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A Digital Canary in the Coal Mine?

jack_solomon
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Recently I received a student journalist’s request to comment on a phenomenon that she identified as a decline in traditional dating practices among millennials.  More specifically, she wanted to know what I think about certain “practice dating” groups that are forming to guide young people in how to behave during actual face-to-face dates.  “Why,” she asked me, “is there a growing need for practice dates, and why are millennials finding it harder to communicate face to face?” Wow.  Sometimes the signifiers just leap out at you. After all, one of the more nagging questions that have emerged in the age of digital communication is just what might happen to human interpersonal skills when so much socializing is conducted via virtual social networks.  The notorious prevalence of vile (and even violent) commentary on the Net is one indicator that digital communication may not be conducive to the development of basic social skills, but that alone is not sufficient evidence from which to draw any conclusions.  One could always persuasively argue, for example, that Internet bile is simply the expression of bad feeling that was always prevalent anyway but now is far easier to express to a far wider audience.  But this practice dating thing opens up whole new vistas of semiotic possibility. Consider: have you ever observed a group of people (or simply a couple) sitting together and obviously associated, but rather than looking at or addressing each other everyone is staring into a smart phone?  The scene is so common that it is difficult not to have observed it. Now, try that sort of behavior on a date. But, wait a minute, that must be exactly what is happening in today’s dating scene, or else why would young people be forming “practice date” events to help each other learn how to interact with someone face-to-face without constantly diving back into the social network?  Somehow, millennials themselves are becoming aware that their social instincts are being reshaped by technology (throw in the growing phenomenon of “sexting” and you can see how even Eros is being affected), and they are struggling to do something about it.  I can imagine sessions devoted to learning how to stare into someone’s eyes, rather than into your iPhone, or learning how just to talk with someone without tweeting or posting Instagram selfies. Now, interpreting such a cultural signifier as the practice date scene is not the same thing as criticizing anyone.  After all, my generation, the Baby Boomers, are accused of having had our attention spans shortened by another technological intervention—TV—and I believe that it is altogether likely that it is perfectly true.  The effects of technology on psychological, and perhaps even biological, evolution are profound, and as the world is swept by the digital revolution, it behooves us to pay attention to the canaries twittering around us.  And when young folks need self-help sessions in dealing face-to-face with young folks, that is a very profound tweet.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.