The Importance Of Living And Connecting In Person

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Too often, artists and professionals use digital media to make local connections, forgetting that tweets and text messages are poor substitutes for real human beings. 

By keeping our digital devices always on, we enable ourselves to be dislocated. In the presence of others, it's now commonplace to connect to elsewhere. A message arrives and to keep in touch with people from afar, we lose touch with the real people sitting right in front of us.

The vibration in our pocket signals that we're wanted. In answering, "absence-in-presence" occurs. Sociologists use this term to characterize the fact that our body remains—in the physical sense—but we're no longer there in spirit.

Our face lights up, not with emotion and the rhythms of conversation, but the glow of the screen. We respond not only because we can, but also because we must. Those present tend to excuse our urge to answer. It could be a trivial or important message. We don't know. That is, until we check. This conduct is a fact of life. Social norms have adjusted. To a point, there's no escape. Both on the side of the sender and receiver, attitudes have shifted to accompany this act.

The more we engage in it though, the more we stop living in person. The places that we aren't currently at and the people we aren't with begin to hold credence over those that we're at and with in real-time. Dalton Conley argues in his book Elsewhere U.S.A. that our digital media have fueled this anxiety—a sense that we need be everywhere all at once. "It's that the once disparate spheres have now collided and interpenetrated each other," he writes, "creating this sense of 'elsewhere' at all times." Thus, we're only convinced that we're in the right place, doing the right thing, at the right time, when we're on our way to the next one.

Upon our arrival, the messages, phone calls, and emails keep flooding in. Our distinctions of work and home have diminished. For most, the opportunity cost of not working has increased. The more we earn per hour, the greater pressure we feel to stay ahead of the curve—to just answer one more request. All the while, we fail to acknowledge digital media bias's for dislocation. In his book Program or Be Programmed, Douglas Rushkoff writes that, "By recognizing digital media's bias for dislocation, we are enabled to exploit its strength delivering interactivity over long distances, while preserving our ability to engage without it's interface when we want to connect locally." The key, he argues, is to recognize this bias.

That way, we can choose when to live and work in real places, with real people and when to interact with those further away. By doing both at once, he contends that we run the risk of sacrificing the most fundamental part of being human: our ability to live in person. Worse yet, we start using long-distance technologies to mediate our up-close encounters. Teens do this all the time, they text friends that are in the same room with them. Sometimes, it happens due to the contents of the message and their need for secrecy between the recipient and themselves. In other situations, doing so is more convenient than interrupting the conversational flow. Yet, by using digital media to connect they surrender their sense of place.

And our sense of place matters, because the intimacy of our connections is what makes them special. In some cases, digital media preserve our sanity, allowing us to keep light tabs from a distance. In others, they're the very reason why we're losing it. The lesson here is that we shouldn't always resort to sending emails and text messages in the place of a human body and the thing we're designed to do. To live in person and have real social interactions with real people in real-time.


This post was inspired by Douglas Rushkoff's book Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age, available only through OR Books. It's great!


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