look deeper into the decision-making and thought processes that dominate the discussion of cyber freedom and security in ways that reading a book could not.” -Brendan

Though it was not an easy experience to plan, the members of group “Top Secret,” as well as their peers, agree that the second experience was a valuable immersion into the incredibly complicated world of digital espionage and privacy rights.

Experience One: Chat it up

Norberto Gomez, Jr., (contributor extraordinaire to Digital America) allowed the class to chat on his throwback 90s chat room LA Live Chat. The graphic says it all, and the experience was a hilarious cross-talking hour of 90s nostalgia. Students noticed that they could not multitask on the chat, nor could they really keep track of any one string conversation for long. Check out all of the responses on the blog, and, in the meantime, here are some highlights:

I was comfortable with the idea of online chatting because it was something that I thought I had done before, and I had no idea that such a primitive website could throw me off like it did. In reflecting on this experience, I realized that I rarely find myself in a digital environment that I’ve never been exposed to before—apart from downloading a new app on my iPhone, which I rarely do. I suppose I’ve never been very innovative in the way I use existing technology, and I certainly don’t see myself as someone who seeks out new ones—I still had a sliding, not-so-smart phone until about a year ago. The LA Live Chat was something outside of my previous experience with online communication, and it immediately startled me. – Elizabeth

Screen-Shot-2014-09-03-at-9.57.44-pmAlthough I could not have anticipated the difficulties posed by reloading, I was far more surprised by some of the issues I faced in the early stages of the conversation. For instance, for about the first twenty minutes, I simply forgot that I could copy and paste. Instead I was laboriously retyping each username that I was directly addressing. Strangely, it seems as though being on an old-fashioned chat room made me forget about contemporary computer shortcuts, as if for some reason they wouldn’t apply. – Nicola

Once the chat room became active with my classmates and I posting, I began to feel entranced by the experience. In many ways, the chat room conversation was not much different from what I experience browsing Facebook or Reddit now. I found myself refreshing the page as quickly as I could to read through new comments, hoping to stay on top of its conversation. Much like today, if you weren’t the first to respond or add input, your thoughts or comments would be looked over in favor of others. Initially, I distracted myself from the chat room by checking Facebook and other websites, but as the conversation increased I found I was unable to venture away from the chat room. – Brendan

The sort of closeness such an experience fosters is beyond words, something I had cynically doubted, but something I could not help but recognize as the evening came to a close and I typed, with complete sincerity, that I wanted to come back. That was the truth. I would gladly return to LA Live Chat to engage in conversation with fellow users near and far, but the 90s are gone, and the chat room has faded from popularity. Once my class left, the room was, as it likely will remain for some time, empty, and there is something truly sad about that.
 In spite of the melancholy that results from such an understanding, I emerged from the experience nonetheless with hope, only being able to deny the supposed logic behind Gregory Bateson’s cynical rejection of “transcendence.” I have felt that transcendence, and though the dismal realities of the real world may prevent the Internet from achieving the ends towards which Norbert Wiener and Buckminster Fuller hoped to work, if we would reach back into the annals of digital history, to a different time, we could find that idealistic hope that they recognized so many years ago. – Damian