Here, But Not Really Present

Apr 8, 2010

We use a lot of technology daily to keep in touch with friends and family. But while this can be useful, we seem to be at a point where we’re happier spending more time with our superficial online relationships than developing our off-line, real relationships. I think we’re missing out.

If you’ve ever had what has been dubbed as “Mexican Coke,” you’ll probably notice that it tastes a lot better. Why? No, it’s not simply because it’s in a glass bottle vs. a can. It’s because it’s American Coke, minus the corn syrup with real cane sugar instead.

High fructose corn syrup is among the many artificial ingredients that make up much of the food that we consume daily. It’s everywhere, along with trans fat, refined grains and other materials that are so prevalent because they can be easily mass-produced and cost very little.

From food to synthetic fabrics to building materials like particleboard and more, we’ve continually attempted to perfect methods to create artificiality in many mediums for wider distribution and ease of use. And while many of these have had actual positive effects, there seems to be a point at which they stop helping us and start hurting us.

In technology, we’re essentially mass-producing relationships and thoughts through mouse-clicks and keyboards while forgetting that it’s not the real thing. Are we actually closer to each other because of the technology we use, or do we just think we are? While posting something or replying to someone’s post does make the day-to-day routine more interesting and give you something to interact with, does it actually make you more connected to someone? And if not, do you still even care to anymore?

I feel we’ve been led to believe that “connectedness” in today’s society is pretty good, that we’re supposedly working towards some supreme goal of making the world very small and information more available, but that doesn’t mean we understand – or even want to understand – each other better. The fact that people are now walking around glued to their smartphones all the time or that they will interrupt a conversation to text someone is evidence of this.

At times when I feel somewhat lonely or disconnected, I’m often up late online hoping something socially engaging will happen. Then the first thing I want to do when I wake up in the morning is to get online again. It’s fairly okay when it’s just me, but when I’m spending time with close friends, actually reveling in the moment, and I’m still reaching for my phone, eager to check the latest activity online, it bothers me.

Why am I still doing this? Granted, there’s a lot of satisfaction in having these brief encounters with people with whom I don’t have a close relationship. But more importantly, it seems I’ve been conditioned to not want to miss anything “important” or feel left out. These online mediums are my social circles’ way of interfacing and it’s now so ingrained in me that it’s become my social milieu. And even though I know it’s not the realism I want, I still can’t help but want it anyway. “Connectivity is poverty,” says an article from the NYTimes Magazine last year.

“The man of leisure savors solitude and intimacy with friends and is surrounded by original things that cannot be copied or corrupted and shot around the globe with a few mouse clicks.”- New York Times

It’s one thing to try to maintain a balance, but sometimes I think we are neglecting real-life connections for the sake of what we’ve deemed as the best alternative, the high fructose corn syrup of life. It’s not surprising – we’re in an age of extreme instant gratification, where we expect everything to come to us with little to no effort on our part and anything that doesn’t follow this rule simply “doesn’t work well.” Although the artificial ingredients will do the job just fine most of the time, at the end of the day, they’re just plain unhealthy. It doesn’t have to be this way though. It’s fine and great to be able to keep up with your friends’ activities and thoughts but it’s another thing to rely on it as your own means of communication.

The fact is, real connections, real interests and real relationships are harder to come by and take time, dedication, trust and honesty to develop – the last two being harder to discern in the public space that is the internet. Given the economic model of supply and demand, we should all be clamoring for these relationships like we do with diamonds, raspberries and other natural and fairly coveted delicacies. But this takes more effort on our part and that’s just the state of mind in which we seem to be.

Because our social-networking technology is so prevalent day-to-day, millions of people voice their thoughts publicly which greatly dilutes any individual contribution. At this point, I think we’re so used to taking everything on the internet for face value that it’s hard to discriminate between those who really have something to say and those who are writing for the benefit of “pop psychology.” And the worst part is that those people are seemingly rewarded more for being this way. We are on information and commentary overload, a point at which any person, genuine or not, can become a celebrity almost overnight thereby diluting any specialness. How is anyone supposed to hear anyone when there’s so much artificiality standing in the way?

For a pretty long time, I’ve tried to be a very honest and open-minded person whose main goal is to love and be loved by the people I meet. However, the problem with this for me has always been that the majority of people are unable – sometimes unwilling – to do this even if they’ve known you a while. And in my efforts to “speed up” the process, to skip over all the small-talk and surface-level connections and get to the heart of the matter, I’ve often found many people to be extremely hesitant, confused and uncertain.

I’m not discounting what I call “surface-level” interaction. It’s not at all uncommon for us to want to know a few things about someone before we get to know them. It breaks the ice, starts a conversation, leads you down a path. That’s why most interviews, first dates and first meetings always have similar discussions and questions – where’d you grow up, where’d you go to school, what do you like to do, etc. It’s this process that helps us to categorize and define the people we meet so that we may better understand if we’re at all compatible.

But really, just because you’ve connected over a few superficial details and perhaps have a variety of things in common doesn’t necessarily mean that your morals, values or philosophies are aligned – and those are the core issues around which people find a deeper relationship taking hold. As I’ve mentioned before, we all have different ways of expressing ourselves and with society the way it is, it’s so much easier to feel connected to someone for the things you have in common rather than your deeper beliefs, hopes and fears.

Maybe people don’t want to be real with each other anymore. Maybe we like not having to worry about being vulnerable and we just want to enjoy day-to-day interactions around various depthless topics. If that’s the case, then I feel it’s pretty detrimental to a well-functioning society. If we can put in less effort and feel happy with what we get back, then we’ll never want to put in more effort for a real relationship when we won’t see the results as quickly. Perhaps then the very way that social-networking technology is structured – with emphasis on recent activity, life streams and news feeds – can never really allow for anything more in-depth and it’s up to us, individually, to ensure we don’t continue to rely too heavily on it.

In the meantime, what about everyone else, the people who want something more? If not the internet and not real people since they defer to the internet, where do we turn for real, genuine, good old-fashioned relationships? Mexico?

© FishoftheBay. Content may not be reprinted without the permission of Eric Fisher.