Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Pursuit of Connection

Being the movie buff I am, I watch an eclectic range of movie genres. The weirder it sounds, the better. Last weekend I watched Her, starring Joachim Phoenix as a recently divorced man who so desperately wants to feel connection to someone that he begins a relationship with the voice of his computer operating system. The movie takes place just a few years in the future where an operating system (e.g. Windows and Mac) has been developed that not only has a voice, but the disembodied voice can learn. The voice learns the user's likes and dislikes as well as learns to develop its own personality. It does not take long before lead character Theodore falls in love.

Our increasingly digital population is not that far off from this, I fear. The hunger for connection used to be sated by a trip to the local watering hole with friends, where a few laughs were had, a few problems were solved, and maybe a new friend was made. The last ten years, with ever-growing digital means to communicate, has seen a slow degradation of real, person-to-person, conversation. In 1990, when an event occurred in someone's life, they gathered around the kitchen table or ran across the street to tell their friend. Today, a significant event would be immediately followed by hands searching for a smart phone and a quick condensation of feelings into 140 characters or less so it could be tweeted to the world. The same goes for insignificant events. In fact, let's be honest, most social media posts are insignificant events.

We are hungry for connection and in all the wonderful advancements of technology, we are slowly losing the art of how to talk to each other, how to look into someone's eyes and sense their emotion. We speak in acronyms and hashtags while our beautiful language becomes as diluted as our relationships. We keep ourselves shrouded behind touch screens and keyboards, always just out of reach of the real emotion, the real connection.  No better place can this be seen than in the upswing of online relationships.

Now, I am not about to bash online dating. Some of my most favorite couples met online. The difference with them is while they met online, they developed their relationship in person. The anonymity of the internet can hide a myriad of woes, and it can become too easy to stretch that little white lie into a big fat falsehood. The increasing occurrence of this has launched an interesting television show entitled Catfish on the MTV Networks.

The premise of Catfish is that a person involved in an online relationship -- who has yet to meet the person on the other end of the relationship -- contacts the show's hosts with suspicions the other person may not be who they said they were. But there is the hope that they are, too. The hosts, Nev Schulman and Max Joseph, investigate the other party and arrange for the two online love-birds to meet. It usually ends badly. A viewer might be quick to say the person should have known better than to believe the story given by the other party. Yet, in this technological age when we crave human interaction, we can feast on some of the most unassuming nibbles of affection. Before you know it, we have followed that trail of emotional crumbs into something we did not expect, but still hope will lead us to our happiness. It does not only happen online. 

I sat with my sister one evening, having dinner at a local restaurant. While we waited for our order, I could not help but watch a family at the next table -- Mom, Dad, and two energetic, well-behaved, elementary-aged children. The little girl was excited to tell her parents of her day at school, surely filled with drawing pictures and reading stories. Quite animated in her recitation of her day, her mother listened intently, looking at the youngster as if she were made of pure gold. The little girl directed her conversation toward her father with the exuberance only found in the spirited souls of children. The father, eyes permanently fixed on his smart phone, did not look up. He spend the entire dinner focused on a piece of machinery while his life was sitting right in front of him.

I said to my sister, "He's missing the best part." Technology has made great advancements in communication, true, but it can also get in the way. 

This week, I learned of a young man named Greg Hindy who is walking across America. A photographer, Greg is not only walking across the country to develop his craft, but he also took a vow of silence. Beginning last summer, his trek started in New Hampshire and took him through the south and across the southwest, where he turned north and traversed the Rocky Mountains. He is currently walking through the Pacific Northwest, eventually making his way to California where his journey is scheduled to end this summer.

Hindy's journey began as an art project with his stated intention of compiling his photographs afterward to present to the supporters of his Kickstarter funding project. The vow of silence is used to direct him to use the photographs as his voice, to take better shots, and to connect with his surroundings more fully. Other than his camera, Hindy has no technology with him -- no cell phone, no GPS, no music. He communicates with a notebook and pen, telling people of his silence through his written words. The people he encounters often take photographs of him and post them to the Facebook group managed by Hindy's father, Carl. Some even call Carl to let him know how Greg is doing. Carl tracks his son's progress by the use of his debit card, marking the places on a map, and sharing it on the Facebook page. Greg has garnered quite a community without uttering one word or typing one tweet.

The pursuit of connection can lead us to some unexpected places. The use of technology can as well. Somehow, I think Greg has found more authentic human connection even without his voice than most people will ever find in their lives with their voice. Or their iPhones. Or Facebook. Or Twitter. As with so many things in our lives, it is about quality, not quantity. Quality communication between people will build quality connection. But I would be hard-pressed to be convinced that anything could replace looking into someone's eyes and seeing our words reflected in them.

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