Connection in an Isolating Age

by thanklemons

When I need advice, I turn to Google. It’s the natural first response to any problem or question that can’t be solved.

“Just Google it,” rolls off our tongues. Google is the catch-all solution-finder. I cannot even begin to describe the crazy, questionable, and, frankly, bizarre things I have been unable to ask anyone I know, but happily turned over to a magically-omnipotent search engine.

I understand what people mean when they say technology has replaced real human connection. The funny thing is, though, even as the internet drives us further from interpersonal interaction, it also brings us closer together. Because when you Google strange things on your mind, what usually happens is this: you find information. And that information is only there because–guess what?–someone else was thinking about the same thing. That’s comforting.

I know, like every generational bracket before us, we look at the past and try to compare, try to make sense of the future based on the framework of  what’s known. We think about ’50s sitcoms, where people chatted every morning as they collected the newspaper or walked the dog. And now the paper is online, and we roll into our garages, closing the door behind us and conveniently avoiding all neighborly interaction. And maybe it’s true, maybe we aren’t as close with our neighbors as we used to be. But, we keep in touch with people thousands of miles away.  It makes our backyards smaller, but our neighborhoods wider. People immediately, physically, close to us are often not as emotionally close, but those far away seem closer on both levels. I’m not sure how to feel about it, but I suspect, like most things in this world, it’s not bad or good:  it simply is. There’s a false dichotomy between tangible and digital, and the key to happiness probably lies in maintaining a healthy balance.

I had a professor in college who tried to engage us in a kind of nostalgia for tangibility, for the physical world, for crafts and hobbies that got your hands dirty and scuffed your knees. He printed all of our class readings and posted nothing on the internet. The funny thing is, the class was about the sacredness of space in the natural world, and by using so much paper, I couldn’t help but think he was depleting the world’s natural resources, the resources he so wanted us all to remember and respect.  I say this not to point fingers or call him out on hypocritical behavior (aren’t we all hypocrites, one way or another?) — I just always thought it was an interesting paradox, this inescapable feeling of “disrespect.”

Is it a terrible misstep to leap into the Cloud? Are we wrecking the Earth even more by cluttering space with satellites instead of grinding trees into paper? It’s hard to say. But I can’t get around this feeling I have that it’s not so simple. The world isn’t ending just because it doesn’t look the way it did 50 years ago, and that means the sacredness of space need not be lost; it’s just changed.  I send emails while camping in the woods and share pictures of sunsets when I’m walking alone. It’s shared space, out there in the digital world, and I exist there, with every push of a button, every song I hear, every word I write, every Google search.

And I exist here, too, in the world of tangibility and touch and physical connection. The grass is green, and the wind is subtle, and light reflects off everything in a way that technology can never capture. I don’t think we have to lose connection just because we’re expanding into virtual space. We still touch. We still feel. We’re not holograms, and we’re not turning into empty shells. Not if we don’t let ourselves. Not if a Google search can still make us feel less alone with the push of a button.