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Communication in isolation

COM Dean John Schulz on the pitfalls of technology

College of Communication Dean John J. Schulz recently gave the keynote address at the Media Tenor’s Agenda Setting Conference in Lugano, Switzerland, about the isolating effects of new technology and what such isolation means for the communications industry and the nation.

Why were you concerned about the ways young people use technology?

I was inspired by some research that I was doing in preparation for a class called Propaganda, Persuasion, and Public Opinion. It became evident, after several years of teaching the course, that one of the things I needed to convey involved the implications of the need to fill a gap — created due to the absence of civics courses in high school — about the responsibilities of citizenship. That led to a need to alert bright, capable students to a need to become more aware of the world around them and of critical issues that must be part of the understanding of an informed voter.

Then, by doing simple calculations based on several surveys about how young people were spending their time, I realized that none of the content in their areas of focus was in any way meaningful or substantive. We were witnessing a growing number of people who held to the trend in America toward voters growing increasingly ignorant and apathetic.

Equally important, we are seeing a whole generation isolated by their electronic capability, with several grave consequences. My fear is that quality parts of their waking hours away from academia are being spent pursuing infotainment and magazines and TV programs that are cotton candy for the mind.

What are some of the consequences?

A decline in interpersonal skills, conversational skills, and interpersonal relationships. A decline in capacity or desire to communicate much with potential mentors and wise people.

I think it is part of a much larger trend, given the statistics that show this generation’s interest in iPods, mobile phones, Web-surfing, video games, and TV programming that is contrived reality. There seems little time in any week where real life can intervene.

What does this mean for the communications industry?

Increasingly, the challenge for professional people in the journalism and entertainment industries is how to reach people who are actually tuned out from quality journalism, quality films and TV programs, and even advertising, which can be eliminated with the TiVo.

Separately, the issue of whether students concentrate their fine minds on the latest issue of Cosmopolitan or the latest issue of The Economist results in some pretty pessimistic perceptions for the quality of the voting public, the quality of discourse of key issues, and the survival of democracy in America. Thomas Jefferson once said, “There never was, and never will be, a people who are both ignorant and free.”

As an educator, what role can you play in countering this trend?

As an educator, and as the chief academic officer in a college dedicated to message and content and outreach, I have doubled and tripled the numbers of events designed to reach our students with meaningful and substantive thoughts, ideas, and people. The trouble is…attendance at some of these top events is extremely discouraging.

It’s become so much a concern that I have created special tickets to key COM events, and each freshman can use one ticket in this first semester to attend an event and gain two full points on their COM 101 grade. In essence, I’m rewarding them for what they ought to be doing anyway. And I don’t know how to reach out to other classes and students in their sophomore, junior, and senior years.

The exceptions that we see, with students involved here on the campus in everything from Thanksgiving soup kitchens to attendance at the Great Debates, are encouraging. But on a campus of 30,000 students, it’s still a thin veneer of 200 to 800 students at any given time, and mostly the same ones.