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How does personal digital technology affect how we interact within our campus environment? Such a question, it goes without saying, is of great relevance to our lives as undergraduates. The argument that such technologies — smart phones, earbuds, smart watches, etc. — undermine personal interaction in the real world is not a new one. Here, however, I seek to more concretely articulate, through an architectural lens, the threats that such digital technologies pose to the uniquely spontaneous interactions that arise in our physical campus environment.

There exists a fundamental opposition between the experience of digital technology and that of physical space. Others have already defined such a growing gulf in our contemporary world. “Digitality” is what the Greek American architect Nicholas Negroponte calls it in his book Being Digital, making note of the profound difference between embodying a discrete longitude and latitude and interacting in a digital environment that has few definable physical bounds. While Negroponte does not use the term in his book, I’ll use “physicality” here to denote that human experience of interacting with the three-dimensional space around us, which could previously be assumed but indeed no longer.

It is relatively easy to prove that there is a conflict between these two realms, digitality and physicality. Our limited attention can only truly be in either: if we direct our focus to the screen of a phone as we walk, we pay less attention to the sights of space, building, and/or people around us. If we walk with headphones or earbuds, likewise, we hear fewer sounds from without. In the most extreme case, that of virtual reality, we are totally and intentionally disconnected from our surroundings.

Before focusing on the problems that arise from this digital intrusion, I should acknowledge those advantages, all-too-well understood by our tech-savvy generation, which digitality offers. A legitimate interpretation of personal digital technologies, after all, could be a narrative of empowerment. By “liberating” us, and our communications, from the confines of our physical location, these technologies enable us to construct and reinforce connections between us across both space and time.

Against these advantages, it often seems that the arguments opposing the intrusion of personal technology into our lives are weak. They are frequently vague and nondescript lamentations citing the unusualness of such technologies, compared to traditional forms of interaction. “Why do young people spend so much time staring at screens?” a parent might scoff. I do not wholly buy such assertions, since they can likely be attributed to general discomfort with any new disruptive technology. Such qualms can be overcome with the passage of time and generations.

Yet these expressions of concern still hint at true and lasting risks posed by digital technologies. To discern them, I argue we should turn to the discipline of architecture. Architecture, after all, provides important lessons about interactions between individuals in the physical world.

In particular, we may turn to Mario Gandelsonas, professor of architecture here at Princeton, who explains in his book “In Search of the Public” that “public place […] provides the context for the accidental encounter with the other.”

Indeed, while we may not often make note of it, interactions in and between buildings within our physical college campus are surprisingly unpredictable. These are infinitely numerous, but a few examples suffice: a random crossing between two friends at a Washington Road intersection, the sight of another student just before lecture, or the sound of a friend laughing at another table at late meal in Frist.

To make this point more formally, picture our campus in the middle of a weekday during the semester. At this time, some fraction, likely substantial, of our over five thousand undergraduates are walking from one building to the next, from class to class, lab to lab, dorm to dorm. While the probability of one particular student intersecting with another might be low, the sheer volume of path intersections, especially around central campus, makes spontaneous interactions quite likely.

While we may rarely make conscious note of these interactions, exactly because they are so unpredictable, these are a most distinctive, and special, quality of a college campus. It goes without saying that the pleasant surprise that comes from such an unexpected run-in with a friend, a smile from an acquaintance, or a casual hello to a faculty or staff member tangibly increases the quality of our day-to-day experience. 

In few other built environments are such spontaneous interactions between individuals so frequent. Certainly not in the private realm of the house or apartment we will inhabit once we leave college...

Perhaps it is because we have not sufficiently recognized the importance of such unpredictable interactions that we have so willingly abandoned them for the very different sorts of interactions we experience in the digital world. By “abandon,” I mean our choice to flee the physical world, instead opting for digitality, as we walk through campus. Indeed, it seems to have become essentially a social norm for us to text, write emails, or listen to music as we walk, outside or inside. Perhaps even wearing virtual reality glasses will soon not be laughable any longer!

Embracing digitality as we move through the physical world, while seemingly trivial, has major consequences. Namely, it greatly reduces the probability that we experience those spontaneous interactions described above. By virtue of the phone, or the headphone, or the earbud, we consciously, or subconsciously, tune out all those potentially unique, yet unpredictable, connections that arise in our built environment. In the case of the earbud, the sounds of a friend calling out in greeting go unheard. In the case of the smartphone’s screen, the sight of that friend’s face nearby is left unseen.

I do not make an argument here against the use of personal digital technology at all, of course. Indeed, I acknowledge how these can, and do, foster connection between individuals. I merely make the plea that we use these technologies not at the sacrifice of, or at least with the least possible damage to, interaction in the physical environment. Perhaps by walking to class without earbuds, or not while texting, we may regain some of those special, yet less easily predicted, interactions that arise from a physical college campus.

Gabe Lipkowitz is a senior concentrator in molecular biology. He can be reached at gel@princeton.edu.

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