empathy, loneliness and the myth of e-connection

Ruminating on things, as I am wont to do.

There was a post this past week (which has appeared before) about the illusion of connection through social media, and how it’s changed our relationships and our interaction with the world. And then I saw THIS TedTALK making the rounds as well.

In many ways I find it to be true… that connecting real-time with people has become more and more difficult (partly perhaps because how I relate to others has changed over time, but also partly because of how society as a whole has changed, too). This is not something new but rather something that has evolved over the last two decades, and perhaps just now shifting into a sort of critical mass, or maybe I’m noticing it more because I am alone.

Let me tell you a story. I met my (now ex) husband online in 1992, we married in 1993. At that time the concept of social media was at it’s beginning; only a nerdy and artsy and military subsection of the populace was collecting ‘online’, a term most non-techie people I’d mentioned it to needed a lengthy explanation for. At that time it was a way for people – who were already inclined to withdraw under normal circumstances – to connect with similar/like-minded people in an nonthreatening environment (because, seriously, were we ever really planning on meeting in real life? No.). We spoke the same language, in a sense. Since the rest of society hadn’t yet succumbed to this disembodied form of communication, real life interaction was still the norm outside of our online escapades, and this forced those of us less inclined or comfortable with direct communication out of our shells.

Over the next decade, home internet access would become like cable connections were in the 80s and most everybody in the developed world who owned a computer was by now connected to it. Many people were still new at the process of communicating via this medium and a lot of it seemed like an extension of analog (written) communication. “Rules” like using all caps to insinuate shouting, emoticon keyboard strokes and other nuances of online communication began to slowly sink in to general public knowledge and usage.

Electronic devices became extensions of hands and ears (starting with flip cell phones, which continued to get slimmer and more portable all the time). People couldn’t seem to be alone even when they were in a private space… accessibility became constant and universal… yet so little was said. Walking the malls felt like every other person had Tourette’s because with their wireless headsets inserted into their ears, they appeared to be talking to themselves. Enter the iPhone – not only could we be reached by phone 24/7, the internet was eternally accessible, all the time.

It may seem as an insignificant byproduct, but for years my ex-husband and I communicated by instant messenger even when we were sitting in the same room, at opposite ends of the living room at our respective keyboards. While we each spent inordinate amounts of time talking over IM and individually engaging in conversations online (I belonged to many online art groups and he had created a bulletin board and was constantly posting to the board, monitoring threads, and was all-consumed by its activities) we seemed incapable of having a REAL conversation with each other (and if you know me at all, you also know that while I don’t necessarily go out of my way to engage in conversation, I am perfectly capable of carrying on an in-depth conversation once I warm to you). Not surprisingly, our marriage deteriorated and eventually ended, but I wonder if had we been pushed to actually connect in real-time, and engage empathically, whether things could have been different. The thing is, I tried to connect on that level and was rebuffed each and every time. I gave up trying after a time. Sometimes I wonder whether I tried hard enough, but the truth is that one person can’t carry both people all the time. Sometimes they need to take turns, and that never happened. It still saddens me, a little, but we all have our limitations.

I also wonder (going forward) what connecting will look like, universally, in light of how things are developing technologically. I see my son using devices all the time and it’s just a part of his constantly-connected environment. I wonder what he would do if he ended up in a cabin in the middle of nowhere without cell connection, internet or electricity. I’m not sure he would know what to do with the internal silence, and frankly I wonder (sometimes) what I would do with it myself, though I at least have some point of reference as to what that might be like, but I don’t think he really does. Do you? Can you sit still, even for -say- five minutes without your hand twitching to reach for your smart phone or your mouse to check to see what is happening online, in your in box, or coming in by text? Bet you a dollar (and there’s a tip jar up top at the left, if you’re the gambling sort), that you will feel a mounting sense of anxiety abstaining.

Back to the thought of social media being central to our social lives, it feels disturbing to me that where print and television media left off, social media picks up, an extension of the bullying that never ceases, especially now that the internet (which for the longest time was free of advertising) is on all-out assault, vying for everyone’s hard-earned money with offers of products and services (and did I mention the ads that one can no longer escape?). And there is something creepy about having our search engine data somehow connect into our social media feeds to offer us “interest specific” ads. What if I’m a writer and I’m writing a story about a pedophile and I’m running thematically appropriate searches – will my Facebook ads then start offering me bizarre things just because I’ve conducted online searches on things I have no interest in outside of my research for the story?

Aside from the ads, even personal posting seems to be masked behind nuance. It’s the ultimate peer pressure venue, where much of what is shared is put through rigorous scrutiny in light of how it will be perceived by the audience. Clothing and style choices are dictated (for example vloggers covering “how to dress for online success”) and have become extensions of real-life criteria, implying that the way we look (even online) determines our perceived value, to ourselves and others. I find this idea extremely disturbing, online or in life leaving no escape from the constant scrutiny of that prescribed “look” that is deemed acceptable. As in the analog world, it seems that online success is determined by the most vocal, and if the big players circle -one with a seven (eight?) figure income- hasn’t yet been breached, it is the yearned after goal. The platform becomes an open invitation for self-made profit and a business networking tool rather than one for authentic connection (or self-expression), and yet we are led to believe that the communication is earnestly a two-way connection because of the familiarity that can be established by way of regular posting.

There was another article that I read last week (I haven’t been able to find the URL for it but will link it if I do) that spoke about how we’ve gone from a needs based society to a wants based one, and how that shift has undermined the fabric of society, skewing it in less than desirable (pardon the pun) ways. That said, there is no turning back from what our expectations and entitlements have grown to become. As the expression goes, we can’t unsee what we have seen. Not only must our needs be met, our wants must also be pursued and for the most part fulfilled, otherwise we are made to feel as though we have lost our purpose (or perhaps never knew what it was in the first place). Maybe the way in which we have the most capacity to recalibrate our perspective (to a healthier place) is in how and what we determine our wants to be, and how we choose to pursue them.

Earlier this week I read about the suicide of L’Wren Scott. I had never heard of her (big shock there, right?). I watched a couple of YouTube videos, one of which was an interview with her just prior to the launch of a new season’s line of clothing. The interviewer was raving about the gold-rutilated champagne lollipops that were distributed at the tables, and she talked about staging an environment that she imagined the girl who would be wearing her clothing would inhabit. Shortly after the suicide it was revealed that her company was in a huge amount of debt. Was the clash between her reality and the fantasy that she painted for all the world to see the cause of this catastrophic conclusion that her only recourse was to end her life, even though her partner of many years is wealthy and would probably, having been presented with the options as she saw them, come to her aid?

I understand where she’s coming from, though. Things can appear pretty grim, and I’ve flirted with desolation enough to know that her solution of choice wasn’t but a stone’s throw away from my own. For the longest time my own life was so empty of all of the things that I wished for it to be filled with that I tried to fill it with things that I thought would be meaningful in hopes that the rest would follow suit. It never did.

Today, with plenty of hindsight in light of my own experience, and also observing others, I question our need to live beyond our resources, chasing after some sort of fantasy that does not genuinely reflect what is happening for real, or chasing a fantasy that is someone else’s rather than our own (once we’ve had a chance to better scrutinize or gain a deeper understanding of ourselves, which if memory serves, is a constantly changing, fluid process). Building the field doesn’t guarantee that “they will come”.

Trying to figure out our way when so many people are yelling along the sidelines, telling us what we should or should not choose, makes it difficult for us to hear our own voice. Even when we do, sometimes our choices become limited in scope and end up being far from what we would choose in earnest if we were in a more opportune situation, though there are ways in which we can be true to ourselves without completely upsetting the applecart, so to speak.

I think this is a global epidemic. We yearn to be accepted by others as something grander than we are because we’ve somehow come to believe that who we are (as we are) is too ordinary or not enough. Or maybe I’m mistaken and this perception is really my own skewed view of the world which I’ve reflected back upon everyone else. Somehow, though, I don’t think so.

Well… that was long-winded. And possibly pompous. Possibly even comPLETEly off. But there you have it, my two cents’ worth.

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