Human connection in the age of the machine

Technology is silently transforming our relationships and how we connect with each other. We live in an age of intermittent intimacy and virtual vulnerability.

We all have friends we rarely see but who we exchange a few WhatsApp or Facebook messages with every few months or even years as if we’re still the friends we once were. We have acquantainces we know better by their emoticon usage style than their actual facial expressions. And we have exes that still check in with us from time to time by liking a post on Facebook.

Is this normal? To answer this question, it is important to draw a baseline for comparison. Let’s consider that normal was how relationships were 30 years ago i.e. about a generation ago. You would have only really had relationships with people who were physically around you most of the time. You’d see them often, share a large part of your life with them and would grow with them. That is not true today for the majority of us.

The majority of us have hundreds of ‘friends’ on Facebook, most of whom stray in and out of our lives. We meet strangers while travelling, from online dating sites and at random social events and maintain mostly tenuous relationships with these folks. We have à la carte relationships — add commitment to taste. Does this mean we’re slowly losing our ability to connect intimately and authentically? Are we losing our capacity for vulnerability?

The misanthropes are probably wondering if these are rhetorical questions. But I would hazard a more optimistic view. I think that we’re in the teething phase of a new paradigm of relationships. We are being pushed into a world that is challenging our vulnerability like never before. Our emotions are at play more than I think we’ve ever had to deal with before and often with people we don’t really even know that well, which makes it even harder. We anxiously wait for texts from someone exciting we’ve recently met, we’re elated if our photos get tons of ‘like’s on Facebook, we get butterflies if a conversation goes well on a dating site, we feel envious seeing a stranger’s professional success on Linkedin. And all of this may well happen in one day and even multiple times a day. What an assault on our emotions!

30 years ago, the person that hurt you was likely standing in your kitchen making some coffee and you would be quite likely to try to set things right or at least vent your emotions post haste. Today, you’d be more likely to ignore their messages, delete from Facebook and move on. It can be harsh. Add to that the many avenues that offer us an insight into the lives of those that we would not otherwise cross paths with. Cyberstalking is an addictive drug that offers an unpleasant emotional trip.

But despite all of this, I think that ultimately, technology is a positive tool and can lead us to deeper and more meaningful connections with others. Seeking advice on an anonymous online forum offers millions a chance to get out of toxic relationships. The knowledge, thanks to dating apps, that there are thousands of singles around you can keep you from settling in marriage or feeling lonely in being single. You can Google your favourite writer and find out much more about her life than you could have 30 years ago and get a deeper insight into the person and the life whose work you find interesting or inspiring. You can create a blog to express your personal thoughts to millions and are not restricted to seeking encouragement from family and friends who may never understand you or your skill. Your boss may never recognise your talent but that senior colleague abroad that you work a lot with, might. Sure, it’s much more likely today that your relationship ends because your partner decides to move abroad, but there are also so many many long-distance relationships started and maintained today thanks to technology. If we can still be inspired to action by reading the works of a writer that lived over 100 years ago, surely we can trust in real-time connections formed through email and text communication.

Ultimately I tend to believe in the ability of the human spirit to harness its creative power for its own growth. We’re just learning to deal with how technology connects us and that is causing some growing pains but eventually we will be able to harness the power of technology to have better and more meaningful realtionships. As Walt Whitman wrote, the powerful play goes on and we may contribute a verse.

Your anonymous blogger whom you will probably never see, leaves you with the lines of a dead poet from 115 years ago, whom you will definitely never see, both of whom have probably left some impression on you (to different degrees!) despite what technology has done to our lives; and because of it.

“…Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring — What good amid these, O me, O life?
Answer.
That you are here — that life exists and identity,…”
— Walt Whitman

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Originally published at parisinkblog.wordpress.com on October 27, 2015.