prisoners of our devices

Watch us all ignore each other. It has become so easy. It has become ruder to reply to a text message late than it is to sit next to someone and look into your phone. It has become acceptable to laugh out loud or smile into your screen without having to explain yourself away. This morning I sat in a meeting with my colleagues waiting for everyone to arrive. There were six of us and it was silent. We’ve learned to ignore the presence of other human beings. We’re not even trying to find things in common to talk about. I’ve worked with these people for eight months and still I don’t know who they are.

I ignore you either because I don’t need you, or because I am too afraid, or lazy to open my person up enough to talk to you. Those can be the only two explanations for opting out of the opportunity to talk to another being. We’re deciding not to see each other. In our most basic interactions, we have a need to be acknowledged, be it a gentle nod of recognition or a smile. The rejection we feel when we don’t get this validation from one another can engender feelings of deep resentment. It is drastically offensive to have someone deliberately not see you. But somehow we’ve made that an acceptable norm, so much so that we’ve been taught to hide our outrage. In fact, it is becoming more unusual to want to engage with others and it is treated as almost suspicious if you choose to. There are so many fulfilling interactions to be gained from the serendipitous meeting of strangers. Or friendships to be made from unlikely quarters. But we keep classing ourselves, into groups that we can interact with and those that we can’t. Someone might be too rich or too poor. Too uneducated or too old, too black or too white, too much of a hippy or too fat. Too unlike you and your circle of people that you have decided are your type. What wasted opportunities.

Why then, do we choose to deliberately not engage?

Primarily, it is fear. Fear of the differences that we’ve decided exist. Or those that we have been told are irreconcilable. And then secondarily, it is the decision that the other individual is so far removed from you that they are not worth your time. Fair enough, not everyone you meet will necessarily be someone with whom you connect easily, but we decide too quickly to write each other off. As though we are so secure in our pre-existing allies that we don’t have enough space to form new bonds. Even if they initially tie us together only loosely. This is inevitably a disservice only to ourselves. We sell ourselves short of a potential relationship with another human being and so the inherent learning that comes with such. Never mind the nourishment of the soul that it does to spend some time.

Society is finding itself more and more inclined to behave in the former, and I suspect it is because we are transplanting our social lives onto an online platform. Our social security is reflected in the number of friends we have on a given social medium and how many symbols of affirmation they adorn our pages with for everyone else to see. We are hiding behind virtual relationships and use these as our yard stick for our connectedness to humanity. We then feel excessively secure in ourselves because we believe we can live out our human relationships online and ignore those that are directly in front of us. Also, if we stand to gain positive affirmation more easily in the virtual platform rather than in the real world where relationships are hard and friends have fights, we will repeatedly return to the former more forgiving scene. It is just easier. Instead of living through those pain staking moments when we first meet people and have to think up things to say to fill those awkward silences we opt out and turn to our screens. We can’t even stand to spend a few idle moments chatting to someone while we wait in a queue. We smile at our private joke shared only on the screens of our exclusive chats.
Having said all of this, it worries me that this is in fact an evolution of human sociality. We have developed ourselves into this. And this is the new and acceptable normal. Groups of people that are so connected, but by virtual ties. We have constructed units of security that exist online and that have made us not need any further tangible interaction. We are happy to live absorbed in our screens and not with our feet on the ground dealing directly with the world. We’re missing out on seeing the subtle emotion in each other’s faces and the nuances that we learn to pick up on only from years of spending time. We tell ourselves that it is enough, but is it really? It is hard to replace the substance of true human interaction. We are incredibly lonely and don’t see enough of each other. When we want to reach out, instead of turning to the person next to us, we turn to our feed and see what everyone we care about is up to. For a few moments it satisfies our need for humanity. But only briefly. The hole empties easily as we feel the loneliness set in. Only this time it is tainted by the feelings of inadequacy and jealousy that social media smears across our hearts.

Was that not the original intent of social media, to bridge the communication gap and connect us? And here we are, sitting with a deepening divide. We would prefer not to see one another. We are under the illusion that we don’t need each other, in all the different forms of relationships we have the capacity to hold. Beyond our immediate friends and people we term as our circle, there are our neighbours, our colleagues, the grocer and the dustbin man. There are souls you will suffer and whose conversation you may feel you will have to endure. And others that inspire you and lift your heart to spend five minutes in the presence of. But at least be alive enough to experience them and re-teach yourself how to engage fully. More than the time it takes to look up from your screen, you’ll regret the conversations you didn’t have and the people you chose not to see.