I have an issue with the distinction, really.
The mechanisms may be virtual, but with some exceptions, the people at the other end of the keyboards are not. They’re very real. We are still alive and breathing, sitting at our computers typing stuff like this or tweeting or talking on Skype. The context is different, the tools are technological, but the humans are every bit as real as they’ve ever been.
You can debate the depth of the relationships you forge via online media all you like. You can also debate the role that the nature of that connection has in that relationship, and whether it helps or hurts. But that doesn’t make the relationship any less real. It just makes it dependent on different context.
Anyway, I’m digressing a little so I can tell you this story.
I was traveling alone yesterday, dining by myself at the hotel bar. I chatted amiably here and there with the bartender, exchanged a few pleasantries with the other strangers at the bar who sat near me, glanced up at the baseball score once in a while. I had a magazine with me that I flipped through, and occasionally I hopped on my phone to exchange some text messages or tweet or write down a blog post idea or something for the business.
As he was leaving, one gentleman decided he’d give me a bit of advice.
“You’re going to wear out that phone,” he said with a smile, friendly enough, but slightly admonishing in a fatherly kind of way. “You should really keep your head and attention here in the real world!”
Aside from the annoying thing that is unsolicited advice (which is another post), it’s prompted me to take a stand on something. Your mileage will vary, of course, because I’m not you. You do what works for you. But here’s my take on all of this, and the concept of needing to “be present” wherever you are physically simply because you’re there.
Perhaps I actually wish I was elsewhere in that moment. Maybe the people who are very much real in my life — and most important to me in the moment — can’t be with me right now. Perhaps they’re having a struggle of their own, and I wish I could be with them. Perhaps I just miss them.
Perhaps where I am isn’t somewhere I want to be. Perhaps I’m alone, and feeling that way. Maybe I’m making my moment less lonely with the company of the familiar instead of the unknown, with friends and conversations that I can connect to remotely, because that’s what *I* need.
Perhaps my “presence” is enhanced for me by adding other more distant friends to the mix to include them in my experience, sharing my surroundings, laughing about the crazy guy at the bar next to me, catching them up on my day. Maybe some of them wish they could be here with me, and I’m bridging the gap of distance by sharing with them a little of where I am right now.
Perhaps my anxiety is too much for me right now, and I don’t really feel like interacting with someone I don’t know just because they happen to be here.
Perhaps distance doesn’t mean the same thing to me as it does to you. I don’t think someone in my physical proximity has more intrinsic value than someone sitting on their couch or at their desk over an internet connection. How terrible would that be if our worth as a person were only dictated by our location and circumstance? If we were only relevant where we were in that moment?
Perhaps your world view isn’t mine. Like I said, digital for me isn’t “not real”. It’s just different context, with different degrees of connection. Our relationships have always been on a spectrum, from superficial to intimate. But is a Facebook message from my brother or a text from my dad any less grounded in reality simply because they aren’t physically present and because I’m using a new medium to connect to them? Does it matter if that’s a quick hello or an important family matter that needs attention?
What if I read a book at the coffee shop, doodled in my journal, knitted a scarf instead of using some kind of device? Sat in silence, or watched the baseball game above the bar with intensity? What would your perception of my level of presence be then? Is analog really so much more meaningful than something else?
What if I’m writing a groundbreaking novel on my iPad? Skype chatting with my daughter while I travel on business to hear about her newly lost tooth? Working on a paper that will get me funding for cancer research? Emailing my 90-year old grandmother because I know she’s lonely sometimes, and she loves to get email?
Who are you to determine what makes me present, and where, and how?
Unless my behavior is showing disrespect or rudeness to you directly, I’m not sure why it should matter to you what I’m doing. I’d never be tapping away at my phone if we were having dinner together, because that’s basic manners. But if I’m by myself, I’m the one that gets to decide what “being present” means to me.
It seems to be trendy somehow to dismiss the online world as one that’s devoid of substance, and to criticize those who have chosen to spend personal and professional time on the internet.
I find that horribly presumptuous, not to mention hypocritical in the silliest of ways. We want the technology when it suits our purposes, when it makes us look good, when it enables us or empowers us or befits us. But we’d also like to tell other people how they should be using it, what’s valuable and what’s not, what constitutes a substantive use of time online and what’s a waste.
It’s not up to you. And as far as you’re concerned, it’s not up to me either.
The internet itself is inert. It’s nothing more than a bunch of potential uses, sitting in wait for us to activate them.
It takes us to actually make meaning – or a lack thereof – out of what we find here. And the genie isn’t going back in the bottle. Technology is not ancillary to our lives anymore, it is integral to them. How you choose to embrace that is up to you, but I’ve decided how and where the web enhances my life
So please, if you see me working in a bar or at a restaurant and I’ve got my headphones in or I’m tweeting on my phone, by all means say hello. Comment on the weather. Ask me about the shirt I’m wearing. Strike up a conversation if you like and if you’re that sort of person.
But the way I use my phone or my computer or my iPad is my own, and when I’m the only one affected, doing so doesn’t make me less present, it just makes me present in a different way, on different terms, in a different context. It’s every bit as real to me.
The beauty of these tools is that they really are what we make of them, in our own way.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a Skype call to make.