The spread of media has been seen by some to have destroyed geographical boundaries, meaning that we are never disconnected from what is happening around us. The ready availability of electronic devices in our society means that we have instant access to scenes from all over the world, no matter where we are. Even in the absolute silence of the top floor of the library, we need only plug in a pair of headphones to a computer in order to transport ourselves to the pandemonium of an Eastern war zone or the commotion of an American campaign debate.
Today, the infamous view of the St Andrews community as a bubble is incompatible with this contemporary social reality. The stereotypical image of our community is that the various social commitments and work schedules distract us from the bigger picture and stop us from thinking about issues that affect areas beyond our three streets.
Indeed, the idea of St Andrews as the Bubble is something of which we seem to be proud. Students and lecturers affectionately bandy around the Bubble as a term of endearment, and our student-run television channel is named Bubble TV. However, in spite of this continuing stereotype, the presence of media, the high demand to study International Relations and modern language modules and the variety of different foreign affairs clubs in St Andrews lead to the question: Is St Andrews really an isolated community?
If it is in fact true that St Andrews is just as globally aware as any other town then this is, in many ways, a good thing. One of the reasons for this is that the University of St Andrews has a very cosmopolitan student and staff body. A high level of engagement with international issues means that the foreign students studying in St Andrews do not feel isolated from issues that are close to their hearts. Indeed, the sole aim of many societies is to facilitate a greater engagement with specific international issues, with the Democrats Abroad society and Amnesty International serving as just a few examples.
This said, it is also important for the British citizens studying here to be informed about international issues, so that they can understand how they affect the rest of the community. As Philip Trevisan, the press secretary for the Democrats Overseas society, points out: “What might just look like a newspaper headline to you could actually have a huge impact on one of your non-American or non-British friends, and I think a lot of the time people don’t really recognize that.”
Mr Trevison adds that another positive aspect of students in St Andrews having a good knowledge of foreign issues is that this creates a stimulating environment in which to study. “We have a huge variety of people from around the globe here, and enough viewpoints to avoid it turning into a giant echo chamber, like a lot of universities in the US seem to have,” he says.
Moreover, a certain level of global engagement is also important with regards to our involvement with international aid and charities; if we are not properly informed about different international problems, then we are not in a good position to decide how to react to them. Indeed, the proactive way in which many students at the University of St Andrews have reacted to international issues proves that students here are not only interested in issues that affect our town directly but people around the world. Societies supporting international charities such as Childreach International grow each year, and one student, Tom Mcelholm, even used his holiday to travel to help at a migrant village in Calais.
However, there are without a doubt many complications to being constantly connected to international media. One of the major aspects of this is the depressing effect that the media can have. Mainstream discourse constantly aims to capitalize on the current fear of international terror threats and economic unrest. It is an unavoidable fact that much of the news that is prioritized is negative. This makes the news a much less appealing leisure option at the end of a long day when compared to reality TV or a light-hearted film. (This is doubly true when your day has involved reading harrowing novels on the injustice of slavery or wading through pages of infuriating equations.)
Another adverse effect of international media is that by transmitting footage of extreme violence from foreign warzones to devices in the domestic sphere, it becomes a normal part of our society. Moreover, such footage provides short bursts of shocking images, fulfilling a desire for constant stimulation rather than making viewers think about the underlying issues that have caused these acts of violence. This ultimately stifles the healthy curiosity that is encouraged by our university education and makes us more indifferent to the atrocities that are presented to us through the moderated images that we see on our screens.
A further issue that is particularly relevant to the coverage of the American election campaigns is the issue of the media attempting to stimulate our desire for scandalous headlines. Mr Trevisan told The Saint: “I don’t think the issue with coverage of this election has been so much bias or inconsistency as much as it is the news media’s tendency to prioritize sensational headlines, especially with people like Donald Trump saying outrageous and offensive statements to reach the top of media coverage.” He continues: “It makes it incredibly difficult to discuss policy when all that anyone wants to talk about is what crazy thing Trump said last week, and I think it’s really having a negative impact on discussion both in St Andrews and back in the States.
In spite of the different pros and cons of the hyperawareness that many of us have of the international sphere, it is still possible to argue that the idea of St Andrews as the Bubble is not a completely defunct concept. Some students choose to remain ignorant of international issues; instead of using media resources to research current affairs, they may use them to keep up to date with friends or the entertainment news because watching the international news can provoke a feeling of helplessness. Therefore, there is something to be said for those who throw themselves into making changes for the better on a local level, through council positions or charities, rather than passively watching international issues unfurl before them on the TV. Moreover, on an entirely unintentional level it is still very possible to become so involved in different societies and your degree that you do not even think about foreign affairs on a daily basis.
Even if you actively try not to follow the news, it is difficult not to be subliminally aware of the more important events that are happening around the world. A recent example of a story that most students are aware of is the Brussels attack, especially as some of the students from the University of St Andrews were in Brussels at the time, so the story was given coverage in The Saint as well as gaining traction of social networks like Facebook and Yik Yak.
Taking all of this into account, it seems that the term ‘the Bubble’ might not be the best description of the St Andrews experience. Indeed, Mr Trevisan told The Saint: “I don’t actually think ‘the Bubble’ is a really appropriate term when it comes to international issues or affairs.” Instead, the Bubble seems more suited to specific aspects of our experience: the way in which our transport to and from the rest of Scotland is hindered by the lack of a railway station or that way in which the student experience here can seem idyllic to outside observers. When you look closely into the relationship between the students and staff and the pervasive interest in international issues, it seems that the Bubble has burst.