Over the past few weeks, the significance of gathering in the flesh has revealed itself to me and my work buddies. A colleague of ours recently moved out of state and along with her, the chance to “touch base” in person. Some 2,800 miles now separate us, so we “connect” through conference calls—oh, and that lovely service called Skype.
With great speed, both inefficiency and social awkwardness have invaded our conversational space. To set up one of these calls, we send and reply to a hundred emails, spend what seems like hours conjuring up phone lines and access codes.
At last, we’re ready to “talk.” When our colleague’s face appears, and after the exchange of odd pleasantries—e.g., “it looks cloudy where you are today; oh, I like your curtains!”—we notice that our co-worker has developed a taste for staring at our upper lips—and it probably looks as though we’re staring at hers. And akin to watching a bootlegged film, we note an ever so slight delay in the sync between her lips and her speech.
Each time we “talk” like this, we’re left with a what the hell just happened?-type sensation. We sense that we’re less talking with each other, and more at or through each other. We’re gesticulating avatars.
Each of us knows, at some level, that the real, physical presence of the other is necessary for building trusting and caring relationships. That “knowing someone” is only possible through the creative interplay of being together in the same place at the same time.
In person connections are so strong that the only satisfactory way to alleviate the aching sensation of “missing” someone is to be in their physical company. Just as we would feel like we were lying if we claimed to have “seen” someone without being able to physically touch him.
Farmers and physicists know these truths. So do elementary kids and our elders. Yet, a look around at modern interactions reveals a widespread denial of these truths.
Instead of gathering in person, we fire off tweets and Instagram posts. In place of rendezvousing at the cafe, we affix a “G” or “snap” to our virtual chatting. As in the rest of life, we strive for “efficiency”, “interacting” with hundreds on social media, but connecting with none.
But what about Skype or Google hangout? you might ask. Surely, the ability to see and hear someone is a step in the right direction! Let’s be honest: video conferencing can’t touch in person gathering. And in fact, it doesn’t afford touch at all.
Dacher Keltner, a Berkeley-based psychologist explained the imperative of touch neatly in a recent article in the New Yorker: “Reciprocity is tactile. Aggression is tactile. Sex is tactile. It’s the root moral precept of our sense of common humanity.”
Meanwhile, our techie gods labor to devise ways to mimic real, sensual touch. The scientists in the emerging field of “affective haptics” design haptic hugs and handshakes that are transmitted through space. In this world, physical presence is no longer necessary, as humans can “augment reality” itself and send life-like sensations of social touch through enabled devices.
But sight, sound, and touch do not constitute meaningful interaction. Also needed are smell and body language and shared social space. Only the sense-laden dancing of interactive partners can enhance authenticity and genuine bonding. Would we trade in device-enabled “haptic caressing” for the physical caress between mother and child?
Attempts to “enhance social interactivity” via technology will only achieve an awkward, placeless replica of the real, sensual thing. Despite our infatuation with tech-mediated interaction, we must concede that gathering is and always will be the only way to “know” and “have been” with another. The way it’s always been and always should be.Follow SethLaJ307