Bridget Weisenburger, Contributing Writer
“When you are providing CPR, you are basically looking down at them while they are [lying] there, and I still remember the looks in people’s eyes. It was strange for me existentially speaking to realize, for some of these folks looking into my eyes, that mine were the last eyes they looked into before they died,” said Dr. Frank Scalambrino, reflecting on his experiences working in a hospital emergency room while pursuing his bachelor’s degree in psychology. Those memories lay at the center of our conversation as we sat on the Cap Bar patio, discussing his life progression from working in a hospital’s emergency room to answering crisis hotline calls to working administratively for non-profit mental health organizations to eventually teaching philosophy at the University of Dallas.
Reflecting on how the experience of watching someone die can lead one to reflect on the finiteness of life, Scalambrino said his experience forced him to relate to time differently. And it greatly influenced what he decided to do with his life.
“I have also tried to take this up in terms of Plato’s cave allegory,” he said. “I felt as though, in some ways, it forced me to ask myself what I wanted to do with my time.”
Time. What influences in our lives decide what we do with our time? That question also brought us together for our conversation on the Cap Bar patio.
“While that’s not the way most folks are brought to academic philosophy, that’s the way I was brought to academic philosophy,” Scalambrino said.
The experience of seeing many people come into the ER alive and die before his eyes led him to reflect on how one should spend every moment of time.
At the University of Dallas it’s common to see people walking along the Mall, phone in hand and all their concentration focused on its digital feedback. They don’t look up longer than it takes to verify they won’t run into a tree or wall. They disregard the birds singing. Many people cross their paths, but there is no more than a nod of acknowledgment. They don’t have time to stop and talk to the friends they just passed; maybe they will text their friends later when they have free time to hang out.
The world is continuing around those absorbed in their phones, but much of what is happening is outside of their attention. That phone has narrowed their field of vision to something that they hold in their hands. Often it’s justified for the sake of efficiency. Or is it that in striving for a quantity of time, we lose quality time?
Students who have taken Scalambrino’s Philosophy of Being class say it has given them a new perspective on the world and on their interactions with other people. In particular, the discussion of how technology has changed human interaction in today’s society has made them reflect upon their use of technology.
Cosette Kulda, a junior business major, said the course made her think about the fact that though Facebook and cell phones can make it easier to keep in contact with those who live far away, they can also reduce personal contact with those within speaking distance.
“I do it, too. I’ll be on my phone texting a person who is 20 feet away,” she said.
She recalled going to parties and watching people who, rather than talking to each other, were sitting on the couch looking at their phones. Yet, they would look up to pose for photos to post on Facebook to show everyone what a wonderful time they were having.
Scalambrino’s class has made Kulda more aware of her surroundings.
“When I am in social situations, I make an effort to put my phone away and actually spend time with the people I am with.”
This new awareness also caused Kulda to consider deeper questions:
“Why (do) I spend so much time chatting with people on Facebook, instead of seeking the company of another person? Why do we spend so much time watching YouTube videos and not going out and making a YouTube video? We lose creativity because we are so dependent on technology.”
In recent philosophy, there is great debate about how technology might be changing how the human person views himself or herself and other individuals. Scalambrino referenced Gilles Deleuze, Heidegger and Adorno as three philosophers who found technology troubling because it lends itself to isolation and a fragmented identity in individuals. Scalambrino said it is possible to see technology leading to mental illness and depression.
“It changes the way in which we encounter others,” he said.
He drew from his own undergraduate experiences in the time before cell phones.
“Whereas you would think that one would be obviously more isolated in a world without cell phones because you couldn’t just call someone up, it seems as though, rather, it is the other way around,” he said.
A chance encounter with a friend could be an “ecstatic moment,” he said. But today ,you already always know where someone is.
“It diminishes the presence of the others because it eliminates the various aspects that made encountering them in a non-cell phone world ecstatic,” he explained.
Articulating some of the dangers of technology, Scalambrino referenced Gabriel Marcel. Marcel would say that technology infiltrates how we view others and ourselves. It leads to a world in which the person is reduced to the service he performs. We see someone solely as a waiter and forget he also has a life, troubles and joys.
Scalambrino did not say that technology is necessarily bad, but that it can lead us to structure our worldview around it.
“Using technology to enhance the project that grows out of our understanding of life is one thing; being able to understand our life in terms of technology is another,” he said.
There’s no question that technology pervades our social interaction and can act as a shield against the intrusion of others.
Dr. Scott Churchill of the psychology department spoke of seeing people at the front row of a concert not just recording the event, but watching it through the screens on their cell phones instead of seeing it directly with their own eyes. “The weird thing about it is that it becomes more important to have the replication of the event than the event itself,” he said.
“You are witnessing it live but seeing it mediated through a smaller screen,” Churchill said, adding that he finds it disturbing that individuals interrupt experiencing a moment to try to capture the moment in a photo for later experiences. In trying to preserve a moment for the future, they lessen their ability to experience the present.
Reinforcing the idea that technology is not so much at fault as those using the technology, Churchill said, “I wouldn’t demonize the medium. It’s really the hands holding it, what you are doing with it, how dependent you are on it and whether you are using it creatively or whether you are using it as a substitute.
“It can complement my already existing social world, but when it begins to substitute for it, then it is out of control,” he said.
Churchill acknowledges the benefits of technology when one is unable to be in the presence of other individuals. He shared an example from his own life: When he was in the hospital after a surgery, he could not interact with others except by means of his phone. In that situation, he characterized his cell phone as a kind of lifeline because it connected him with others.
For those of us on the UD campus, however, with easy access to many fellow students, are cell phones or social media keeping us from having fulfilling exchanges with others? Are they keeping individuals from hearing the birds sing as they walk down the Mall?
At a school where the Core classes place so much emphasis on understanding the human person and the external world through dialogue with the different disciplines, we are called to see the world from many points of view.
This educational goal is consistent with with Scalambrino’s suggestion as to how one might call himself back to the actual world.
“The remedy philosophy suggests is thinking and questioning,” he said. “The first step, it seems, is to become aware of how such a mindset may be influencing the way we dwell in the world.”
In this way, we may come closer to seeing the value of every moment, and we may become better equipped to consider how we will spend it. Technology can help us to see the world as it is. The internet gives us access to a world we may never be able to visit physically, phones provide a means of communication with people who live far away and Facebook allows us to see a little bit of the moments we could not share with our loved ones. This can all be positive, but a danger may come when we slip into passive engagement with the world.
As Churchill insisted, “Make every moment count as if it was your last battle on earth.”
While we may not need the experience of looking into someone’s eyes as they die to wake us up from seeing the world in a passive way, perhaps we should reexamine our interaction with others and really try to see the world and those we care about who live in it.