Andrea K. Paterson wonders if we are we sacrificing personal connections and a sense of community for online convenience?
I worry that we are turning into a society of hermits. We live in our tiny, over-priced concrete boxes in the sky, where we rarely have contact with our neighbours unless they are annoying us. We order our books online, or have them beamed directly to our e-readers and avoid public places like book stores and libraries. We take distance education classes from colleges and universities around the world. We plug up our ears with headphones while on the bus, and kids play video games or send endless text messages at the table instead of conversing with the people around them.
Convenience seems to come at the price of interaction — the sort of day-to-day interactions that make us a part of our communities. Instead of chatting with the person at the grocery store check-out we do battle with the automated self check-out machine. Instead of going to a teller at the bank we find any old ATM to do our banking. Jobs that involve serving the public are quickly disappearing as they are replaced by machines and internet-based services. And I can’t help worrying that the increased lack of human interaction is going to be socially detrimental and isolating.
I really believe that these daily interactions mean something, and I believe that they add richness to my life. I’ve recently heard that Blockbuster is going under and that NetFlix will soon be our primary movie procuring option, and I have to say that I’m very sad about this. In fact, my regular Sunday night trip to the local Blockbuster to pick out a movie with my husband has become something that we both cherish. After dinner we set out on a short walk to the store and hope that “Movie Guy” will be there.
“Movie Guy” is our most trusted Blockbuster employee who can always be counted on to provide excellent recommendations for movies both new and old. It seems that he’s seen every movie ever made and has detailed opinions about all of them. I’m not going to invite Movie Guy to my next birthday party, but we have a relationship nonetheless. It’s a relationship based on similar taste in films, on a shared sense of humour, and on one person doing his job really well and other people benefiting from that person’s expertise.
Movie Guy knows who we are so we never have to produce I.D. to check out our movie. He knows we like two-night rentals instead of a week ones. He knows we don’t want our penny back. We share our reviews of the last movie we rented while Movie Guy checks out our new pick. We mock the latest Twilight flick while he prints our receipt. These small exchanges make picking up a movie more than a mechanical event. It’s a small social excursion and it matters.
I could go online and read the movie reviews of strangers, but all I’d get is a thousand disparate opinions and I wouldn’t know who to trust. I don’t have a relationship with the endless forum-posters, and I don’t know who shares my particular taste in movies. I don’t want to get my movies over the internet. I like the short Sunday night walk where my husband and I chat happily, hold hands, get some fresh air.
If the local Blockbuster disappears a small part of our social lives will disappear too. It’s the same for the grocery store, the bank, the library, the travel agency. We used to interact with other human beings all the time. Now, we think it’s more convenient to talk to a recorded message, to book/order/inquire online without ever having to shake someone’s hand or count coins onto a counter.
The world is obsessed with connectivity. Everyone needs an iPhone, instant access to email and text messages, instant access to products and information and yet I get the sense that we’re all more disconnected than ever. Sure, we can get 60 text messages a minute from our closest friends, but we avoid human beings in public like lepers. We plug up our ears, glue our eyes to our phones, and block out the random people who fill our days. We reject them thoroughly, then go back to our concrete boxes to eat dinner in front of TVs instead of with our families. We know a thousand methods for keeping in touch but we’ve forgotten how to reach out. We’ve forgotten how to say saying hello to the person sitting next to us on the bus simply because they’re sharing our space for awhile.
We’re losing the art of acknowledgement: a nod, a smile, a slight wave. And I think it matters. I really do.