I had a crap day, a lonely, afraid, and angry sort of day. So I tried to fight it. I bought a beautiful bouquet for a friend who just found out she is having a little boy in a few months. She is a gorgeous woman—a real friend who constantly thinks of other people and with whom I can be myself, warts and all, all the time. The bouquet—and her reaction when I dropped it off—made a huge difference in offsetting my negative emotions, as did a yoga session I stole at midday. I didn’t achieve “empty mind, open heart,” but I did achieve “I have an hour not devoted to work or my kids.” I was able to reflect on my brimming life and sort out how I was processing it, which was not well, but with light at the end of the tunnel.
The day is ending now, and for various reasons, it’s not a thrilling end. But at least the flowers and the yoga put me in mind of what I think is a crazy important article published last month in The New York Times, “The Flight From Conversation.” In it, author Sherry Turkle writes about how, via social networking and the various technological gadgets we use to “talk” to each other, we’re replacing conversation with connection—and forgetting that there’s even a substitution taking place. If there’s a summary passage in Turkle’s piece, it is this:
In the silence of connection, people are comforted by being in touch with a lot of people—carefully kept at bay.
The article (and do read it if the rest of my post here is to make very much sense) is a mostly a cautionary tale about the way we’re choosing—more and more—to represent ourselves (in public, and also, really, to ourselves) and to relate to each other. I agree with most of it, yet I also think that it ignores some of the beauty of what online social networks can offer people. I think online chatter via social networks offers far more than a narcissistic, heavily edited outlet, and I think it’s simplistic to say the cumulative effect of it is a profound loneliness entailed by connecting rather than conversing. I think it’s ahistorical and nostalgic to imagine that we were fulfilled and engaged simply via our conversations with our offline circles of friends, family, and acquaintances before the advent of the Internet. In fact, many of us were cloistered, limited, and incredibly lonely because we had access to fewer people to connect with (and “connect” should not be a bad word) and became much happier when we could share a laugh or a sentiment over Facebook or Twitter, or learn of something new to think about, watch, or read in the same vein.
All these caveats aside, there are parts of Turkle’s article that so resonated with me. For example:
Texting and e-mail and posting let us present the self we want to be. This means we can edit. And if we wish to, we can delete. Or retouch: the voice, the flesh, the face, the body. Not too much, not too little—just right.
Human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology. And the move from conversation to connection is part of this. But it’s a process in which we shortchange ourselves. Worse, it seems that over time we stop caring, we forget that there is a difference.
I think of all the feelings I experienced today. And all the people I told about them. That would be zero. But I posted a pic and a video of Oliver’s birthday. They were uncomplicated: “Here is my son. He is cute, it is his birthday, and I love him.” Which is fine and good and true. But it is not the whole story. The whole story is more like:
Here is my son Oliver. It was his birthday this weekend and I really struggled to make it work. I freaking hate that it coincides with the Canadian tax deadline. And that North American kids’ birthday parties are getting so expensive and expected and overly planned. It’s so interesting to me that his favourite present out of the dozen at least he got was a dollar-store bug-collecting gizmo packaged with a totally useless magnifying glass. And I feel conflicted when I read pieces like the one in the Globe this weekend, "The Good Mother Doesn't Exist," that scolds women for giving up too much for their kids and not pursuing their dreams at the same time as I know how much my kids need me and how much I need them at the same time as I struggle to stay involved in my practice and industry and holy shit I feel like I’m losing ground and can I just have one full, solid hour to punch something good out and what the hell am I whining about I have so much and why can’t I do yoga without feeling guilty because it felt so sane and real.
I cannot reduce that (and that’s a fraction of the wartish feelings I felt hard today) to a Facebook or a Twitter post. It wouldn’t work, in word count; it wouldn’t work, in terms of how heavy and neurotic it reads; it wouldn’t work, because it doesn’t suit the persona I’ve wittingly and unwittingly created (like we all do) on these platforms. No one there has time for such feelings, and I would hate to subject them to it. I “like” so many people on these platforms and find my interactions with them enrich my day; yet most of them are not the real friends to whom I could vent stuff like this. And I have less and less time with and for these friends—or, as importantly, for and with myself, in terms of sitting with these feelings and figuring out what to do with them. So is there a problem? Yes, I think there is.
One of the more chilling passages from Turkle’s piece:
Researchers around the world are busy inventing sociable robots, designed to be companions to the elderly, to children, to all of us.
One of the most haunting experiences during my research came when I brought one of these robots, designed in the shape of a baby seal, to an elder-care facility, and an older woman began to talk to it about the loss of her child. The robot seemed to be looking into her eyes. It seemed to be following the conversation. The woman was comforted.
As human beings, we are vulnerable, and we are molded by the communication options and technologies around us. Could we be more conscious of the insidious creep of these communications and technologies—and fight back where we feel it’s warranted? Alexandra Samuel wrote an article in The Atlantic in reaction to Turkle’s piece, with the lead-in: “Sherry Turkle writes as though digital life is something that happens to other people. But it isn't. It's something we create.”
Yes, in theory. But how much do you, personally, “create” your digital life, really? I mostly react to mine, live with it and try to have fun with it, and sometimes try out a new platform or change a privacy setting. I am not getting all collaborative and “open source” when it comes to my digital life; I don’t have time. I am too busy trying to live a non-digital life that compensates for some of the superficiality of my digital life. Or something like that.
All’s to say: nothing’s simple. Feelings aren’t, our half-wired, half-unwired lives aren’t, and our dividing lines between friends and “friends” aren’t. At the very least, we can think about it, which is what I’ve liked so much about the pieces I’ve referenced in here. And we can remind ourselves, when it doesn’t come quite naturally enough, because we’re too busy, because we could call or text or emoticon instead, to go get those flowers for someone’s amazing news because it matters. It matters a lot.