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meaningful connections

November 22, 2009

Sometimes I think I think too much, but every once in while, those thoughts provoke some interesting questions about life. On the way home from attending a talk at PSU, for example, I sparked an interesting discussion on Facebook/Twitter with the tweet: “Technology has made the world smaller, yet we’re more alienated than ever: how can I feel so alone when the world’s at my fingertips?”

The next morning, my friend, Erica, commented on Facebook:

Our monkeyselves need meatspace, no matter what we can sit and stare at.

While humourous, her reply hit upon an idea echoed by friend, Matt, on Twitter:

“Different medium, same old problem. Connecting with someone still requires effort from two people.”

I replied to both:

And therein lies the dilemma. Sometimes I think we’re like galaxies in an ever-expanding universe: drifting off into oblivion. As the world appears to get smaller with advances in technology, we seem to be drifting farther and farther apart.

And then added on Facebook:

I don’t know. Maybe I just feel that way because I’m so socially awkward, but as I was sitting on the bus last night — watching all the people listening to their MP3 players and playing with their cell phones (not to mention me with mine) — the alienation was palpable.

Perhaps I’ve been reading too much Marx, but I can’t help but feel this invisible barrier between me and my fellow bipedal primates, a barrier that doesn’t feel natural at all.

I feel like the cow tongue of meatspace; nobody likes cow tongue, they’d rather have their Matrix-steak.

Less than 10 minutes later, Erica responded with:

Well, 20 years ago on the bus folks were doing their very best to ignore each other in an analog fashion (newspapers, books). I really think the invention of the suburb and the television have done much more to isolate ourselves.

I think a lot of us feel that barrier, just not everybody admits it. I think it is a common longing of a social animal that no longer lives in communal spaces. That’s why I throw myself into whatever food rituals I can, get out into nature whenever I can, go out on a limb to make connections no matter how minor (smiling at the grocery store at the smallest end of the spectrum, having a child at the greatest end). You do what you can. Most of us have cow-tongue and are relieved when we find out the truth, that others do too. Matrix steak just doesn’t have the nutrients.

I was kind of taken aback by how much she seemed to get where I was coming from. At this point, my friend, Brian, got involved by pointing out the role technology has played in connecting people with one another:

You can’t blame technology; I know many people whose social interactions and lifestyles have improved because of increased connectivity. Think of how many new friends YOU personally have BECAUSE of technology and the internet. It’s probably in the high dozens, perhaps hundreds.

Your friend Erica nailed it: It’s always been this way, as long as we’ve been a society of suburbs. It’s not like there were these rousing and engaging conversations on city buses or subway cars before cell phones, dude.

He brought up a great point, one that Matt had also touched upon via Twitter in response to my “ever-expanding universe” comment:

Says he who didn’t want a mobile. We Twitter / txt more in 2 days than we communicated all last year between your visits.

I couldn’t argue with either of their points, but then again, I wasn’t referring to simple connectivity as much as what I saw to be an erosion of meaningful social interactions and relationships in general. Attempting to address this, I wrote:

I completely agree. And just to be clear, I wasn’t blaming technology, simply commenting on the fact that I can still feel so lonely despite having the “world at my fingertips” via technological advances that have made the world so much smaller. (Seriously, it’s hard to get all philosophically complex in just 140 characters. You know how I usually write. :p)

For example, just being able to communicate with others via things like the internet doesn’t necessarily make those interactions truly meaningful on a deeper, more intimate level. I think there’s more to it than that (e.g., being able to tear down those invisible barriers, etc.).

I mean, I’m not denying that increased connectivity has improved the social interactions and relationships of certain people (hell, I was at ICOK: meaningful social interactions were off the hook!), but I think it’s also made some of them more artificial (for lack of a better word), and even somewhat shallow.

As for the origin of the kind of alienation I was referring to, I didn’t mean to imply that technology was the cause. In fact, I agree with you both that no longer living in communal spaces is one of the major causes. But I also believe that there are other factors involved, factors which have directly contributed to our no longer living in communal spaces (e.g., Marx’s Theory of Alienation).

In the end, I still don’t have any concrete answers, but at least I’ve been reminded of some things I forgot along the way. The most important one being: we’re all more alike than we often realize.

Like Erica said, we’re social creatures, and we all feel isolated at times, even if it’s not always easy for us to admit it. But that shouldn’t stop us from doing what we can to reach out and make connections with other people, whether it’s by smiling at the grocery store, starting a family or responding to a friend’s tweet.


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