I recently wrote a post entitled “Wired to Connect” which explored how we are expressing our drive to connect with others in the age of Twitter, Facebook, and MySapce. A few weeks later I read a really interesting article called “Am I Still Here: Looking for Validation in a Wired World” which also explored the idea of “connecting,” but took a more skeptical view of the role of new technology.

The article, by Anthony Doerr, points out the ways in which, through technology, our desire to connect with others can develop into a persistent need for validation. To make this point he introduces us to his “dark twin,” named Z.

He writes, “I like weather; Z survives in spite of it. I like skiing; Z likes surfing the web. I like looking at trees; Z likes reading news feeds. I pull weeds in the garden; Z whispers in my ear about climate change, nuclear proliferation, ballooning health-insurance premiums.” As a environmentalist with a gadget geek tucked away inside, his article struck home with me. Yet, while this characterization seemed spot on, it was something he wrote later that I found particularly insightful. See if you recognize this scenario:

“Yesterday—and this is embarrassing—I checked my e-mail before leaving for work and after I got to work, and I checked it every now and then during the day at work, and, after bicycling home from work, a total distance of two miles, I checked my e-mail again. Just in case a few e-mails flew over my head through the rain while I pedaled home.

It’s disconcerting, it’s shameful. I tell myself: e-mail is work-related. E-mail is work-related and anything work-related is family-related, right? Because work makes money and money feeds the family. Money justifies all. Doesn’t it?

What my evil twin Z knows, and what I am loath to articulate, to even contemplate, is that checking e-mail or tinkering around on Facebook or reading snippets about Politician A on Blog B is not about making money at all but about asking the world a very urgent question.

That question is this: Am I still here?

Each time Z makes me guide the little mouse cursor to the Send & Receive button, he’s hollering into the impossibly complex snarl of underground and aboveground fiber linking every computer to every other: Am I part of this? Am I still here?”

It used to be – just five years ago – when I wanted to get on the internet I would open a little window and click a button on the screen labeled “connect.” Then I would sit and wait, listening to the whir and buzz of a modem. That utterly unmistakable sound, and the process that accompanied it, used to offer a sort of barrier or transition between online and off. Indeed, as the modem squeaked out its mechanical song, you could almost imagine something reaching out across a vast expanse of space, to some other destination, another phone line, another switchboard, another silicone chip.

Now my connection to those other places, those other bits and bytes, is nearly ubiquitous. With DSL and cable modems we are “always on.” This is even more true in terms of wireless internet. With wifi and cell networks the barrier between on and offline is invisible and nearly meaningless (for those of us lucky enough to be on this side of the digital divide). What’s the impact of all this information?

Do I need to visit the grand canyon if I can read about it on Wikipedia, see ariel photographs of it on Google, listen to podcasts by people rafting through it? Obviously, I exaggerate, but on a smaller scale I see myself choosing virtual knowledge over real life over and over again. I have been known to spend so much time researching a gardening technique that I never get around to trying it. Similarly, I spend hours researching bike accessories instead of out on the road biking. Or, using Doerr’s example of email, I have far too often spent hours reading and writing email instead of picking up the phone and talking with my friends.

I recently wrote an extended essay defending devices like the iPhone and Kindle from those who claim that their impact on language and reading is a threat to our cultural understanding. But I did not go so far as to defend them wholesale. Like Doerr, who struggles with his inner Z, I am concerned with the way that information seems to be taking the place of experience. Doerr writes:

“We’re not the first to wonder about all this, Z and I, not the first to sense that maybe our shared life is rushing by too quickly, too feverishly. We’re not the first to feel as if we are scrambling to make our voices heard against an infinite and obliterating silence. […] Memories are fragile, beliefs are tenuous, contexts are temporary. They mean nothing is stable—not mountains, not species, not cultures, not e-mail. The only quantities that ultimately persist are gravity and mystery. Uproar, as Keats said, is our only music.

What did I do today that will still retain its original meaning two hundred years from now? Might it be better, and more lasting, merely to walk home right now, and open the backyard gate, and lie down in the grass? When was the last time you were dazzled? When was the last time you lay down on a block of granite and fell asleep beneath the sky? Our few remaining pockets of unconnected, unwired time—walks, airplane trips, camp-outs, reading a novel on a beach—are dwindling fast. And yet: The Earth is 4.5 billion years old! There are at least 100 billion stars in our galaxy! What could be wrong with shutting down the computer some afternoon and sauntering for four hours through the woods and over the hills and fields?”

Whereas it used to be a process to log on and connect to the web, it is swiftly becoming more of a process to disconnect. It takes effort, thought, and sometimes willpower to not open the laptop lid, tap the iPhone screen, or check your inbox. My son helps though. He has a tendency to stare wide-eyed and smiling at me until I pay attention to him. If I miss the window, those big brown eyes fill with tears and he begins to whimper. The minute I look over, his lips turn upward into a big open-mouth smile and it is in his eyes that I truly feel connected.

This is another place where Doerr hits the nail on the head. He writes,

“I take my sons on a walk. Clouds are blowing into the valley, big and dark and full of shoulders, and the light is low and golden. The sage, blooming in the gulch beneath our house, billows and shines. We try to be quiet; we try to be diligent; we try to breathe.

Am I still here?

All I have to do is look into the eyes of my children, walking beside me through the evening. Yes, Daddy, their eyes say. Of course you’re here, Daddy. You’re right here.”

Go read his whole article at Orion Magazine’s website.

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  1. Andrea M. says:

    i am ashamed to say that i am much worse than either of you. I leave my gmail open the whole time i am on the computer. And being a journalist a lot of my time is spent on there. But more than that, my email alerts me to all of my social activity on Facebook. I feel a need to slowly back away from this all, it feels so surreal sometimes.

  2. Susana S says:

    It is a connection and a disconnection, a world of possibilities to be harnessed and contained. A year ago, before I was on any social network, I wouldn’t have known where to find a suitable lawyer for a disadvantaged niece halfway across the globe, which I just did today – all through Facebook. Yet, also a year ago, I would have taken a weekend off to visit a friend in the same city, instead of exchanging 25-random-things-about-me notes online. As with any ‘age,’ what remains in the center is the ability of humans to find their humanity in the experience – or the lack of it. All of this, after all, is about finding our significance in our existence – be it the pulling of weeds or the plucking of stars, the “-“ sign or the “o” sign of the button, saving the planet or letting a friendship drift off. And I agree – the only thing that would not beg the question of whether it makes sense or not, is the wide-eyed certainty of that all-trusting soul sitting right next to you.

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