Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Byte That's Hard to Swallow

She doesn't own a cell phone. She has no e-mail account. She knows "tweeting" to simply mean bird song, and she would never think of writing on somebody's wall. This old friend of mine went out for coffee with me on Friday, and it was refreshing to share face-to-face conversation without the usual interruptions that motherhood brings—and without the digital distance that has slipped between me and friends both old and new.

This dear friend of mine, my 90-year-old grandmother, never witnesses the non-stop exchange of digital small talk, never sees the volley of information that shoots across my computer screen, never finds text messages popping up on her LCD. She's missing out on an unprecedented level of human interaction. But then I have to wonder: When it comes to human interaction, which of us is missing out more? She never meets the Niagra Falls of data that pours over the rest of us. What she meets are people.

At times, I wish she did have an e-mail address; I could just "shoot her a quick e-mail" to share the latest news and consider my granddaughterly duty done. I could upload a cute photo of the kids and call it "keeping in touch." Instead, what I'm forced to do is come into real, messy, inefficient human contact with her, and it's not always so easy. I can't limit her conversation to 140 characters so that I can get back to the dishes. I have to cover my mouth when I sneeze. I can't answer her replies in my own good time. I cannot multitask while sharing a mocha. Communication with my grandmother takes genuine effort.

So much the better.

Perhaps the greatest downside to all the tech-driven interaction is how little it cost us. There's not much emotional investment in a status update. Not much time commitment in a tweet. Small sacrifice in a text message. And a friendship that doesn't cost much can eventually seem to not be worth much either. Small investments pay small dividends.
But that's not to say that they pay no dividends whatsoever.

I must say, I'm thankful for the way electronic communication and internet "communities" can help maintain friendships through years and across miles. Saying goodbye to those I love has been too common an occurrence, and facebook does help—or at least gives the illusion of helping—to bring us closer again.  Just this week, my brother was offered a job in California, and when he and his family move, the separation will be a bit more bearable knowing that, no matter how far away they are, we can Skype.

Small consolation, I know. But it really does seem better than nothing, and maybe my grandmother will think so too, when moving day actually arrives.

Then again, maybe not. All that virtual interaction may seem like merely slapping a Band-Aid on the bleeding wound of physical separation. I don't think any of us who are being honest could say that digital contact can replace a face-to-face meeting. Still, I'd rather have a Band-Aid than sit here and bleed to death.

It's when our connections with those far from us prevent a connection with those nearest to us, that I think these high-tech blessings become a real evil. If I'm walking through life plugged into a Bluetooth earpiece, I feel exempted from acknowledging the people I pass on the sidewalk. When I'm too busy blogging to an unseen audience to find out what the kids are all arguing about right here in the same house, I've lost the real point of communication. When a stranger cannot ask me for directions because he is afraid to burst the earbud-bubble I inhabit, I've sealed myself off from the flesh-and-blood neighbors I am supposed to love.

Remember that commandment? To love my neighbor? It didn't come with a digital caveat. I cannot plug in and opt out. If he'd been grooving to his own personal soundtrack while texting the friends he'd seen ten minutes ago at the mall, the Good Samaritan might never have noticed the guy bleeding to death in a ditch. What's the good of iPhone contact if it makes me forget how to make eye contact?

Too often my virtual relationships interfere with the living, breathing, sneezing, laughing relationships made through meeting in physical space. ("Oh, sorry to interrupt you, but this is an important call...") I cannot maintain a healthy marriage simply by writing on my husband's "wall" three times a day. Or thirty times a day. You and I can both eat a bowl of Cheerios while we video-conference, but we have not had breakfast together. I can sit on my couch with a cracker and a glass of cabernet while I watch a live broadcast church service. But I can't trick myself into believing that I've just participated in Communion. I haven't. Not even if my TV is a high-definition flat screen. I cannot be there in spirit only. My spirit is stuck inside my body. It's supposed to be.

We're Americans. We're all obsessed with bodies—especially around New Year's Day, when ads for weight-loss products and workout DVDs fill the airwaves, and the word "sexy" flies through the air like the swine flu. But this body obsession seems particularly odd—or, perhaps, particularly obvious—when I notice how disembodied our relationships have become. Ever since AT&T redefined what it means to "reach out and touch someone," we've been losing our ability to do it literally.

Of course, I could have talked to my grandmother on the phone, and I do. But a voice heard from across a small table is far warmer than heard through a telephone receiver. This is why it was so refreshing to go out for coffee with her, my old, old friend—to share face-to-face laughter, to knock knees under the same table, to breathe the same air, to brush doughnut crumbs onto the same paper napkin. To step outside my digitized world into hers—into the unmediated, flesh-and-blood realm of true friendship—was delightful.

Sharing a Verizon connection cannot compare with the connection made through breaking bread (or glazed doughnuts) together—sharing a bite instead of a byte. It's something I should do more often.


Brittany Martin said...

Thank you for sharing your brother, sister, and nephews with us, Hannah, I know you will miss them! I think this means the Griesers should come and visit.

Daniel Alders said...

Great post, Hannah! I really enjoyed it and it was quite refreshing... oh wait, I'm leaving a comment. Would it be better for me to call you? No... maybe I'll just tell you when I see you next. :-)

Becky@ Daily On My Way To Heaven said...

Great post! , so true...Thanks for sharing.

(Found you through Femina.)

Kate Sumpter said...

Hannah, your post was the talk at choir on Wednesday night when a calendar was produced (to solve our issue of "when does Lent start?") and it took the place of the iphone that wasn't fast enough. You mom mentioned this. :)

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