I wrote this in May, 2002, but my good friend, Jeannie, recently asked for a copy. It’s still relevant. I hope you enjoy it. Thanks for asking, Jeannie!
I spend a lot of time emailing and texting. At first glance, these electronic devices seem to be the best inventions of our time, but zoom in and they start to look like frighteningly inhuman substitutes for communication. Email and text hasten the pace of life in a way that seems unnatural, even unnecessary. Worse, I feel this type of communication is creating a new dimension in human relationships that is built on virtual space; where, in places of isolation, feelings of warmth and conviviality are cleverly mimicked and carelessly traded.
I often sit in front of my laptop and gape at the nature and content of letters I get from total strangers. The Internet seems to unleash a side of us that is completely unafraid to swap intimacies because, without a human witness, we feel protected–uncharacteristically bold—free to say things we normally wouldn’t; as if the things we say online and via text are not things we are completely responsible for but words we can let loose and then hide behind.
I know I am guilty of the same crime; that I have crossed boundaries I should not have. I know that I have also fallen for the false illusion of intimacy and privacy from this one-dimensional screen that seems to have enticed an entire population to engage in virtual familiarity. It has become too easy to start a correspondence with people you don’t know and then think you have genuine friendships going. Pretty soon you expect certain names to appear in your mailbox and start to feel anxious when a day (horrors, a full day!) passes without so much as a forwarded joke from your newfound buddies.
Email and text operate on a whole new dimension of time, not unlike the tenuous world of credit where transactions are made upon the idea of money. We can be with so many people simultaneously: discussing our children with their teachers, exchanging silly jokes with a friend, flirting with our boyfriends, commiserating with a sister—most likely when we are stuck in traffic en route to a real time, face-to-face appointment. I wonder where this is taking human relationships. I worry about what it does to the natural rhythm of the human soul.
The only person, as far as I know, who has written anything about it is Robert Sardello in his book, “Freeing the Soul From Fear”: The Internet, for example, seems to be a revolutionary technical achievement. No one thus far, however, has developed the imagination to look at it in terms of its impact on soul life. While the Internet is touted as the greatest tool of communication since printing, it may well be a kind of double of communication. Look at how much is erased by relating in cyberspace. The body is excluded, the nuances of speaking eliminated, the importance of what is left unsaid, gone. E-mail, for example, is not at all like writing a letter. E-mailing is typically done in haste. We expect an immediate answer. Communication has more or less been reduced to the transfer of information.
I think Sardello’s thoughts are worthy of an in-depth study on how email and text are transforming the ways in which we communicate and how that affects our relationships. Electronic communication (the way people have come to depend on it) definitely has an impact on soul life—one that I perceive to be limiting, debilitating, life-extracting. This one-dimensional communication allows us to enjoy a false sense of union with another yet frees us from the usual involvement and responsibility that real, life-nourishing relationships require. Has anyone stopped to measure its price?
So much is lost in virtual communication; so much given away. I know people who have shared intimacies online that cannot be duplicated in person, precisely because it is so glaringly one-dimensional. Most of the time it’s about projecting your feelings, mood, desires, emotions on another because you are the only living being in that space at that particular point in time. The exchange, if it can be called that, is half-imagined. All you have are words. Because you are accustomed to so much more, the tendency to let your own interpretation supply the rest is overpowering.
A friend was talking about a bad fight he had with his ex-wife. He described her text. Then his. Then the total misinterpretation party they had that inevitably ended in a shouting match. They had completely misread each other’s one-dimensional responses, assigning malice where there might have been none; inviting the full force of years of resentment to ride on imagined venom. There’s the danger. If you are of a certain mindset or emotional state, that flat screen can be a portal into communication hell.
It shouldn’t be a surprise then, that when you see someone you know mainly onscreen, you feel you are in front of a stranger, no matter how long and involved the emails you’ve exchanged. The gap between the person you imagined and the one before you is overwhelmingly vast. How many words would you have chosen not to say if you had that person before you as you typed your texts or emailed messages? Quite a few I bet. You would have listened, watched and added the gestures, pauses, shifts and sighs into a comprehensive whole, before choosing to say something or nothing at all.
Never mind those of us who have experienced a world before email and text. I worry more for the children and teenagers who are growing up with these electronic substitutes almost surgically attached to their fingertips. I wonder what it is doing to their relationships, their ability to deal with people; to read, discern and judge their own feelings and those of the people in their lives. I wonder about the long-term effects on their social development. I fear it is fragmenting their already fragile souls at a most confusing time in their lives; in this crucial time in humanity when we are being called, more than ever, to strive towards wholeness.
I’d like to think this is yet another challenge for us to be present; to make sure we are aware and alert behind the wheel. I suppose the trick is to cultivate a keen sense of who and where we are and what our purpose is, especially when we begin to lose ourselves in the rhythm of our keypads. It is important that we take the lead; that we are not sucked into the dark by the electronic undertow; that we do not rely on these machines for the cultivation of friendship and love. It might be helpful to remind ourselves that email and text are mere devices; conveniences not to be abused.
The only human relationships that stand a chance in this world are those born and nurtured in human spaces, where expressions can be read and met with real-time responses. Nothing can take the place of tenderness mirrored in the eyes of a beloved, a hint of imperfect smile, a reassuring touch on a tear-muddied cheek.
Next time you lose your phone or can’t retrieve your mail, relax. Flex your fingers, hold hands, look into someone’s eyes. Take your soul out for a walk. It might be a great day yet.