A Media Diet of 30-Minute Portions

The first words I entered into my “media diary” this week were: “We%, %ay one”.
Why this cryptic message? Because the ‘ d ‘ on my roommate’s 10-year old laptop keyboard wasn’t working. And why was I using such a thing, you may ask? Well, my laptop broke down, which during the first few days of this assignment, led me to take on habits that aren’t representative of my usual media diet. But that turned out to be a really good thing. “Good” in the sense that I experienced and ‘consumed’ media that I’m not usually confronted with. Instead of falling deep into Internet holes, or writing blog entries for hours, my 2-hour daily time limit at the Cambridge public library (which according to library protocol, have to be broken into 30-min segments to give other patrons a chance to use the computer) forced me to rethink my typical diet. When I set out to do my media diet assignment, I intended to count all “input”, be it a lecture, conversations, videos, etc. as ‘media’. But I couldn’t watch online lectures or complete the assignments for the MOOC I’m taking. No time for long stretches of learning, news reading, or random browsing. Instead, I struck up conversations with people on an entirely different end of the MIT/Berkman “tech savviness” spectrum. Issues of access suddenly became very personal.

And you thought your computer was slow? Try waiting 10 minutes and then repeatedly seeing this fella.

First, everything took longer. Not only because the Cambridge library computers are kinda slow,  but because I had to stand in line to use them for 30 minutes at a time. Within my 2-hour time limit, I spent the first 30 minutes scouring course pages for the semester. Then, since no other patrons were waiting, I got to register for another 30 minutes at the sign-up station. At the second computer I was assigned to, I sat next to an older man who gave off a strong odor and was nervously tapping his keyboard while clicking on pictures of (barely clothed) women in his Facebook news feed. It was hard to concentrate because he was repeatedly cursing loudly to himself. And there were so many other interruptions. Another man came up to me to ask whether I could help him check his emails. A third teenager played heavy metal so loud that I was sure his headphones (or ear drums) would, at any moment, pop out. So I opted for tasks that don’t require really hard, sustained thinking.

Yup, stiiilll looadddiinnnggg

My next computer round took me to computer C1. As soon as I sat down, the librarian asked me if I want to move because next to me, one patron was receiving a tutorial from a student. I migrated again, this time to A3. But alas, I was kicked off the Internet. The system thought I had been on the computer longer than I had. Once again, I went to the sign-up desk, where the librarian she told me that because she had observed me helping an elderly lady navigate her browser and find the refresh button, she would extend my time. Those extra 15 minutes allowed me to get one email written, before the pop-up message “Please save your work now. Your session will end in 0:01:00 min” appeared.

At this point, you’re probably thinking that this is a story about frustration with my unintended media diet. Or about the inefficiencies and shortcomings of library computer stations. And it is. But that’s only a small part. Because before leaving, I decided to talk to the librarian (I’ll refer to her under the pseudonym ‘Mary’) at length about her work. And out of all the media I consumed this week (including that which I consumed with a repaired laptop), my conversations with Mary were my favorite bit of media “consumption”. She told me that she’s learned more about people, about her community, and about public spaces than she’s learned at any other job. Patrons come up to her asking her help to find housing on Craigslist (Imagine how hard it would be to get housing in Cambridge without a laptop to quickly respond to emails!), to draft resumes, to make calls. She told me how the library is a space where a lot of homeless and mentally ill people come, because it’s one of the few public indoor spaces available to them. Especially in the winter, when it’s cold outside and they might not have anywhere to go. Then she told me this story about how the other day, she observed an MIT student standing next to a 80 something year old woman trying to make copies of old photographs to send to her family. And when the student helped the woman who didn’t know how to operate the copy machine, both entered a conversation that challenged them to understand a completely different view of and comfort with technology. (At this point, our conversation was interrupted when the same woman whom I had shown where to find the ‘refresh’ button asked Mary whether she could help her make a call to her bank, which she did).

Cambridge Public Library Computer Room

Issues of access and the “digital divide” are concepts many of us are familiar with. I study these issues, but still use my speedy laptop and tech skills to do so. But this week, I was again reminded of the strange contrast of the world’s tech savviest people living next to other residents who can’t find their browser’s refresh button. And what a difference in media consumption that makes. In addition, the experience got me thinking about the severe limitations of MOOCs in so much of the world, where students watch lectures and complete assignments from internet cafes and other public spaces where noise interruptions, slow internet connections or time caps are at least as big of a problem as in the Cambridge public library. How are you supposed to excel in a MOOC when you’re constantly watching your computer time (or at Internet Cafes, might have to pay for it), or interrupted by noises, other patrons, etc. But the experience also got me to appreciate Cambridge for its amazing librarians. After I got my laptop back, I used RescueTime and paper notes to track my regular media habits much more systematically. You can take a look here, if you’re interested in some thoughts about radio consumption. But this week, the first story about my “diet” left me with a longer lasting bite to chew on (please forgive me for the pun).