Whenever I am online and someone walks up to me and looks over my shoulder, I tense up. I feel my heart rate rise and my body contracts as if I am trying to protect myself from a serious personal space violation. Every cell in my body wants to scream out: “Hey! What are you doing? Get out of here! Leave me alone!” Instead, I freeze up and wait for the person to feel my frozen energy, get the message and walk away.
I never really understood why I have this kind of intense reaction while I am online and someone else comes into my personal space until I read an essay by the writer Douglas Coupland. In his essay, “Everybody On Earth Is Feeling The Exact Same Thing As You: Notes On Relationships In The Twenty-First Century,” Coupland writes:
“It is very hard to imagine calling someone and saying, “Hey. Come over to my house and we’ll sit next to each other on chairs and go online together!” Going online is such an intrinsically solitary act and yet, ironically, it allows for groups to be formed.”
When I read this I thought to myself: so this is how it happens. It was as if I was realizing something for the very first time. In one sense being online is a very, very solitary act but on the other hand it is not at all. When we are online, we gradually become more and more isolated from the things and people that are in our immediate physical environment and closer and more intimate with the things and people that are “somewhere out there.” It is quite the contemporary paradox that you, myself and everyone else online has found ourselves in.
While I am swimming around online in my continually expanding isolation bubble, I am also becoming more and more connected with other people, music, images, stories, ideas, sites and current events that exist in my online universe. As a result I am becoming more and more disconnected from the people, music, images, stories, ideas, sites, current events and other things that exist in my immediate physical environment. I am becoming quite the anti-social loner who stays indoors more while feeling like I have a rich intellectual, creative, social and spiritual life that seems to exists only when I am online.
My wife, my dogs, my house, my garden, my few remaining physical friends, my beautiful backyard, the stars in the sky, the sun, those long afternoons and evenings spent entirely outside alone and with friends seems to be becoming more and more like background sounds as the internet makes is way more and more into my very private life. Please pardon my over use of the word “more” but the more I am online the more I become isolated from the “very real” things in my life but the more together I become with the people, images, ideas, current events and sounds that are delivered to me through a computer screen. What a paradox!
Even as you are reading this now (chances are that you are reading it on a computer or smart phone), think about everything that you are isolating yourself from at this very moment.
I am trying to be optimistic about the way in which the internet seems to be colonizing our minds and bodies. There is currently a massive sea change taking place in our human relations and the ways in which we spend our time. I realize that at this point it may be an unavoidable sea change and as soon as previous generations and my generation die out, existing in the online world will be the norm. But I can not help but wonder if the paradox that most of us are experiencing at this point in our lives has enormous consequences for our personal freedom, our planet, our mental health, our physical health, our intimate and personal relationships, our imaginations, our backyards, our outdoor afternoons and our pets. It seems to be so that the more and more we are online the more and more we become isolated from all these things.
As we continue to live “part-time” in our immediate environments and relationships and more and more online, I can not help but wonder and feel a bit frightened about what you and I and our society is going to be like twenty years down the line.
But on a more positive note….being online is just so much darn fun for those of us who find ourselves all alone.