Cyberspace has changed social space

Safe, Sane and Consensual

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“When do you leave the country?”

The Canadian customs officer scowled as if I had just insulted his mom. My one-way plane ticket into Vancouver had landed me in a strange, bare interrogation room with this unhappy man.

Are you kidding? I thought. I’m not trying to illegally emigrate to Canada. I know you have better health care. But it’s cold. And people say “sorry” and “tomorrow” funny. Maybe I could break into a rousing rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Maybe if I sang it loudly enough, you’d believe me. Or at least stop staring at me that way.

“I’m bussing down to Seattle in three days. I didn’t think to print out my bus pass receipt.”

“What are you doing in Seattle?”

“I’m going to Sasquatch! Music Festival with some friends. It’s big. You’ve heard of it, right?”

He frowned. I guess he hadn’t heard of it.

“One of them’s flying in from San Francisco, and we’re meeting at the top of the … um … Space Needle?”

He looked skeptical. I was starting to doubt my own story. Was I really meeting my friend at the top of the Space Needle in three days? We wanted to find each other 600 feet off the ground and 800 miles from home, in Rain City, hopefully without relying on our phones. Maybe we had watched too many movies. Maybe we remembered “Sleepless in Seattle” a little too well.

Or maybe the magic and fun of it lay in the uncertainty — that the two of us could decide weeks in advance on a specific time and place to meet and then just arrive there. Anything could intervene, especially if we stayed off of our phones. People used to do this. They would meet at precise places at precise times, or they didn’t. We used to be electron clouds, and our collisions were statistical miracles. Now we’re electrons frozen in space every time someone texts. And we stop in place — even midconversation — to reply.

Just earlier this year, a woman fell onto subway tracks in New York City while texting and was hit by an oncoming train. She survived, thankfully. People have walked into live bears, mall fountains and manholes while texting. People get into car accidents every day because they’re on their phones.

Modern-day connectivity could be perilous in other ways. What are the health implications of physically scattered social networks and communities? Have we become hyperconnectivity addicts, clutching our phones and checking them compulsively? What does it mean when we devote our attention to people who are not physically present, rather than to those who are?

That’s not to say that more connectivity is terrible for society. We have more access to better information. The Arab Spring would not have had its level of internal and international reach without social media.

But if we shift the scale down to interpersonal interactions and focus on connecting with the people beside us, in this moment, we need to talk about the quality of our connections, not their quantity or their convenience. When we substitute FaceTime for face time and a colon and a parenthesis for a smile, we sacrifice depth of connection. Looking into two little black dots, each less than a millimeter tall, will never be as viscerally soul-satisfying as looking into someone’s eyes and seeing their smile reflected in them.

Modern-day technology offers us the chance to connect. It’s up to us to use it to tune in rather than to tune out. We can be smart about the ways in which we engage with the people around us, whether they’re near or far.

For instance, my 78-year-old grandmother is devoted to Facebook and Skype. She sends me Candy Crush and Farmville game invitations on a weekly basis. I don’t accept because I’d rather talk to her on Skype. Even with my broken Taiwanese Hokkien, I can call her from halfway around the world and nod as she tells me not to go running because I’ll use up my quota of heartbeats for this lifetime. I can watch her cracking Chinese black melon seeds like pistachios as she talks. It’ll be near perfect once someone solves the impossible eye contact problem — you know, where both people look like they’re distracted by something hanging off of the other person’s chin because they’re looking at their screens, not directly into the camera.

In Seattle, connecting meant I looked up from my phone during the tram ride to the Space Needle. Against all odds, I spotted my friend on the other side of the same car. He saw me too, and we waved to each other above the heads between us. We didn’t end up going to the top of the Space Needle. We didn’t need to.

Sophie Lee writes the Thursday column on health and wellness. Contact her at [email protected]