I think our naïveté has caught up with us.
Back when I was a bride, back when I was first becoming a systems administrator, digital communication drew me like a magnet. The field was called “computer-mediated communication” back then, when it was new and a year’s papers could be encompassed in a single volume. (It was a pretty thick volume, but still only one.) The implications of groups of people interacting routinely—or even primarily—in asynchronous, or semi-synchronous, ways took deep root in my brain.
I’m still fascinated. How do we get together and do the things that people do without physically proximity?
You might think: duh. I set up a group-chat. I schedule a Zoom call. We start an email thread. Then it just rolls from there, no biggie.
“No biggie.” This is the fallacy I watched play out in my high-tech company in the late 90s. Though I don’t think they’re any better at it today. In my company, we had email and videoconferencing and all the bells and whistles. And yet I heard routine complaints: it’s hard to tell what they are thinking; I’d rather be in a phone conference, so I can mute them and have side conversations; they don’t take our priorities seriously.
I observed my own work-team, two of us in Texas and two in California. We used the same technical tools as everyone else, but our manager also made sure we came together physically once a quarter or so. Three days of departmental planning. Cross-site travel to share our specialties. We worked together so smoothly that other groups were startled to find out we didn’t work physically shoulder to shoulder.
I have always thought the difference was that we balanced our 90% working through distance with our 10% face time.
Because we humans are not just head-transportation vehicles. (Thanks, Charlie Gilkey!) Social researchers for at least a half-century have studied and recorded the unspoken and the unacknowledged activities that people do when they’re proximate. My deep intuition is that these unarticulated practices provide our sense of connection, our sense of “knowing” another person, and foster that indefinable thing that we call “us.”
It’s much easier to “they” someone you’ve not seen. Or had a meal with.
One treasure of the seminary community is that we faith-full people spend time exploring what it means to be created the way we are: made of flesh, full of thoughts. So I’m absorbing additional ways to think through my life-long (?! well, yeah, guess so now…) musing. Particularly since “what shall we do about social media?!!” is a buzzing concern here, much the way “what do we do about web-delivered learning??!!” was during my first Master’s.
What I articulated to a professor back then I’m asking still: how do we make digital versions of those analog activities that make us feel like us? Since the cultural drive toward more and more low-cost, time-frugal, digital shared experiences isn’t slowing? Since at the same time these unvoiced activities seem critical to our experience of togetherness?
Offhand, I think the rise of emoji begins to tackle one of these activities—simple text lacks, what’s the statistic?, much of the content that proximate, spoken interaction contains, so emoji can serve as proxy facial and, in some cases, bodily expressions. Cheap videoconferencing like Zoom can include intonation as part of the communication package. But we’re still missing out on water-cooler conversations, missing out on shared lunches where the talk slides from the personal (building connection) to the work-related and back again, missing out on working silently next to each other but still occasionally tossing out a quick question. Though maybe that last part now happens on Slack?
So yeah. How do we do this? These digital editions of face-to-face subtleties?
is there something about our body-ness that can never be approximated?
Our naïveté has led us into some very deep waters that are making our bodies anxious. Nonspecific anxiety amplifies our fear, our anger, our tendencies to darkness. I suspect we need to start articulating the unspoken sooner rather than later, before this inchoate anxiety drives us mad. Individually and collectively.
This footnote belongs to the title; that is, it’s where I snagged the post-title from. I dare you to hold still while you listen, you embodied creature, you!