Friday, November 21, 2014

RMR Vol. 2: More from El Centro de la Raza

A drawn seating chart to help recall names, a check-in pad, and a free-will donation tin.

This is an ongoing series in self and service evaluation. In these posts I utilize analysis questions, reflection approaches, and rubrics that I have gathered over several years of teaching university level Service-Learning courses and apply them to my own service experiences in Seattle, Washington. I am putting my methods under their own microscope. Rubber, Meet Road.


Nobody has a phone.

Ok, I have a phone. And two other people have phones. We are the youngest in the room and stick out like sore thumbs. They accompany their elderly family members to senior lunch and whip out a phone occasionally; one keeps a single earbud in at all times.

The room is not full of longtime friends, but you'd be forgiven for making that assumption based on the hum of voices echoing around the El Centro basement. The majority only knows each other from lunch here. Among other things this leads me to think about how the absence of technology has affected and continues to affect their relationships in this time. Could a room of millennials sit at tables, wait for food, and for an hour each week get to know each other? I assume it would look more like a prayer circle: heads down silently regarding their (de)vices. What I see at El Centro's senior lunch seems to be an increasingly rare tableau in our day and age.

In the conversation on power and privilege, I find myself more acutely aware of how much of both of these I have acquired or was handed at birth, and more often I'm sensitive to the stale backwash that technology leaves in my system, particularly as I approach others. I rarely sit through a meal without using my phone or without several people at the table placing theirs on the table alongside their food. How symbolic. Sustenance adjacent to sustenance. One ingested to give and replenish energy necessary for life, the other an inorganic drain on energy, ejecting us from conversation and presence into the cloud where it's too thick to see faces.

My phone has trained me to multitask. Late last year I discussed with a friend (@whenwherehowe) his New Year's resolution to stem the tendency to follow twitter while reading a book, watch a show while looking up all the actors in IMDB, and other habits of our time. I think this was a discerning approach to deal practically with technological fatigue. It highlights a reality that I hadn't yet appreciated, which is that I am always, forever multitasking when I have the opportunity to receive a text or call while talking or dining or biking with others. I am available to be pulled away from reality into parallel, floating interfaces that are necessarily more pale in comparison to the colors of presence.

I'm trying to remember my early years of college before smart phones came around. I held out for many years, but in September 2012, I ditched my flip phone for the iBrain. It's not true that something died then, but I think it's fair to say something decelerated growth in subsequent months and years. This thanksgiving, we've been pondering placing a phone basket by the front door for our guests and selves. I wonder how that will feel.

To steer this back to the seniors and El Centro, there is truth in what I see around those tables. There is presence, and it must have something to do with both the generational gap and the shrinking gap between life and death for many of them. Who has time for twitter when dementia is setting in and your grandkids have to remind you of their names at check-in? At El Centro, I put my phone away for shame. They don't have time for such nonsense.

The buzzing room holds up a fine microscope to my (de)vice. It's time I looked into it.

This entry grew out of the analysis question, "How are differences of power and privilege visible in your service?" From there, I thought of the power of technology and the inversion of that power dynamic as seen in the folks without it.

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