It seems that there is an increasing deficiency in simply being able to hold a conversation. We’re good at the agreeable stuff. There’s a familiar trajectory to most smalltalk. A little something about the weather. List a couple random things we’ve done in recent memory. Maybe thrown in a mention of something delicious or trendy we’ve eaten lately. Everybody loves food.
We can go a mile wide.
Bring up some witty social media post we just saw, pivot to the latest celebrity inanity, grab our phone and play that video everyone’s been passing around, get riled up about the big game on Sunday, swipe through photos of the cute pet that one person just got…
But it’s all an inch deep.
When was the last time you talked with someone about your greatest fears? How you really feel about your job and the work you wish you could do? The family struggles and drama you’re dealing with? What you think the most important things in life are? What’s hard about being in a relationship with the person you’re with? What you think about death, and what that means about life?
It’s probably been awhile, right?
Maybe you are supremely emotionally intelligent, perfectly comfortable with yourself and what you think about the world, and encounter no adversity in life. If so, you should probably get to publishing a book for the rest of us.
For the rest of us, most of our conversations in real life take the form of our digital communication: short snippets that float right at the surface, and do just about anything they can to skirt existential depth and vulnerability. A mile wide and an inch deep is right in our wheelhouse. Not too long. Not too personal. Awkward-free and friction-free. Plenty of ambiguity to leave room for plausible deniability.
Indeed, MIT Professor Sherry Turkle’s recent book, Reclaiming Conversation, argues precisely that: our devices and our preference to communicate through them are fueling an inability to actually communicate and relate to one another.
Many families Turkle interviewed mentioned that they prefer to “fight by text,” rather than hashing it out audibly with some brutal honesty and struggling through anger and disagreement to find reconciliation.
Just the other night, my wife and I went out to eat and watched the couple at the table next to us utter maybe one or two sentences to each other before fixating on their respective phones for the remainder of the meal. I couldn’t help but wonder if they broke from toggling through endless apps to text each other every so often. Should we get an appetizer? How’s your dish? Dessert? Apparently making eye contact and actually talking was either too much work or deemed trivial to the whole dinner-date experience. This wasn’t the first time we’ve seen this happen.
Many of us have a hard time turning off our phone or keeping it out of sight even when we are in the middle of talking with other people face-to-face. We look for ways to make stealthy peeks at notifications that come in, and respond to them like a ventriloquist who learned to type without moving her fingers instead of talk without moving her lips.
But what’s the loss, right? Maybe you prefer to stay a mile wide and inch deep with just about everyone you know. It would be agony to go deeper. I get it. As an introvert myself, I’ve been in more conversations than I can count where I felt like I was just trying to find the escape hatch and get home alone with a book on the couch as soon as possible.
And isn’t it a wonderful convenience that if the chatter with the people you’re with–the family at dinner, a random acquaintance you bump into on the sidewalk, a group of friends out late–turns uninteresting or unengaging, you can simply duck out into a digital conversation through text or social media? If worse comes to worst, you can even use the phone as a smokescreen to suggest that you need to end your in-person conversation. When you’re potentially always interruptible because of the phone in your pocket, you can feign interruption.
But as Turkle profoundly observes, with the loss of conversation comes an equivalent loss in empathy. We are losing the fundamental capacity to recognize the basic humanity in each other, and live together communally rather than individualistically and standoffish. “Conversation is on the path toward the experience of intimacy, community, and communion.” If we can’t figure out how to be fully present here, talking together–for even just a little while, with at least a few people close to us–our own existential and emotional foundation crumbles and disappears. We need to be in conversation with other people for our own well-being.
And not just the pleasantries of the weather and mentioning an uncontroversial current event or two. “Human relationships are rich, messy, and demanding…” You surely know this already from your own life experiences. Being a person comes with risk, and you have to risk the messy and demanding to get to the richness. In conversation, you might say the wrong word or pronounce something strangely; your thoughts might come out in a jumble instead of like a perfectly edited and polished text that you read and re-read until you felt good about releasing it; you might accidentally reveal a guilty pleasure that others will find laughable; you might veer into sensitive territory–pain and worries, personal demons, past mistakes; you might say something that pisses off or hurts the other person. That’s why continually pushing through the messiness and the demands to cultivate empathy is so crucial.
Conversation is the verbal playground where we learn how to move and grow together. Sometimes it’s pure enjoyment and we feel like we could run around for hours. Other times we crash into each other, get tangled in a political or religious cargo net, or step knee-deep in some emotional or personal mud. But when we can see in someone else’s eyes their vulnerability and their uniqueness–their humanity–we come to understand their hopes, fears, and joys are much like our own. We begin to build greater trust, respect, patience, and support. We begin to build a real relationship. We can’t survive without each other–whether it’s the close intimacy of family and friends or the fleeting bonds of coworkers and acquaintances. A mile wide and an inch deep doesn’t get you there.
You know the moments. You’re on the elevator with a complete stranger. You’re just outside of the fitting rooms while your significant other is trying some things on. You’re stuck at a stoplight or a bus stop. You’re waiting to be seated at a restaurant. You’re waiting to receive your food at a restaurant. You’re waiting for the bill at a restaurant. You’re on the couch at home by yourself with nothing to do. There’s a space—a gap. It must be filled.
What is that space? We don’t really want to know. Everything was going smoothly—time well spent. I was engaged in something good, something meaningful. Now I’m bored/confused/anxious. Quick, fill the space with something!
With what? Maybe Candy Crush. The instant gratification feels nice for a bit. Maybe send a text for no other reason than to send a text message. It’s been a little while since I talked to that person anyway. Maybe I just received a text message? Better check. Maybe that feeling I thought I felt was actually my phone trying to get my attention. Yes, someone needs me! I have purpose again.
Or put headphones in and stream a song or two. Or tweet about something random. Or open up some tabs and start perusing what people are buzzing about in cyberworld. Is there some celebrity feud going on?
Have you ever caught yourself trying to fill the gap?
We don’t do well with the stillness. We’re uneasy about being amongst strangers when we have gobs of friends online. Uneasy during moments of utter quiet or uncertainty about what’s going to happen next.
We think we’re in sync when we’re doing what everyone else seems to do: constantly moving from one thing to the next, sometimes doing multiple things at once, turning downtime into some sort of activity that makes us feel good. The gap, the bit of unscheduled time, is an abomination—it has to be filled with something. The gap feels like the nothingness of the empty universe—like our mortality bumping into us. You only live once. Better fill it up with stuff. If I can go from thing to thing and plow through the gaps then maybe I can avoid my mortality altogether. Objects in motion stay in motion, right?
In the gaps, we often feel that we’re missing out. Here I am basically getting old on the couch doing nothing, and I just saw on Instagram that everyone else is living the life of their dreams. But perhaps there’s something even deeper that we’re missing out on. After all, if you’re at an amazing concert and you’re still checking your phone in-between songs during the show—still feeling like when you check that everyone else is living the life of their dreams and you’re not—you have a problem.
What if the gap is not nihilistic space infiltrating our lives, but precisely the unstructured, unallocated time we need to rediscover some of what’s great about ourselves and our world. Maybe uncertainty about what happens next is not wasted time, but a chance for serendipity.
Serendipity. Today, it sounds like something really old-fashioned: the sort of thing that typifies romantic comedies on videotape. Someone just got a new job in a place they think they’re going to hate; someone’s flight is cancelled and they’re stuck in town for another night; somebody has to go to Smalltown, Nowhere for the weekend, with seemingly nothing to do. But—surprise, surprise—that’s exactly where they magically run into the person who ends up being their soulmate.
Could it happen in real life? Of course.1 in 3 people now find their spouse through online dating services, but that means 2 out of 3 still discover each other in-person. Some find it through friends and mutual acquaintances. Others, through participation in some kind of common activity: at work, at a bar, in class, and the like. There’s something poetic and pleasantly old-fashioned about romance found without any assistance from an ideal match algorithm or swiping through profiles in an app. Serendipity can work wonders for relationships.
But I doubt most of us expect to find the love of our life while waiting for our fitness class to start or stuck in line getting our morning coffee. So what else might be serendipitously discovered in the gaps?
Good ideas, for starters. For many, open periods of time are when their brain begins to dance around through countless bits of experience, thoughts, feelings, and hopes, and then make interesting—sometimes unlikely—connections between them. When we’re perpetually filling in the gaps as they come, we’re crowding out the potential for our mind to do some of its most unique work. There’s an opportunity there to slide into your creative process. It could be exactly the moment you find that melody you’ve been hoping to come up with, that thing you’ve wanted to write but didn’t know where to start, or pinpoint a change you need to make in your life that you hadn’t noticed before. Oftentimes, the best stuff shows up when we’re not trying.
What else? In the company of strangers, we might have interesting conversations we would never have otherwise. As an introvert, this is really difficult for me. In an elevator or on public transportation, or anywhere else a person can get stuck with people you don’t know, I feel an urgent need to get my eyes locked onto my phone to appear too busy for small-talk. But in the times that I’ve risked it and resisted the urge, I’ve been fortunate to talk with people from all sorts of backgrounds. You’ve seen your social media friends post pictures of their cat and their lunch before; you probably haven’t heard anything like what the person across from you on the train could tell you if you’re up for talking.
OK, and what else? Ultimately, so much of the world is there for discovery. Have you ever people-watched? It’s the best. Seriously. Humans do some of the craziest, weirdest, most self-centered, colorful things. In just about any public place, you have a front row seat. Look around for a couple minutes, and you’re likely to see something absolutely hilarious or ridiculous. Maybe then you Tweet about it–because it has to be shared. Or maybe you just keep it to yourself, because that one’s too priceless. You might need that memory to bring you back to a good place on a bad day, or maybe the good ideas bulb lights up and you realize what you witnessed would make for a perfect part of something you’re going to create.
If you had desperately busied yourself with your phone or something else to fill the gap, you would have missed something great.
If you’re going to have fear of missing out, have fear of missing out on the unexpected. Not the concerts, the vacations, and the get-togethers at the new spots all the hipsters are going to. Those kinds of things will always be around, and if you’re an active enough person you’ll get to do lots of them over time. Be concerned about missing out on the sparks of creativity and unique encounters that are only going to happen once and then disappear forever. Too few of those and you’ll really feel some anxious emptiness in your life. The gaps are there to remind you that some of the best things are not planned or expected, and you’ll miss out on them if you’re always trying to do something else. The gaps hold everything together.
On July 1, one of Google’s self-driving cars was rear-ended. It’s the 11th back-end slam they’ve incurred on the open road, and this time there were some minor injuries to the passengers riding inside. Overall, the autonomous vehicles have been in 14 accidents, and not a single one was the fault of the Google-mobile. Each time, terrible human driving led to an unnecessary collision.
I don’t know what it’s like where you are, but living in the Los Angeles area–one of the most car-saturated places in the world–I get genuinely worried when I see some of the people behind the wheel or about to be. Not just the drunks or the sleep-deprived; those are blatantly disqualifying for driving, and should be immediately reported. As worrying are the regular people who clearly have bodies and minds that are not fit for driving at any time, or are noticeably preoccupied.
There are some in their golden years–not all–whose cognition, hand-eye coordination, or general bodily strength and dynamism has diminished to the extent that they likely should not be on the road. Every so often crashes suggesting this as a cause become newsworthy. In February, a 92-year-old driver became panicked in his minivan in a parking lot and pinballed into 9 vehicles. It’s hard to understand how a focused, competent driver would do what he does in the surveillance video of the incident. Thankfully no one was hurt. Crashes like this make you wonder why all states do not require people to eventually retest on the actual driving portion and not just an eye or written exam. Only a few do.
Before this whole thing takes an ageist turn, let’s quickly note that the highest rates of reported crashes are among drivers 16- to 24-years-old. Just as in later years our bodies are less than their peak, in our teenage and early adult years they are still forming toward their prime–especially the faculties necessary for driving well. When we’re young, we make a lot of mistakes on the path to developing mature coordination, sensitivity to context and spatial awareness, and sound decision-making. When I was 15-years-old with my driving permit, I cleared the side view mirror clean off a parked car with the side of my vehicle while breezing down the street. Asking teenagers to command a vehicle is probably the most complex, demanding task they’ve ever encountered in their lives to that point. It’s undoubtedly compounded by the ubiquity of smartphones and the compelling urge to engage with them anytime they’re close at hand.
Which, of course, affects drivers of all ages. I can’t even begin to guess how many people I’ve seen on the road with one hand on the wheel and the other tapping and swiping away on their phone. They think vehicles grinding to a halt is an ideal opportunity to send or read a text, photograph, or another kind of message. And it often continues as the gridlock loosens and things are moving at regular speed again. Driving is an immensely involved task, and this kind of distraction is obviously dangerous, but most don’t appear to care. Several surveys suggest that the majority of drivers think they can smartphone and drive without any complications.
In fact, we all seem to be increasingly thinking of driving as more of a time suck when we could be doing other, “better” things. I’ve got that call to make; that text to reply to; that novel to finish; that album to listen to; that trumpet to play (Urmson’s team observed this actually happening). As Sheila Klauer notes in her book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, which Urmson cites, people “drive as if the world is a television show viewed on TiVo that can be paused in real time — one can duck out for a moment, grab a beer from the fridge, and come back to right where they left off without missing a beat.”
Whether it’s the immaturity or decline of our bodies, distractions or substance-induced impediments, or just general human error, our frailty causes a lot of unnecessary collisions–a lot of unnecessary injuries and deaths, property damage, and general heartache.
With roadways full of only self-driving cars, it all could be made obsolete.
The Google vehicles’ culpability-free streak is over nearly a million miles of driving. Urmson notes, “Our self-driving cars can pay attention to hundreds of objects at once, 360 degrees in all directions, and they never get tired, irritable or distracted.” They are free of the limitations and inherent vulnerabilities that human drivers have. Unless a car is hacked (certainly possible, but probably preventable) or goes rogue on the driver (quite improbable, but that Ford Anglia in Chamber of Secrets was pretty bonkers), there aren’t significant foreseeable negatives. Even if the vehicles are expensive when they’re first publicly available, with the security they would bring there is much to be saved: insurance costs, necessary emergency infrastructure, vehicle replacement, road repair, the productivity and priceless individuality of people protected from fatalities, and more.
And, intriguingly, with autonomous vehicles, people of all ages get to retain their autonomy and dignity. If you’re 16 and inexperienced–parents hesitant to give you the keys on a Saturday night–or not yet licensed, you could quickly meet up with friends on the other side of town in a self-driving car. If you’re 85 and know that your mind, vision, and strength aren’t what they used to be, you could still run errands of your own accord, ride to your child’s house for a weekend road trip, or go out dancing with your soulmate. If it’s your 40th birthday and you have bacchanalian inclinations, you can fulfill them. The only errors you might make on the ride home are throwing up in the cupholder, passing out in the backseat, or bringing home a one-night stand that you later regret. That’s worlds better than potential drunk driving fatalities. Everyone gets to be where they want when they want.
Isn’t that precisely what we’re all after in getting behind the wheel? Don’t we crave a license in our teens so we can finally be the master of our mobility? Don’t we clutch our license with aged knuckles because we can feel the independence slipping away? It’s difficult for us to be dependent on others to get around and at the same time realize the kind of dignity and freedom we crave. The promise of self-driving cars means we can all be safe, egalitarian travelers. We’d rather be doing other things en route, anyway.
Remember Inception? Christopher Nolan’s 2010 film explores the labyrinthine, perception-altering nature of dreams. In Inception, dreams can be architectured to your own design without the restrictions of the real world, yet feel real as you experience them. You can even share dream worlds with other people. Over the course of the film, both the characters and the audience become disoriented. Such seemingly real dreaming inhibits the ability to properly function in the real world. In the universe of Inception, some people even prefer to dream all day. For them, dreaming is more enjoyable than reality.
At first blush, Inception is merely a far-fetched, entertaining story. But the film, it turns out, is a rather good allegory for our increasingly digital, nonfiction world. Replace dreams with cyberspace, and the whole mix of imagination, hopes, relationships, perceptions, and preferences readily applies to us. Cyberspace is not a full-blown reality shift like a lifelike dream or all-encompassing virtual reality. But the digital universe of cyberspace in which many of us interact, and the so-called Internet of Things, are significantly more immersive than anything we’ve experience as human beings before. The digital immaterial bleeds into the tangible material, and in many ways is beginning to supplant it.
It doesn’t take a lot of investigation to start to understand why. There’s a dopamine seeking-satisfaction loop that shifts into overdrive when sending and receiving Snaps, Tweets, photos, texts, and the like. The digital commons, like dreams, is not subject to the rules of space and time in the way our bodies are. We can connect and engage with a seemingly infinite number of things in the expanse of cyberspace. There’s a huge rush in the feeling of transcending physical and geographical limitations.
What’s more, the digital commons seems to give us all the pleasurable and positive elements of interaction without any of the awkward and negative ones. You can keep up with the latest happenings of family, friends, old classmates, and former romantic flings without ever needing to talk to them or see them in person. You can distance yourself from painful or uncomfortable conversations by simply texting or emailing. Send it and walk away. Or if you are the recipient and you don’t want to respond just tap to exit and ignore. No fabricated schedule conflicts, small talk, or conversational exit strategies required.
A recent Pacific Standard article noted that online support groups seem to be more honest, reduce loneliness, transcend stigmas, and increase solidarity and validation compared to their in-person counterparts. For people who suffer from things like depression and bi-polar disorder, “Being able to just articulate something society tells you not to is very powerful…they’re looking for a social space where they can be heard.”
If such things occur they should be celebrated. If you live in Rural, Anywhere, or feel isolated in a metropolis, your only catharsis may be a couple of friends chatting with you online from thousands of miles away. Thank God that’s possible.
But we need to be conscious and cautious about giving preference to the digital commons over the real world. The digital is, in fact, incomplete. The reason you can text or email and back away is precisely because you are interacting in an ethereal space rather than the concreteness of being face-to-face. Like a dream, others are merely shallow imaginings or facades. When confronted by a dream-state projection of his wife, Inception’s main character Dom Cobb remarks, “I can’t imagine you with all of your complexity and all your perfection and imperfection…you’re just a shade of my real wife.”
It’s a thin, sensory- and intricacy-deficient version of the real world. Actual eye contact and touch are impossible (Skype and Apple Watch vibrations hardly come close to the real thing). In cyberspace, you can click to disconnect at any time and you’re instantly uncoupled and unburdened from any engagement. The people on the other side could be entirely different than how they present online, or even be some sort of bot. There’s no density or tangibility to the relationship.
In the same piece on online support groups, author Alana Massey recalls a time when she worried someone on the other end of an email correspondence had died since she had not responded for a few days.
My friend Maryam is someone whose voice I have never heard and whose smile I have never seen. She exists as a pretty but serious avatar in my email inbox and on social media accounts. On the day before Thanksgiving last year, I received an email from her regarding an essay I wrote about depression and language…It was a message of gratitude and familiarity that arrived at a time when I felt particularly isolated. Connecting to someone whose experiences reflected my own was especially welcome at that particular moment. We began an email correspondence that consists mostly of long updates that are characterized by the kind of humor and honesty it might take years to develop with an offline friend.
During a commute home in April, I realized that it had been a while since we had written and my talent for assuming a worst-case scenario made me suddenly panic that she was dead. It was not too far-fetched a thought about a young woman who has frequent suicidal thoughts. We share no mutual friends, we live in different cities, and we don’t even have each other’s phone numbers, so I’d have no way of knowing…I breathed a sigh of relief after arriving home and finding her Tumblr recently updated.
Online support seems great, until someone might need all-out support. It takes an actual shoulder to lean on to hold someone up. You can see the struggle in someone’s gaze. And it’s blatantly obvious when they’re not present—they’re physically not there. Maybe you need to go knock on their door, take them out to lunch, or chaperone them to a counselor or the ER. In the digital commons, these things are hidden behind the superficiality of the medium. Someone can forget or choose not reply and others are left lost and poring over terrible hypotheticals. We shouldn’t find out that they’re OK only through a random social media post.
If we’re not careful, we begin to turn into versions of ourselves as incomplete as the digital space we’re participating in. By preferring actions like:
Texting over conversing face-to-face
Streaming entertainment inside over going outside
Online groups over groups showing up to meet together
Photo-toggling dating apps over the possibility of chance romantic sparks at unexpected times and places…
We are forgoing needed relational depth for comfortable superficiality.
In a scene in Inception that’s easy to overlook, Cobb is talking to his kids over the phone an ocean apart. He hasn’t been home with them for years, and he can’t tell which child is which as they speak. He can’t even picture their faces in his mind. The scene suggests that subsisting entirely on phone-to-phone conversations is as ethereal and incomplete as dreams are to reality. The ultimate resolution for Cobb is to be home. Not memories and daydreams in the mind or fanciful dream worlds—actually home, wrapping his arms around his children. When they finally do meet eye-to-eye and smile-to-smile, you feel Cobb’s rich pleasure of real contact in contrast to all the preceding exciting, but ultimately tenuous, world of dreams.
Snapchatting, Tweeting, texting, emailing, and the rest, all work well when in their right place. They’re not inherently evil, and I’m not a technophobe. I use them daily too, and I’ve burned plenty of hours drifting through cyberspace. But they are inherently incomplete. If the medium is the message, the message is that we don’t need the engagement and complexity of the real world to have meaningful relationships. Short snippets of text or video, sometimes in tandem with emojis, GIFs, or other simple visual and audio cues, are sufficient for social bonds.
But there’s no long-term substitute for real faces and voices. No substitute for the complexity of other people: their posture and demeanor, their touch, all the things they’re saying without speaking. Not to mention all the subtleties of the surrounding environment. A seemingly mundane hug in a backyard is exceedingly more complex and satisfying than even the most innovative digital, dreamlike engagement.
In a burgeoning era of digital immersion, we have to choose to give primacy to the real world. It’s where we’ll actually find healthy cycles of seeking and satisfaction. Complex, concrete reality has the potential for more serendipity than the digital dream ever will. Yes, some experiences can be awkward or undesirable. But in persevering through it you might break relational ground or do new things you never had before—deepening your personal enjoyment and satisfaction. It’s a fulfilling, stable dopamine loop.
No matter how pleasurable and exciting it may be to transcend the limits of space and time in dreams or the digital universe, you can’t function without a sense of place—of home. A dense self-identity, feet firmly planted somewhere, relating well to the people and things around you. Too much of the incompleteness of the ethereal leaves us longing for a completeness we can only find at home in the real world. Hopefully, like Inception, we can find our way back.