The other day I was watching a social game show I’ve been following on and off for several years called Big Brother. This show is about several people who go into a house for 90 days and each week someone is voted out of the house by the house guests. They are without any external contact nor can they use phones for those 90 days. They are isolated and kept away from society, voluntarily, on purpose. This is a game.
As of today, there are only five remaining house guests. The eventual winner will get $500,000 and the runner up will receive $50,000. On the episode the other day, the final five house guests were treated with a special gift, a personal concert with artist Bebe Rexa. At the end of her performance, Bebe Rexa asked, “Do you guys feel clearer and less burdened without your phones and social media?” implying a sense of spiritual cleansing and a type of connection with other human beings that may not exist anymore. They all responded with a resounding, “Yes.”
After the show, I started to reflect on that moment. Out of the entire hour episode, that question and response was all I could remember. Why was that such a poignant question? How demanding on one’s soul can social media be? I definitely understand that times have changed (and are changing) and I even get that homosapiens of today have evolved in that sense. I believe in the next few generations, our children will be born with hooked necks. So I get all that, but I wondered how consuming can that really be for people of today where a “cleansing” is needed in order to connect with people?
I have never experienced social media. I’ve been incarcerated for 15 and a half years. When I was last out there, there was no such thing as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, YouTube. The term “social media” did not exist yet. Man, there weren’t even any cameras on phones yet. So I don’t know that life because I have never been exposed to it. Ironically, I’m still considered a millennial.
I wondered what that has done for me and to me. I see benefits and negatives in both. For one, I have been able to communicate with people, face to face, no distractions of phones. There is a lot of active listening and observance of body language and even analyzing facial expressions as they happen. It can be that attentive. This has allowed me to actually give my undivided attention to not just what people are saying, but what they are truly feeling and going through in their lives. I feel like I can “be there” for people on a genuine, all encompassing regard. On the other hand, I wonder if those “people skills” will be useful whenever I do return back to society. Though I may be attentive, will my company also be present? Or will I be so removed from how society functions that adjusting to people and finding ways to connect will be difficult for me? And lets say I fully integrate. Meaning, I learn everything there is about social media and life with a phone that I completely throw away who I am as a communicator and assimilate into today’s modern human?
It seems as though many of my formerly incarcerated friends who have left here are adjusting really well. Guys like Phil Melendez, Anouthinh Pangthong, Antoine “Aziz” Brown and Shadeed Wallace-Stepter. From what I hear, they have embraced social media wholeheartedly and apparently the learning experience has been riotous. Aziz has photoshopped himself between two lions on Facebook and Phil has already walked into a glass door while entrenched in his phone. Also from what I hear, they over-post stuff. Helarious. It’s funny, some people who know me say that I will take endless selfies. Others say I will post incessantly as well. Who knows. I do know one thing, I will never fall into a pond or walk into glass door. (I hope).
Credit: Abdul Aziz on Facebook
Either way, I believe what I fear most is losing a sense of genuine connection. I want trust, care, attentiveness and a sincere and safe sense of interdependence to be a part of all my close relationships. It is something I have been seeking my entire life. I feel like I found some of that while incarcerated, but whenever I depart from these walls, those close-kit trusted relationships will be left behind with my mattress.
As these house guests continue to vote each other out, and when the show ends, they will all return back to their regular lives. They will be able to get to their phones, go back on social media, and get immersed back into today’s evolved society. I wonder how many of them will remember those 90 days spent without phones and social media and how those days were spent connecting on intimate levels they have perhaps never experienced.
Adnan Khan is the Executive Director and co-founder of Re:Store Justice which he co-founded while incarcerated. Adnan was sentenced to 25 years to life under the Felony/Murder rule at the age of 18. While in prison, he inspired, launched and worked on the Felony/Murder rule legislation (Senate Bill 1437) with his organization, Re:Store Justice. The bill passed and after serving 16 years, in January 2019, Adnan was the first person re-sentenced under the bill he helped create. In addition, during his incarceration, he created FIRSTWATCH, a media filmmaking project produced entirely by incarcerated men at San Quentin State Prison that still produces short films today.
His sentence was also commuted by Governor Jerry Brown in December 2018.
Today, he is continues his advocacy work nationally as well as internationally. He is an Art for Justice Fellow and is on the California Reentry Enrichment Grant steering committee.