Saturday, November 8, 2008

Virtual Isolation

The internet has brought a previously unimaginable sense of connection with the world. We can conduct business, exchange ideas and play with anyone in the world who chooses to make themselves available. We can also maintain closer contact with family and friends very easily, no matter where they or we may be. So I am not for a minute going to denegrate the benefits of the internet. I value the interactions that I have established through it and I believe that part of my life to be expanding rather than contracting. However, I have a concern hovering at the back of my mind. It is a concern not caused by the internet but, perhaps, amplified by it.

We all know of the potential for abuse in the virtual world. Some of those abuses can be viewed as silly, while still others contain an element of danger. Practically everyone with an e-mail account has been contacted by non-existant Nigerian royalty with a golden opportunity to become rich. And anyone with a television has heard of the dangers of sexual predators in chat rooms. And disinformation about everything from political candidates to the satanic nature of soap companies flies around the world at dizzying speeds. The anonymity of the computer enables those who would do ill to do so very easily. This is not the concern I wrestle with, for it can be dealt with with education and an awareness of the potential dangers that exist.

A more subtle problem seems to be that all of this virtual connecting leads to more actual isolation. It could be that those of us who work at home and/or live alone are the canaries in the coal mine in this area but there are a lot of very lonely people out there and there exists a potential for damage in the way we connect and interact in the real world. No matter how many virtual contacts we have, we are still sitting alone in front of a machine.

Our society has blissfully plunged head first into incorporating the internet into every aspect of our lives. We have the convenience of shopping on-line for everything we need and thereby we avoid the hassles and the joys of interacting with others. We don't talk to the friendly butcher or choose which piece of meat comes home with us or hear how his wife likes to prepare it. Sure, that sort of interaction takes longer but we end up with more than pork chops at the end of those visits. We play games with strangers whom we call friends in fantasy worlds that, at times, eclipse real relationships in the real world. And, perhaps saddest of all, when our isolation becomes unbearable, we search for love on the internet by advertising our attributes in the hope that someone will want to share our lives in a more concrete way. We lose out on the look in the eye, the sound of laughter and the real presence of the other who might become more.

In addition, the internet has allowed some of us to totally forget our manners. It is easier to forget small kindnesses when dealing with words on a screen rather than with a person directly in front of us. We can dismiss people out of hand and without explanation because we are insulated from any grief we may be causing. And we can disregard as unrealistic anyone who might want more from us than the echo of electrons on a computer. Furthermore, the speed which with it moves makes it all too easy to come off as abrupt in our dealings with others.

What is to be done? How do we meld this wonderfully useful technology with the needs of our non-technical humanity? It seems self-evidently true that we cannot allow ourselves or our relationships to be limited in this way. It would be crushing to the spirit. I'm not certain what path each individual must take to find balance. Some possibilties: look at everyone you walk past, from babies to grandmothers, and smile; look at every person who waits on you and say thank you; go to the coffee shop and leave your laptop at home and, above all, call that person you've been meaning to call and make arrangements to see them. Do whatever you can to increase the physical world contacts you enjoy so that they balance the virtual ones. Technical savvy is no substitute for human interaction.


Denise said...

I think it's more than internet that's making people feel insulated and able be to abrupt and rude. Road rage for example.

People become what they are because they are too lazy to put forth the effort or care to anything else. Naturally rude vs. naturally nice.

The internet is great for those who are or practically shut ins to have contact with the outside world.

Lorien said...

Ironic thing is that I just plurked this. No seriously, it was more like "Plurk is fun but sometimes I miss the sound of a human voice." I have a strict "no call" policy, I don't call people unless they're expecting me or have asked, but lately my text messages have been, "Can I call you?" There's just something about a human voice, the familiar cadence, the way you can tell if they're REALLY "ok" when they say they're "ok", the sound of a laugh or a sigh. The Internet has made me more connected with old friends who live in different parts of the country, and has introduced me to some wonderful people who I might not have met otherwise (you, for example!), but I am quick to shut it off if a friend needs me to come over, or even needs to call me.