I was having an email exchange with my friend Debra Askanase last week. We have a phone call scheduled for next week and she lamented, “.. wish we could all meet for lunch IRL!”
IRL, In Real Life. And I began to wonder what “real life” means. This morning, I saw a book review in the New York Times by Janet Maslin for Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks. Maslin writes, “It tells of a plugged-in, tuned-out Internet culture ‘lost in the misty zone between reality and imagery, no longer able to tell the difference.’”
Of course, we’ve all heard the laments that we have no attention left, that we are constantly plugged in online and unplugged in person, that we’ve lost our manners hidden behind screens. But those laments don’t answer the key question: what is real life?
We know we’re changing because of our access to an overwhelming amount of information, our visible and growing social networks. and the ability to reach almost any one at any time, but do those things make life any less real? In other words, If I talk to Debra on the phone or by Skype next week, is it any less real an interaction than if we met at a restaurant?
Certainly, no technological interface can ever substitute for meeting someone face-to-face. Ninety percent of human communications is non-verbal and these cues and hints are left behind in a virtual exchange. But it is still a real interaction. We have shared ideas and thoughts and feelings.
There is a danger of falling into what I call the social media zero-sum game in these discussions. The polarized argument of extremes from one end where social media enhances human relationships to the other where it irredeemably harms them. Of course, life doesn’t work this way, everything is always somewhere in between. A connection made on Facebook between, say, two people suffering from breast cancer is very real, and powerful, and affirming. It would be deepened by interactions on land, but that doesn’t make it any less real. I reject the notion that the development and spread of social media makes the world any less real, reduces human relationships only to bits and bytes.
However, there is one area where our always on world is causing real harm, and that is in distractions from the here and now. I have started to take away the cell phones from some friends at lunch. You can go an hour, I say, without returning an email or text. Your co-workers, kids, spouses will all survive an hour without you. When someone is right in front of us, when we have given them our word that we have chosen to spend our precious time with them, we ought to live up to the bargain. Be there, be present, as soon as you are distracted by a ping, poke or text, that promise has been broken, irretrievably. Here is a great article from Mashable about managing your attention in a world of distractions.
The world is real, whether it is online or on land, the distractions are also real, how we choose to manage them is up to us.