Interview with Professor Julia Bader: How has technology shaped social interactions?

In my last column, I expressed my frustrations regarding the current state of dating. Social media networks such as Facebook and dating websites like OkCupid have not only changed how we date, but how we communicate with each other on a daily basis.

My column was inspired by the film Rear Window, a film about voyeurism and modern day alienation. I find it so baffling how the protagonist, Jeff, is more interested in the strangers who live across the street, than the real people who visit him, like Lisa and Stella. I decided to talk to my professor regarding changes in social interactions and about her dating life when she was in college. Professor Julia Bader talks with me about how courting has changed and the role of technology in classrooms

SC: A lot of us — not everyone — but many people in their 20s communicate largely through Facebook and text messaging. Has dating always been this difficult?

Bader: I think there was much more the assumption that dating should be direct and personal. There was a lot of talking. You met people through classes. You found things in common. You went to the movies. You went to museums. You took romantic walks by the East River. You went to the ocean. Not that I want to make it seem like a Golden Age — it was a crap-shoot in many senses, such as the inappropriateness of the person and if they were crude or uninteresting.

SC: We watched Rear Window in class today. In this film, Jeff observes the lives of his neighbors by looking through their apartment windows. We observe people’s lives now through social media. Where do you think this fascination for other lives stems from?

Bader: Well, I think that it’s partly because of our quest for self knowledge. We think that if we can understand other people better, we would be able to understand ourselves better. It’s a way to direct attention away from ourselves. Jeff doesn’t want to think about his own damaged self. By diverting himself and looking at someone else’s failed marriage or a murder, he doesn’t have to think about how he is unable to fall in love or to marry. I also think it is a general curiosity. We live vicariously.

SC: As a professor, have you been able to observe the changes in the ways students interact? Both amongst each other and with you?

Bader: Well, I certainly think that laptops are a useful device to have in class. But it is also somewhat distancing. I don’t actually know what you’re looking at. Sometimes people are writing emails or receiving texts, and so it is a bit of a barrier in that sense. But the quality of the discussions is certainly good and I think students are able to talk at ease.

SC: There is an abundance of information that is accessible today. Do you believe that students have been bringing more varied topics to discussion?

Bader: Actually — I don’t want to sound like an old fogy or anything — but because of technology, I feel that people read less. So in my field, it is actually a little unfortunate that there is this vast source of novels and essays, and that the general population — not just our students — is reading less. When you talk about genre or precedents, people generally have a harder time comparing to other works.

SC: You teach films from the ’40s and ’50s, a time of great anticipation and anxiety. What were the feelings towards technology like?

Bader: The fascination they had with certain types of technology is interesting. The phone ringing, for example, and the idea that the phone will save you if you get to the phone on time. Films would show someone making a phone call and then 15 telephone operators connecting the call to another person. You see, there was a sense of hope in there. That this may be the way that people will hear each other and connect in ways that they haven’t in the past. But the phone is also shown as something that is menacing. It doesn’t ring. It’s this big dark thing in the room that doesn’t ring. And when it does, it is someone who will destroy you, like a killer. I think that there has always been this type of duality in the way we regard technology.