Chen: When You Can’t Catch a Break

​Phone-hunchers are rapidly descending upon campus -- what can we do?

by Kaina Chen | 10/26/17 1:15am

Given any post-2A moment at King Arthur Flour, the monster that stretches from the counter to the door is usually a too-long line of students taking the exact same pose — back hunched, eyes glued to their phone, two thumbs tapping or swiping, the user’s face either pulled into a grimace or an attempt at stifled laughter.

Regardless if you’re the fraternity boy casually holding a massive skateboard or the first-year from Texas dressed in four layers and a scarf (in other words: me, three years ago), a phone grants you an instant pass from social interaction. In true egalitarian fashion, you can avoid anyone irrespective of your social status, the amount of sleep you got the night before or your phone’s battery level.

Yes, you — I see you tapping away on a black screen that is obviously dead.

I am very sympathetic to the phone-hunch. When I’m standing in line, bleary-eyed and tired, there is a limit to how many minutes of lukewarm conversation I’m willing to commit before I reach the caffeine that I hope will provide instant revival. Social interaction is tricky to navigate, especially when it’s with that professor that you had freshman fall who probably doesn’t remember your name but is trying a little too hard to make up for it.

But, to the phone-hunchers that trudge across campus seeing nothing beyond your phone and your feet: Pals, please explain.

The almost-universal adoption of the phone-hunch has flavored my walks across campus with more annoyance but some unexpected entertainment.

Traveling from place to place has now become a game of dodging people. I admit that it is funny to watch the spectacle of two phone-occupied people almost crashing into each other and bikers helplessly trying to navigate a squad of phone-hunchers. Once, I saw a guy in the middle of a frisbee game completely wipe out from a rogue disc. He might’ve been able to avoid it if he was looking at anything but his phone.

Funny, but also a little sad.

We live and take classes on a campus that is often ranked as one of most beautiful campuses nationwide. This school is so manicured that even cables are buried underground to avoid telephone poles marring the campus aesthetic. And we are surrounded by fall foliage that gives New Hampshire street cred as a sought-after travel destination.

Yet, we choose not to look.

Why do we choose to go from place to place hunched over our phones?

My lack of qualifications to provide social commentary about the Dartmouth student body aside, here are a few guesses as to why phone-hunchers have infiltrated campus.

First, the phone-hunch is a way to insulate ourselves in our own bubbles of self-selected social sanctuaries. Phones give us a way to exclude certain people from our social bubbles. Tapping away on a phone is an excuse to avoid eye contact with that person you’d rather not make eye contact with. Phones also give us a way to keep certain groups in our bubbles. Walking around campus can be considered a great time to catch up on group chats, tap through Snap stories and reply to that text you’ve been putting off. It feels good to be surrounded by people you know, even virtually.

Second, we’ve become acclimated to a heightened baseline of information intake. With class, readings and the constant firehose of information and events we receive in our inboxes, just taking a quiet walk from one part of campus to another is jarringly uneventful. Students are so used to constant processing that a few minutes of not taking in information feels out of the ordinary. Unfortunately, the new norm has framed unstructured time to think about anything at all as strange and unsettling. So, we fill that space with the meme page and emails from the campus listserv.

I want to believe that given the opportunity, students would choose to walk without crashing into people and to look up and appreciate our beautiful campus. I’d like to think that Dartmouth students can push past the fleeting comfort of miniature social sanctuaries that is our phones. Because it’s not just on this campus that you see phone-hunchers, but in our generation as a whole. It’s just more lamentable at Dartmouth because it seems like we’re missing out on a lot more.

What if there was another rational reason for the infiltration of phone-hunchers, one that we could provide some sort of solution?

Let’s consider phone-hunching as a symptom of the broader expectation that we must all stay constantly digitally connected. Once upon a time, mobile devices were characterized as freeing. Instead of limiting work to certain places, anyone could work wherever they wanted, whenever. Now, we’re so chained to these devices that we can’t even let them go on a five-minute walk from the dining hall to the library. But the fact remains that when I send an email or a text, I don’t expect an instant response. So why am I always checking my phone?

This idea of staying constantly connected must entirely self-imposed. Sure, social rules exist — it would be bad taste to ignore an email for weeks — but no one will raise an eyebrow if we keep our short travels across campus for ourselves and respond a few minutes later.

So, Dartmouth — I challenge you, selfishly and courageously, to keep those phones in your pockets the next time you walk across campus. Even during the most difficult moments and days, this place that you may or may not call home is beautiful. Sure, some of the beauty is fabricated; there are painters and carpenters working year-round. But most of the beauty is authentic. I see it in the incredible people on this campus — the kind, the determined, the selfless, the ambitious — that create this community. And whether you see it or not, we share this incredible place and get to make it our own.

Perhaps it is because I am a crusty senior on my way out, but I think we can all take five minutes to appreciate being present in this community. That text can wait two minutes, that Snap story will still be forgotten in five. Wave to that person you’re not sure you know — but made eye contact with anyway — because it will be, at worst, a fleeting awkward moment. But it quite possibly will be just a nice moment of connection between two people who are in this together.

See you around, Dartmouth.

Chen is a former staff member of The Dartmouth. She is a member of the Class of 2018.

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