Minimalism: Killer of connection

Chloe Hansen, Opinion Columnist

The aesthetics and values of mobile-device technology have impacted every aspect of the human mind, but it is the ideals of production and efficiency behind these designs that have altered us. Especially as students, we have been affected the most. The goal of the Apple design team seems to be to churn out a new version of their products every few years that is thinner, cleaner and somehow even less stylized than the model that came before it. Apple’s most essential feature, however, is its incomparably quick completion of tasks. Almost everyone in a modern collegiate setting, especially at Whitman, has a piece of Apple technology that they are inseparable from on a daily basis. Many students, in fact, have lived that way for years, having grown up with unlimited access to the Apple interface. In the saturation of our minds with Apple minimalism, student papers have shortened; sentences have taken up iMessage-like postures and adoption of academic interest occurs for the majority merely as a short prelude to abandonment after we find “success” in it. Can realizing how shaped we are by our devices help us to undo the damage?

In my own life, I have noticed the impact that exposure to the iPhone’s intensely simplistic aesthetics every day has had on me, and it is a restrictive one. Every day that I pursue my field of study, I fight with the urge to complete papers for the sole purpose of finishing them; I find myself pulling away from the instinct to do what recently retired Professor of Philosophy Tom Davis called  “want[ing] the class to be like an app,” where there is a clear rubric for students to ensure they get an “A” in the most efficient way possible. Therefore, we are valuing the same functionality that we expect from our technology in our academics.

“Are you there [in class] to have a memorable experience?’” Davis rhetorically asked. Are we, as students, attending class just to get an “A” and move on? Though it is difficult to admit, taking a class and really following your interest in it to its conclusion is not the default of the “app-minded” – i.e. the students who have grown up with apps teaching them to value efficiency above everything (meaning, all of us). This “radical contraction of emotional range” as Davis calls it, is a sort of epidemic with no cure except to struggle against submergence. He draws a distinction between “problems” and “enigmas” – the modern student approaches the academic world as a series of problems to be solved and then forgotten. The problem solving that apps do (i.e. Google answers questions as fast and as efficiently as it can) is making students seek the momentary satisfaction of completing a task like an app would. This successfully destroys the possibility for problems to be lingering influences in students’ lives (enigmas) that they pursue without desire for their solving

To be a student who will gain something more lasting from their academic world, and maybe even have a fighting chance of breaking the cycle of burning up life in the pursuit of efficiency, means being willing to wrestle with enigma. 

Enigma, then, is one word for the challenges that make life enjoyable on a level more profound than the instant gratification; to tackle them has become something that the student must do by choice. While all this may sound like stubborn Luddism (and perhaps it is), students define what academia becomes. Our capitalist system would gladly enlist us all to work thoughtless, unfulfilling jobs if we do not pursue – be it inconvenient or otherwise – what we really want. If all we read for is a life we will tire of in a few years after graduation, why shouldn’t we instead devote ourselves to speaking in long-form, calling our friends even if it seems socially frightening or walking to our professors’ offices when we’re interested in what they’ve been saying in class? We are all hooked on the avoidance of discomfort, but true connection lies just outside the minimalist mindset.