Outside of bars and airports, is there any public space in which strangers routinely interact? I pondered this question as I walked through an empty public park (above). Strangers once greeted each other in the street, at cafes, at grocery stores, and in public parks. Today, even simple “hellos” meet with conspicuous silence, as if the greeter were threatening the privacy, or even the well-being, of the person greeted.
Strange that such a basic human desire, the need for sensory interaction, has become awkward and even unusual. Some people react negatively to these attempts at genuine emotional connection. Others are touched by the gesture. There’s a distinctly human yearning for real person-to-person contact; contact that uses our senses and makes us feel alive, connected to the community and the outside world.
Why is it then that more people spend their time communicating online than face-to-face? Convenience offers a simple explanation. Facebook and e-mail allow us to instantly communicate with friends, family, and acquaintances from around the world. That’s awesome. But isn’t it just as convenient to pick up a phone and call? And isn’t it infinitely more satisfying to hear a voice – a real, human voice – than to read text on a screen, disconnected and disembodied from the sender?
The Internet lures us into a sick Faustian bargain; it offers us convenience and superficial connectedness while disconnecting us from the things that matter most: family, community, vocation. Lives led in front of a computer screen beautifully prepare us for a world that operates like a computer. A world that is static, comforting, comprehensible. Only, our world doesn’t operate like a computer. Our social skills stagnate; we become Facebook automatons.
Let me give you an example. I have a friend who is a prolific blogger and Facebook user (at this point, you’re probably thinking: “A friend huh?”). She has no trouble talking to me; I’m her friend. On the Internet, she has no trouble communicating with strangers either; protected by the sweet embryonic hum and nurturing glow of her laptop screen, she can talk with even the most different and distant person. However, she can’t interact with strangers in public, at least not without her computer’s warm maternal protection. She’s hopelessly adrift in what we lovingly call “the real world”.
In a famous and justly celebrated scene from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Miranda, the daughter of the magician Prospero, marvels at all that has come to pass, uttering these immortal lines:
“O wonder!/How many goodly creatures are there here!/How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,/That has such people in ‘t!”
To which her father Prospero replies:
“‘Tis new to thee.”
(The Tempest, Act V, Scene i, ll. 197-201)
Today’s “brave new world” is not the Internet, as many supposed. How easily we’ve allowed ourselves to become complacent! No, it is our own world, “the real world”, in all of its beautiful, messy complexity. It is the world that we’ve neglected and forgotten. It is a world truly worth exploring.