- E.M. Forster, Howard’s End
On a Friday evening I pull into the local pizza place. Parked next to me is a car with three passengers: a young mother in the front seat, her smart phone in her hand, her eyes on the screen. Two children are in the back. A four-year-old is in a car seat with a small digital pad in her hands, fingers pressing the screen. An older boy, maybe seven, sits next to her, absorbed in a digital tablet.
It’s a summer evening, the air beginning to cool, the light still transparent at 7:30. Their windows are open, as are mine. I turn off my car and wait a few moments, glancing over, seeing if I might catch their eye. Their eyes remain locked on their screens. Not only do they not notice me, they do not interact with each other.
I walk into the pizza place. A few minutes later when I return, they are gone, and the opportunity for connection has vanished.
Where is the shared experience in that family’s car? When the father came out with the pizza, did they put down their devices down and speak to him? Did they notice the aroma of the pizza, anticipate its taste, talk to each other? Or did they remain hostage to their hand-held devices? Who are they connecting with, if not with the people that are with them in the car? What will the memory of that moment be, or will there even be one? And if so, where will it be stored? On a digital server somewhere? (See Huff Post Article on Why Hand Held Devices for Children Should Be Banned)
I held out getting my own smart phone until last year. My husband and I had “dumb phones” (flip phones) until we could justify the expense. Once we converted, we were hooked. I am now guilty of checking my emails and Facebook an unnecessary amount of times during the day. It is so easy to do when I’m waiting at the bank drive-up, or riding in the car. I used to interact with the bank tellers more, and watch the passing scenery. Now I have to make a conscious effort not to give in to the tug of instant virtual gratification.
Fourteen years ago, when we first moved to this house, people would stop and ask for directions when I was out walking. It’s easy to get confused on Connecticut country roads because they all look alike: winding, surrounded by woods on both sides, often unmarked by street signs. It wasn’t unusual to see a driver stopped, looking puzzled.
I’d ask, “Do you know where you’re going? Do you need directions?” Then a conversation would occur, I’d direct them where they needed to go, and commiserate about how easy it is to get lost in these parts.
Although now I still see people stopped, when I offer help they seem surprised, shake their heads, say “No, I’m just checking my GPS”. I want to say: Wouldn’t you rather talk to a person than a digital interface? Wouldn’t you like to know the shortcut and to avoid that road that is paved at the start but soon turns into a steep, rutted, dirt road that can tear out your car's suspension?
I have always loved paper maps. In our house I’m known as the Map Queen because I have so many of them stuffed into my car door’s pocket. I throw the road atlas in the back seat whenever we take a trip. I like looking at a map. It brings me into the experience of our route, let’s me know where I am and where I’m going. Yes, I know, it can be seen as a metaphor for wanting to feel grounded and secure and perhaps in need of control, but navigation through this world is fun.
On a paper map you can see a shortcut, or try a back road, or look, we’re just a few miles from this interesting looking place. With GPS, we follow the voice rather blindly, trusting a digital navigator to guide us. I’m a spiritually oriented person and I love trusting the invisible, but I'm interested in the form of the invisible that arises from within, not from the car dashboard.
Behind the Moon
Only connect! When E.M. Forster wrote this, he wasn’t addressing the need for social connection, but it has become associated with that in this age of social media. (See New Republic article on context of this quote.)
If I had to choose one quote to live by, it would be this one. It covers so much: only connect to the moment, to nature, to the deepest part of me, to whatever is presenting in my life, to whatever I’m experiencing, to that person across from me
When we don’t reach out to a stranger, we diminish our sense of feeling safe in the world, of trusting it to be a generally friendly place. We are isolated in our vehicles with our GPS, glued to our screens out in the world, frozen in front of the glowing squares in our homes. How many times have you seen people at the same restaurant table completely ignoring each other while they tend to their lit rectangles?
The experience of looking someone in the eye and seeing them, physically seeing them, of waiting to hear the answer while studying their face, of thinking of the life behind that face, this is what’s lost when we don’t connect with each other. No matter how much we’ve evolved and understand the physics of our existence and the oneness of everything, we still live and have our being in a physical world. The sensory experience of interacting with another of our species is a sweet, interesting, integral part of being human.
Which is why we are naturally curious about each other. When I’m standing in the grocery line behind a parent with a baby, I hone right in on that little being. I want to make eye contact because that baby seems to know something that I want to experience again.
When he was a boy, my husband asked his mother where he was before he was born.
“Behind the moon,” she told him.
I think babies may remember that place. When they hook into my gaze and stay with me, I want to go wherever they are going, and for those moments, I am a child again.
That baby makes me smile, and I’m still smiling when it’s my turn to check out. I make eye contact with the cashier, exchange a few friendly words, and in doing so I acknowledge, however briefly, that we share the same place, the same planet, and that, on some level, we're all in this together. There is no digital equivalent for that kind of connection.