Alright, I concede that a great deal of what I’m about to contemplate can be seen in the light of having lived most of my life in a time when letter-writing was a life-changing art – emotionally wrought and eagerly awaited; telephones were attached to a wall – and refused to accompany us away from home or office; and an overheated car radiator required standing by the side of the highway in the rain waving down help.
And so our banks, bookstores, daily necessities were more than an interaction with keyboard or a mouse. These were unavoidable reminders that we are not alone on this planet – and that other humans (disappointing, aggravating, and occasionally comforting human beings) share our world.
Human interaction looked very different.
I am a professional writer, and that will always account for the necessity of abundant screen time. I wrote for 25 years on typewriters facing blank white papers – and so facing a blank Word Document computer screen isn’t so different. I have no issue with this more modern tool – the process of writing remains solitary.
But I am sitting in front of a digital screen at this moment, and I am aware that I have developed a genuine dependency on my computer, quite apart from my occupation. More and more of my day is speaking with and listening to that eerie sub-human voice emanating from the speakers. This is where my essay begins.
I am, in this moment, aware of the difference between what feels interactive and intellectually reciprocal, but is not. Human interaction is messy: sometimes draining, sometimes filling, and genuinely reciprocal. No stop at the dress shop, bakery, or post office avoids that mess.
Digital interaction is deceptive. Google, Facebook, Wikipedia feel like an exchange. We put in ideas – we are fed ideas. And yet, I had a revelation after a car wreck (now almost five years ago) that knocked me unconscious for an hour or so, left me with amnesia for a week, and then short-term memory loss for almost a year.
Post-accident, it came clear to me that digital face-time drains. It was for me during that year truly apparent that it was a physical, mental and emotional drain. It is inanimate – but not at all like TV which encourages passivity only – not that.
It pretends to be an exchange between humans (emails, chat rooms) but the intermediary – the machine – actually extracts a price of its own. I am neither a psychologist nor neurologist and my observations make no claim for science. I make my case for human community.
We do not build community on-line. We can reach an audience on-line. We can summon folks to a a cause. We may even touch hearts on-line. But we build community when we – quite literally – touch elbows, rub shoulders, and speak our heart-felt words into another scowling or grinning face.