I once heard an elderly woman speaking about the arrival of telephones in the remote utopian community of Sointula, BC, where she grew up. (The area had been settled by a group of Fins who rowed over to the village’s location on Malcolm Island in 1901, escaping the brutal drudgery of Nanaimo BC’s coal mines.) The onset of phones in Sointula meant that no longer did one have to ‘drop by’ to communicate with a neighbour, a little ‘face time’ was no longer necessary. Something indefinable had changed in her community with the advent of the telephone, mused the woman, wistfully; something was never quite the same.
The use of telegraph wires and Morse code of course preceded that of phones, but it seems to me that the telegram wasn’t guilty of the same social isolation. It wasn’t in your home for one thing, and there was this other human intermediary involved as well, if only to tap out the dots and dashes that your brief missive was translated into. The telegraph was almost a ‘public’ utility.
Nope, it was the arrival of phones that effectively began the physical separation of communicating human beings that we now see fully manifest in cyberspace. Now we are all, in the words of author Sherry Turkle, “alone together” in a virtual world where your physical presence is only periodically, infrequently a part of the communication process. Now we are all sitting in millions of tiny private theatres, connected, but only electronically, and usually not to our neighbours, maybe even not to our family.
We thought of it as ‘hermetic’ when the process first began evolving back in the 80s, when VHS tapes and ‘home theatre’ set-ups began replacing the social experience of going out to the movie houses. We may have made slight ‘clucking’ sounds back then, shaking our heads in mild regret at the passing of the communal event, but the truth is I didn’t regret it, certainly not once larger format TV screens began appearing. I didn’t miss the blaring of ads before the film, nor the people whispering two rows behind me, nor the cell phones chiming in the darkness. But it’s different now; regardless of my original guilty intent, there is definitely something meaningful that’s missing these days, something to do with community.
The web has undoubtedly increased the number of communities on the planet, but the increase is of course in the number of virtual communities, and with the growing number and strength of web communities has come a steady erosion of real world communities. The more we are an energetic member of Avaaz, the online activist association, or a regular voter on American Idol, or a frequent updater of our LinkedIn profiles, the less likely it is we are a contributing member of our real-world community, that realm of people just outside our front door.
And there is something qualitatively different about person-to-person communication; we all know this. The full sonic range of the voice, the subtleties of the body language, the tactile wonder of touch. It’s the difference between a spectacularly flowing 70 mm Omnimax, helicopter-shot image of a wild Rocky Mountain valley in summer, and actually standing in that valley, the sun on your face and the breeze in your hair, smelling the alpine meadow flowers. The first is indeed amazing, but the experiential gap between the two is nevertheless vast.
The web can be part of the solution of course. MeetUp.com is a remarkable resource for putting people who share an interest—everyone from dog walkers to Spanish speakers to Drupal aficionados—in the same room. But individually, it’s all just one more reason to disconnect daily, to go for a coffee, a beer or a walk with your friend.
It’s no accident that the words communication and community share so many letters. In the final, genuine, ‘full-throated’ analysis, the two can both be reduced to electronic words, sounds or images and still be effective, certainly efficient, but they’ll remain digital, as opposed to real.