One of my favorite teachers at Carnegie Mellon delights in startling students who are lost in their iPods or cellphones as they walk across campus. He sees their jumps when he chortles “hello there!” as a sign they are jerking from sudden human contact, unprepared for their jerk away from their socially isolating technology.
He has it all wrong.
Waiting for the train this afternoon, I overheard a man in ratty business shoes complaining about frequent rider who talked on her phone the entire walk to the station, and then the entire ride to San Jose.
His conversational companion started telling a story about her new beau, a younger man who insisted on texting her rather than calling her. She held her phone gently in her palm at her side, awaiting the buzz of a new message. I zoned out, heard the train arrive, and climbed to the upper car, and sat across from a man starring deeply into his iPhone.
Perhaps it was the empty seats around me (things are tough all over) but I had a vision of the train car, full of everyone who was truly present there. To a digital native, that train was full not just of the bodies of people, but of the consciousnesses of everyone they were speaking to. I know when I call a friend, I imagine where they are, who surrounds them–I place a part of myself with them. The cell-phone chatters’ companion and the business-woman’s beau stand beside them, and the fellow across from me is packed between all the members of the Scrabble tournament or porn shoot with which he was interacting. Piling around me were entire networks, everyone they could call, their complete community.
I was lonelier. With only a book, I shared my psychic space only with an imaginary Caesar Millan and his dog. I was the isolated one.
Technology, for those who have integrated it into their lives, can put us in constant community. The internet is my long-term memory; with Adium and Skype and Facebook, I am part of a web of pings, a constant stream of messages. I step into and out of that stream purposefully when I only bring a book on the train or a laptop, because I can choose to ignore my friends and limit my surroundings. Even virtual community can be draining to an introvert. But when I finished my book, after starring out at the same tagged buildings between Santa Clara and Diridon Stations, I started to get an itch in the back of my head.
The jungle drums of disconnection beating, I pulled out my phone and gave a friend from middle school a call. We chatted, and arranged a meeting on Thursday for some baking and tea.
I don’t see my need for face to face meetings supporting my professor’s view that my generations’ technology is anti-social; without my phone and the internet, she and I may not have remained friends. I think it speaks to a more complex view of millenial community, one which is built and supported by a suite of virtual and physical relationships. As this vision of flexible, integrated community develops, it will continue to disappoint those who see every new invention as subversive of society.
We still need friends to bake and chat with, even in 2010.
“I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.”–Henry David Thoreau