If there is anything on the internet that I love, it is Ted Talks. I have imposed strict rules on myself with respect to limiting my use of social media and online entertainment – I do not allow myself to watch television during the school year, I do not permit myself to even download games on my phone or computer, and I will not become friends with anyone on Facebook unless I work with them (examples: members of my a capella group, brothers in my fraternity, etc.). Yet I can spend hours meandering through the world of Ted Talks, introducing myself to all sorts of ideas I might never have encountered otherwise. I argue, when the hours pass and I still haven’t done my homework, that I am still learning something new and valuable (which, I’d like to think, I am). I will spend entire days sitting in a coffee shop with a pile of library books, a cup of Chai and my computer, alternating between reading, listening to musical theater and watching Ted Talks.
Technology is, in this way, about my connection with ideas that interest me and passions I want to pursue, as well as a means with which to organize and communicate with those I work with. It is not, probably unlike many other students, a primary means with which I connect with others. Bronwyn Haggerty, a friend I made earlier this year, initially made contact with me when she mentioned to me that she had attempted to stalk me on Facebook, only to realize that I did not, at the time, have an active Facebook account. I had deactivated it during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of high school, to my immense relief after several years of awkwardly balancing how much information I wanted to put online. But Bronwyn’s comment struck me as oddly unsettling. “Well then,” I told her, “You’ll just have to stalk me in real life, won’t you?” Had I a Facebook account, she may have perused my profile absently and sent me a friend request, which I would have rejected, thinking “Who is this person?” But not having one forced her to interact with me one on one, without being able to peruse or edit ourselves.
This issue – of me not being Facebook friends with others, and them expressing dissatisfaction with it – is one that I was surprised to see was widespread, once I joined my fraternity and had to reactivate my Facebook. Members of my choir, brothers in my fraternity, and classmates all inquired accusatorily “Why aren’t why friends on Facebook?” The primary reason for most of those people was just that I didn’t know them. What possible purpose could our Facebook friendship serve? More likely than not, our online relationship would be little more than a small nod to one another’s mere existence, with neither party having the interest or willpower to connect with the other. A friendship is not defined by its Facebook status, or the number of posts on one another’s walls. A “relationship” built off of online connection is silly, immature and absolutely useless. I cannot see enthusiasm in a friend’s eyes while we text, and I cannot hear the rise and fall of their voice in a status. I am Facebook friends with almost none of my truly close friends, and none of my family. I would much rather connect with them directly, and be friends with them in a much better place – real life.
I do not mean to say that technology is bad. I think that it is neither intrinsically good nor bad; it is a tool that can be used in a great many ways. I have seen a beautiful Ted Talk about Facebook being used between Israelis and Iranians to directly promote peace (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Lp-NMaU0r8) and another about technological designs made for the visually impaired (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apiScBmE6rA&list=PLOGi5-fAu8bGBdmcaxdD_lUZ1wXZhpccQ&index=2). Technology has improved the world one hundred times over and one hundred times again, eradicating diseases, allowing us to communicate rapidly and giving us (my personal favorite) indoor plumbing. Yet when it comes to technology and social interaction, I wonder if there is a limit to their seemingly symbiotic relationship. So I shall leave you with one last Ted Talk, discussing this very subject, entitled “Connected, But Alone?” by Sherry Turkle (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t7Xr3AsBEK4). The eloquent Mrs. Turkle explains the way that society’s dependence on social media has created a mindset wherein, rather than experiencing emotion and connecting with others for that, we experience a sense of emptiness, and turn to others in search of any emotion at all – encapsulated by her phrase “I share, therefore I am”. It is ultimately the ability to be alone, to face and know oneself, that will make connecting with others easier and more sincere. This is not to say that others do not help one find oneself, or that connecting with others will ever truly be easy. But others cannot, as Turkle says, “be used to prop up our fragile sense of self”, and relationships are meant to be “rich and complicated and messy” – that is what makes them real.
I love talking with other people. I love listening to them explain their lives and hopes in all their grand and mundane details. I love laughing with others, seeing the emotions in their eyes, feeling their comfort when we hug. None of these things can be found on my phone or through profiles in which we have altered ourselves to be just right. I’ve learned to be alone to know myself well enough that others are not parts from which I makeshift myself; others are companions, independent and worthy of both respect and interest. At the end of the day, technology can be an excellent communication and coordination tool for connecting with others, but when used as a primary component of a relationship, it is a pale imitation of all the beautiful mess that is trying to see someone for exactly who they are.