Closer Together But Further Apart
by Michael Camilleri
Today on the way to work I saw a girl with her headphones on, messaging away on a mobile phone. This in itself is not unusual. Indeed, the sight is pretty common in most urban areas anywhere in the world. But what struck me while I was watching her was what this signified. Or at least what it might signify: the changing nature of community and what it means for us.
Until fairly recently community was something that existed between people in a particular space. Community might be found in a family, it might be found in an office, a neighbourhood, a school – community might even be found in a train car. In short anywhere a group of people were concentrated together for a prolonged period of time (whether or not that period of time was contiguous). With the advent of the telephone, though, and subsequent to that the mobile phone and the Internet, community seems less concerned with a particular space. It doesn’t matter any more if I’m living in Japan and the person I’m talking to is in Canada or Australia or hidden somewhere in the mountains of Nepal. Through the magic of technology we’re able to be in touch.
And it is magical. I am not a technophobe by any stretch of the imagination. I love being able to stay in touch with friends back home or make new ones I have never met in person. The Internet was a fantastic escape for me when I was in high school and continues to help me maintain friendships that would have dissipated years ago were it not for email and instant messaging. I’ve recently been drawn into Facebook and I am sure if it had been in existence when I was in high school I’d have lost contact with far fewer of my old friends. As it is it’s helping me keep up with people from university that I might otherwise have parted ways with.
So I started thinking these thoughts in no way as a Luddite. Indeed, I was observing the girl on her headphones while I listened to the Black Eyed Peas on my own so I’m hardly the person to cast the first stone. When I ask these questions, then, they are as much questions directed at my own situation as they are to others. Technology has brought a great deal of joy and connection and I believe our relationships with some people are deeper than they could have ever been without it. Yet I worry what it means when community is all about us: who we choose and when we choose them to be a part of it.
The girl with the headphones was making a statement, consciously or not. She was saying, ‘I’m shutting you out, train carriage.’ She was saying something else, too. She was saying, ‘I don’t need you. I don’t need the immediate people around me to form the basis of a community because I have this phone and it means I can choose who I want to spend time with.’ Is this a good thing, though? Isn’t part of community not about choice? And if choice becomes the determining factor of who is in our community (and not proximity) what does this mean for community as we understand it?
An example might highlight better what I mean. One of the best communities I’m a part of is one I had no choice in – my family. Part of the attraction of this community is the fact that it’s not a choice. My father is always going to be my father, regardless of whether he wants to be or not. My sister is always going to be my sister. This lack of choice makes me feel like I can depend on these people. I know they’re going to be around because where else are they going to go? I trust the people in my family in a way I would find difficult with most of my friends who – let’s face it – could disappear on me whenever they choose.
There seems to me to be an important skill in learning to work with people like this. I can’t choose who my family are and in most cases I can’t choose who I work with. I can’t choose who I go to school with. I can’t choose who lives in my neighbourhood. If I lose the ability to be part of a community of people I don’t choose does this have a negative effect on me? Is that why I wear headphones? Is that why I’m hesitant to talk to people? Am I missing out on meeting new people by constantly living in a digital world of old ones?
While technology can be an excellent tool for maintaining these relationships how deep can they be without physical proximity? I can ‘talk’ to my friends via the Internet but I can’t lower my voice or gesticulate wildly. True, I could describe it with words but surely something gets lost in the translation. We could all read plays instead of watching them but I’m not sure how well that would catch on. There’s something in physical communication that isn’t replicable in the written word. I don’t want to say there’s something ‘real’ about it. I don’t think electronic communication is ‘less real’. It can still make us laugh and cry and feel any of the myriad emotions communication can elicit. But it is different.
An aunt of mine doesn’t bother calling to her children to come to dinner any more. She sends text messages to them. What effect has this had on their community? I didn’t attend my friend’s birthday party but I looked at photos of it online. Was I there? Was I as good as there? If community events are defined as much by who is there as who isn’t there what does it mean if anyone can be there? If there’s no privacy is there intimacy? If a call to dinner is a text message I can ignore is there intimacy? And if there’s no intimacy what does that mean for relationships?
I’m asking a lot of questions and I don’t really have answers for them but that last question does get to something I worry about – the feelings we have towards others. I worry this new communication means the loss of connection we feel with those immediately around us. Once people are reduced to choices it seems easier to ignore our fellow man since, well, they’re not our fellow man, are they? I mean, I didn’t choose them. Our fellow man is the person I want it to be, not the homeless man who lives in the park near my house or the woman I see crying on the way to work. Calls for help aren’t calls to me; I choose who gets my attention and when they get it and if I don’t want to pay attention then I can just put my headphones in and listen to the Black Eyed Peas some more.
Is that what the world of relationships-on-demand means?