We live in a world of irony. Our information society with its plethora of social networks has enabled us to say anything to anyone. Open-ness should foster more friendship, yet technology dilutes the word ‘friend,’ as someone merely linked to on a social network. There are less demands placed on friendship, yet technology raises the bar on friendship, a friend is someone that will communicate with you on any social medium.
Friendship, the pre-Internet sort, is dead. What sort of friendship is this? Friendship has always been a piece of perplexity and complexity when considered philosophically, but let me create a context.
Paul Miller describes pre-Internet friendships when he gave up the Internet for a year.
1. You meet your friends off-line often through serendipity.
‘Outside the stadium, I was spotted by a man brandishing one of my own articles about leaving the internet. He was ecstatic to meet me. I had chosen to avoid the internet for many of the same reasons his religion expressed caution about the modern world.
“It’s reprogramming our relationships, our emotions, and our sensitivity,” said one of the rabbis at the rally. It destroys our patience. It turns kids into “click vegetables.”
My new friend outside the stadium encouraged me to make the most of my year, to “stop and smell the flowers.”‘
2. Conversation requires complete and full attention, whose reward and complete and full connection.
My sister, who has dealt with the frustration of trying to talk to me while I’m half listening, half computing for her entire life, loves the way I talk to her now. She says I’m less detached emotionally, more concerned with her well-being — less of a jerk, basically.
3. There is an art of simply “hanging out.”
I used to hang out at a coffee shop called the Reverie after 9/11 and before this current tech boom. Unemployment made friendship important and also gave people plenty of time. There was an art to hanging out. People would just sit for hours talking about art, music, and life. We would enjoy a pause, a smile. Life felt like a Terrence Malick film in its pacing and its profound revelations that could not be summed up in a photo, a tweet or a blog post. I am hard pressed to find a coffee shop like that.
Paul Miller backtracks a bit. He didn’t experience an “apocalypse of self.” He didn’t find his real self. In the end he denies that there is an Internet self and a self without it because of a conference he went to.
But then I spoke with Nathan Jurgenson, a ‘net theorist who helped organize the conference. He pointed out that there’s a lot of “reality” in the virtual, and a lot of “virtual” in our reality. When we use a phone or a computer we’re still flesh-and-blood humans, occupying time and space. When we’re frolicking through a field somewhere, our gadgets stowed far away, the internet still impacts our thinking: “Will I tweet about this when I get back?”
My plan was to leave the internet and therefore find the “real” Paul and get in touch with the “real” world, but the real Paul and the real world are already inextricably linked to the internet. Not to say that my life wasn’t different without the internet, just that it wasn’t real life.
I would easily de-bunk this reality by citing the numerous studies on how our brains react chemically to the virtual and the real. In a General Theory of Love, there’s a study referenced where physical presence is a necessary party of the healing power of therapy. Babies cannot be raised virtually because they rely on physical contact to mirror the mother’s breathe and heart rate. Sudden Infant Death syndrome can be an outcome. If babies can die from a lack of physical touch, then how can it not have an effect on adults? We need other people in meat space.
Still, Paul Miller is right in that many have the Internet in the back of their minds when they disconnect. Unplugging and its attendant behaviors are a kind of play acting, an anachronism.
In the pre-Internet world, they said that you were lucky if you had one friend. In this Internet age, you are lucky if you do not make the mistake of treating a virtual connection as a real friend.