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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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