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The Tech of Connection

"An honest answer is the sign of true friendship."
~ Anonymous

"We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us."
~ Marshall McLuhan

I was chatting with a small group of friends on Twitter recently about human nature, determinism (fate), and what it takes to meaningfully change personal unwanted patterns. The conversation explored the weight of what is predetermined in our given natures versus aspects that remain fluid and open to change; the role of choice and awareness in navigating personal habit, and identifying our "default settings." Needless to say it was a broad, and for me, meaningful conversation.

It struck me then how geography (proximity) has become less important as the Internet changes the nature of communication. Neighborhood pot lucks, the club dance, bridge games and golf foursomes, the exchange of letters and the Sunday visit - these activities dominated my grandparents' generation. Since then, letters have gone the way of email, and paperless post notifications cover everything from meetings to weddings. The post-business day get-together takes place in quick hellos at the school fair, the gym, work conferences. In my daughter's twenty-something generation, Facebook, Twitter, and sites like LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Instagram, create social connection. Updates occur throughout the day, but as my daughter commented, once college ends and careers begin, friends scatter to distant locations. FaceTime has replaced the in-person visit: from grandparents staying in touch with distant grandchildren, to catching up with an old friend on an opposite coast.

So what does all this mean? Are we more or less connected in a meaningful way? Do serious conversations like the one on Twitter count?

Curiously, we are more connected than ever with our professional colleagues, the mere acquaintance, the long distance friend, and perhaps less so with immediate family and loved ones. Relationships are squeezed into brief status updates throughout the day, quick snaps of soccer games and weddings. A few of my friends speak more to their spouses by text message than at home over dinner. Better? Worse? How do you judge? A girlfriend of mine recently remarked that she wasn't surprised she'd broken up with her boyfriend by text massage because it started with a text.

As a society we are raising a generation that will navigate their entire lives through technology ever more absent of the importance (and nuance) of physical contact. My daughter observed that disagreements among her friends begin on social media, spread like wildfire through their networks and abruptly finish with a communication "block." Tech messaging is not couched in the empathetic personal. Digital grammar (or its lack) is frequently dense, stark, and the abbreviated shorthand can derail a message. We read the succinct message and think, What are they really saying here? How do you read between the lines of a 140 character Tweet? Is that sarcasm, gentleness, wryness, or anger embedded in that Facebook update or text? This dislocated communication can be especially difficult in times of stress or disagreement.

"Point of view can be a dangerous luxury when substituted for insight and understanding," stated Marshall McLuhan, the well-known Canadian philosopher of communication theory. Social media is packaged without the physical cues and verbal subtleties that allow us to read between the lines and determine the real message in the medium. And no, emoticons do not count. (But they may help.) The convenience and ease of modern communication is a definite plus, but the loss of face-to-face contact costs us something. As anyone who has met up with a treasured friend at a street corner or a coffee shop will attest - nothing replaces shared laughter, the meaning relayed in a glance, the quick touch of a hand.

The answer is to remember we are people. We are feeling beings. By all means let's use technology to expand and keep connections open, remembering it is our voices and hugs that send voltage down the wire.
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WALLS (1897)
by C.P. Cavafy

Without pity, without shame, without consideration
they've built around me enormous, towering walls.

And I sit here now in growing desperation.
This fate consumes my mind, I think of nothing else:

because I had so many things to do out there.
O while they built the walls, why did I not look out?

But no noise, no sound from the builders did I hear.
Imperceptibly they shut me off from the world without.

I want to tell you the story of a girl, in her mid-twenties, who died this weekend. She was brought into a trauma center Emergency Department in the afternoon, by her friends, who hadn't noticed soon enough she was no longer breathing. Her heart had stopped. Perhaps for too long. Heroin, and valium. They abandoned her then; without leaving even her name. They never came back.

The hospital staff brought her back three times: holding her pulse, holding her to life. My daughter, working emergency CPR, said she was too thin. You felt her ribs cracking beneath your hands. The girl did not make it. My daughter came home from the hospital that night and cried. She's just a medical student, after all. Her own age...the feeling of the ribs...the futile effort. No one wanted to give up.

I said to my daughter, Let's call her April. I think she loved the spring.

It was just a feeling I had. Imagining the probable story of addiction, aloneness, moments of yearning for the walls to come down, to do and see and be all that might be waiting in life. This girl, I felt, believed in spring. Believed in a spring of her own some day. I listened to my girl pour her heart out, knowing she would never forget this young woman.

No one should die unknown or unnamed. Let's call her April, I said. I think she loved the spring.

April is not an unknown. Not to me, especially not to my daughter. I do not know if anyone mourns April. I don't know if her soul is headed into the earth or to a desired rebirth - a chance to try again, better. Perhaps she has simply run her race; ended the life that somehow was built around her, without ever looking over that wall. But I do know she will not be forgotten. Not by us. And I hope if you're reading this, not by you. Say a little prayer for April, will you? Put a flower in a vase perhaps. Light a candle, read a poem.

And if you encounter a wall, or someone trapped behind one - step around it, look over it, lend a hand. For April.

*In keeping with applicable medical privacy regulations, any identifying information has been removed or changed - GB

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