Donna Freedman recently put up a post, “When Screen Time Equals Lifetime,” about how digital connectivity pulls us away from our connections and the people who are present around us in the real world. Like many of Donna’s posts, it’s gotten me thinking.

I’ll be the first to admit that I spend a lot of time on the computer.

Some of that is work time. Writing blog posts. Writing stories. Doing research for those blog posts and stories.

I’d also include reading and critiquing stories for various writers’ groups and reading and commenting on other blogs as work. It isn’t paying work, but contributes greatly to being part of a writing or a blogging community.

Some of my computer time replaces other forms of recreation. I can’t get much out of a magazine or a paperback novel these days, but the computer lets me devour fiction and nonfiction of every stripe. We don’t have cable TV, or even an antenna, but YouTube gives me access to a wide variety of entertainment. I’ve used the internet to learn new crafts and to build my knowledge of crafts I already do.

And, yes, some of my computer time is spent making and maintaining virtual connections. Email. Internet forums. Writing groups. And now FaceBook.

For me, the computer – and, to a much lesser extent, the smartphone – allows me to experience a level of connectivity I might not experience in the physical world.

But does it harm my in-person relationships or disconnect me from the real world?

In my case, I don’t think so. For one thing, since my computer experience is auditory and I’ve always been a much more visual person, It gets tiring, and tiresome, to have the thing nattering at me all the time. When there are people around, or craft projects I can do with my hands, I’m much more inclined to drop the computer and engage.

For another, since the computer talks to me, I have to be able to hear it. If people are talking, it’s hard to hear what I’m doing unless I put on earphones or close a door between us. I can – and have – when I need to get something done. But I’d much rather step away from the box.

Okay. But what about everyone else?

Nothing New Under the Sun

I’m a little surprised that anyone thinks this is a new phenomenon.

I know that, as a girl, I was frequently to be found with my nose buried in a book. Eating meals, sitting with other people, even occasionally walking down the street.

Train and subway commuters are famous for hiding behind newspapers and books to avoid conversation. Or, you know, because they wanted to catch the news.

Picture the stereotype of Dad, home from the office, burying himself behind a newspaper or, in later years , switching on the nightly news or the football game.

I wonder how we’d regard the photos in the exhibit if the photographer had, instead of taking away the electronic devices, replaced them with reading material.

Three boys sitting on a couch, each wrapped up in his own comic book. Husband and wife back-to-back in bed, one with a magazine and the other with a paperback novel. Three women slipping away from the backyard barbecue to…well, I don’t know. Skim through fashion magazines?

Cell phones and tablets may make it easier to tune out. But in my experience, people who would normally interact with each other still are, devices or not:

Here, look at this!
Hey,,I just heard something funny…
Do you know what this article says?

The commuters, well, they’re still avoiding eye contact.

Who’s On the Other End?

The other part of the thesis that I take issue with is the perception that we’re not “really” connecting when we connect digitally, that the people on the other end aren’t real to us.

Donna says:

Ignoring everything around you to dive deeply into a virtual universe full of other disconnected people who somehow convince themselves they’re part of a community.

Let’s think about that. “[D]isconnected people who somehow convince themselves they’re part of a community.”

Are our digital communities really less real than our physical communities?

Now, you don’t have to read too many unmoderated comment sections or hear too many stories of cyberstalking and harrassment to realize that for some people, other people really aren’t real. But is that true for the majority of us?

Over the years, I’ve been part of a number of digital communities and met an incredible number of people.

I haven’t met most of them in person, but I’ve watched as people have met in person and in some cases ended up married. I’ve watched other friends go through divorces, sometimes messy ones. I’ve watched their children grow. We’ve discussed the joys and troubles and turmoil of our lives.

Am I any less a part of those people’s lives because we’ve never held a barbecue or sat down together over coffee?

I’ve also used digital connections to keep in touch with faraway family and friends, and to reconnect with friends who’d fallen out of touch.

When I was a girl, I used to exchange letters with my grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. I was never a very faithful correspondent , but we tried to keep in touch.

When my sons were small, they’d talk to Grandma and Grandpa over the phone. I started sending emails instead of letters, though I still wasn’t a very faithful correspondent.

My future grandchildren will probably send me email or FaceBook messages or texts, if the technoverse hasn’t worked out newer and even spiffier ways to keep in touch.

Will we be any less connected?

I think marking a distinction between the physical world and the digital one is making a false dichotomy. I think there’s a lot of overlap, and that one can reinforce and strengthen the other.

I think digital connectedness gives people the opportunity to find and join the communities they resonate with. Yes, sometimes that may happen at the expense of connections with the world physically present around them.

There have always been people who don’t fit the community they’re present in – the world of literature is full of them. There have always been people who choose, for whatever reason, to withdraw.

Digital connectivity may have made that easier, or more socially acceptable. But I think that if it has, it’s also given us new ways and opportunities to connect.

For me personally, as a blind woman, it’s helped prevent isolation, given me a way to reach out to people and groups who might have been a lot harder for me to reach otherwise. It’s not without its pitfalls and its flaws, but nothing ever is.

Maybe I’d feel differently if I could see the pictures in the exhibit. Maybe they’d disturb me as they disturbed Donna, and I’d look at my electronic equipment with a new sense of unease. I’d close the laptop without posting this and go give someone a hug. (Or, since everyone here is sleeping, give a friend a call.)

But here I am, posting it, and when I’m done I’ll probably hop over to FaceBook and see how folks are doing, or maybe read a few other blogs or message boards. Later, I’ll cook dinner and we’ll sit and eat together as a family. Later, I’ll give my email one final check, and then I’ll close the laptop and tumble into bed.

What about you? Do you feel the Digital Age is creeping too far into our physical lives? Do you feel more or less connected than you were a decade or two ago?


2 thoughts on “Disconnected?

  1. The interesting things is that all the people making the now-popular argument that the internet disconnects people grew up with telephones, so they don’t make the old popular argument that phones are dehumanizing–I would find them more persuasive if they’d at least acknowledge these arguments are nothing new. Personally, I was around before the internet became a big thing, thank you very much, and I didn’t spend all my time chatting with people–I just communicated less and knew fewer people.

    I agree with you that taking away smartphones doesn’t suddenly create a vibrant community of deep communication in public. People seem to watch TV in waiting rooms and such in my experience, or failing that, stare off into space. And I can’t blame them, since, especially during nano, I really need to do a lot of staring off into space during those times I’m not actually compiling wordcount (it’s awfully frustrating having a barber, for instance, talking at me while I’m trying to work out a plot problem).


    1. Yes, and there were people who fretted that writing would destroy people’s ability to remember and to reason logically.

      I have a half-formed theory that in inventing technology that allows near-instant communication between individuals, we’ve gone and created telepathy. Virtual worlds are the equivalent of the astral plane. Once the devices are out of our hands and inside our heads, we’ll all have become telepaths.

      Tell me I’m wrong…


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