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College grad's post-traumatic tech syndrome

Gadgets are advancing so fast, new graduate Neha Tiwari senses a generation gap on a recent return to her alma mater.

Most people go back to their alma mater to find change everywhere: new buildings, new faces, a different generation of fashion. But are you supposed to see so many changes when it's been less than a year since graduation? I did.

And I'm not talking about new hairstyles or the predominance of leggings. I'm talking about how much more connected and gadget-laden students at U.C. Berkeley are now than they were when I completed my undergraduate degree and left the campus in December 2005.

Last month, I returned to Cal to do research for a CNET News.com report on college tech. When I was in school there, I never saw so many students using technology strictly for leisure pursuits on a daily basis. What's more, while there were those with iPods back in my day, I still saw kids toting bulky CD players. I didn't spot anyone with a CD player when I was on campus last month, and Walkmans...well, those, needless to say, are practically extinct.

To this bunch of college kids, CD art is as foreign as vinyl. Do I smell a generation gap?

Then there's the way students relate to their music. I got my first iPod, a 60GB video model, just after I graduated. I loaded all 1,780 songs from my library, plus a few podcasts, and have updated it just once since. In contrast, most of my friends who are still attending Cal update their iPods weekly (if not more frequently). Now, I'm no social scientist, but I think this could have something to do with their connection to their iPods. Don't get me wrong, I love my iPod, but I don't feel compelled to update it all the time. I guess I'm not as addicted as my younger friends, who have had MP3 players for a few years now.

There's also the idea of peer-to-peer music versus pay sites. Young people are now more worry-free when they download MP3s with iTunes and other legitimate download sites. I grew up in an age when pirated music was prevalent; to me, the idea of paying for music online is still somewhat strange. I might as well go out and buy the CD for a similar price or cheaper, and get some great cover art while I'm at it. I guess to this bunch of college kids, CD art is as foreign as vinyl. Do I smell a generation gap?

Earbuds aren't the only things in Cal Bears' ears. There are also Bluetooth-enabled cell phones.

When I was in school, everyone had a cell phone--especially popular were those Nokia "brick" phones or some other free-with-two-year-contract cell--but Bluetooth earsets were nonexistent on campus. Also, students these days are getting fashionable with their mobiles--and because of the abundance of styles, picky. Cara McGraw, a freshman with a pink Motorola Razr, complained that the Razr was "thin...but way too thin and hard to hold." Other students seem dissatisfied with their Razrs, as well, while some are anticipating the . One student even said, "I hate my current phone. The technology keeps getting better and better. I'm getting the Chocolate tomorrow."

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Video: New tech goes back to school
CNET News.com's Neha Tiwari visits her old stomping grounds, U.C. Berkeley, and asks: How are you using technology in your daily life?

Cell phone charms also decorate many phones around campus. Back in my day, cell phones were primarily used to call mom to tell her you were still alive. If it dialed, it worked. Forget about phone fashion; it was about functionality.

Speaking of functionality (or lack thereof), Memorial Glade (for those who don't know Cal) is a grassy field in front of the main library where students come to unwind before, after and sometimes during class. Students napping, Frisbee-throwing and socializing are common sights. When I visited the campus last month, there were still the relaxing students, but I also saw lots of kids with their laptops out. I thought they'd be doing anything but homework--surfing the Web or playing around on sites like MySpace.com or Facebook--but I was wrong. Most students were evidently reading for classes using free campus Wi-Fi called AirBears.

Turns out professors are now assigning articles on the Web or in university databases, instead of printing them out or requiring students to buy 5-pound readers at Kinkos to haul around in their backpacks. This seems to be a positive change in terms of saving paper and students' money. But so many people working on Memorial Glade, the epitome of tranquility on campus? How sacrilegious!

I'm not shocked with how technology in general has taken over campus, but rather the rate at which it has. Everyone seems to be in their own tech bubble, either on their laptop, trendy cell phone, or listening to their iPod. On the other hand, there are some things that never change. I was glad to see people handing out fliers for school clubs on Sproul Plaza, the a capella group performing near Sather Gate, and activists protesting the use of readers because they waste paper.

Still, there's a generation out there that will never know what it was like to use a pay phone, typewriter or Walkman. OK, so maybe I didn't use that "antique tech" in college, but I will always be a little nostalgic remembering what it felt like to walk across campus with a practically unbreakable Nokia brick-like phone in my pocket (when phones actually weighed an ounce or two). And I will always remember what my classmates' ears looked like in the buff, without Bluetooth and earbuds.