Have you read about the woman in China who was found dead after being stuck in her apartment building’s elevator for a month? After an investigation it was determined the elevator company committed “gross negligence.”
Is this really an elevator problem? Didn’t the community within the apartment complex also commit gross negligence by letting a neighbor slowly die right down the hall from them?
Do we have a responsibility to look after our neighbors? Is any commitment beyond reading emails from the listserv too much to ask?
When I was in college another university in town experienced an above-average suicide rate among its students. These sad deaths had something else in common that was unique to that school. Bodies were discovered because of the smell. Students on a hall would complain about an odor, and the student’s body would be found days after death.
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I didn’t understand how that could happen given the networks we formed in my dorms. “How could nobody know,” I wondered. My life as a young college student was filled with people and relationships. I interacted with people in my dorm and in my classrooms. Roommates knew where I was, where I worked, what time I should be home. We were in a city where connectedness can sometimes keep you alive.
I was in school in the ’80s and dated a boy at the other school. Once he cancelled our plans because he had received a message that night from a professor criticizing his lack of preparation for class. “How do you hear from your professor at night?” I asked, and he explained LANS and WANS. I didn’t understand then but do now.
How could students at a school so well-connected at that time by communications technology be so disconnected from fellow students that a next-door neighbor could die and nobody would know? Was this a precursor to today, where we can have 500 friends on Facebook, people prefer texting to talking, and we are virtually connected yet feeling completely alone?
I’ve seen my sons jump like Pavlov’s dogs when they hear any kind of chime, vibration or ding from their phones. I always say “a text or an update is by nature not an emergency. You don’t have to stop whatever you’re doing to check your phone. It causes anxiety.” I say this to them, but I see my peers doing the same thing.
What on our phones is more important than the person beside us? Do we look to our phones for something to discuss when the conversation hits a lull? This thing didn’t even exist 20 years ago, and we panic when we misplace it. How did we survive all those years without it?
What do we lose in our interpersonal life when we put a screen between us and other people? Do we even need other people when we have our screen?
I recently participated as a story teller in The Monti, a local story telling venue. I have always found an evening at The Monti to be a very profound experience of shared humanity. Five different people each tell a 12-minute story around a single theme. Is it possible The Monti is always sold out because we are desperate to be with one another, to share intimacy, to not feel so alone with our stories? Is a person on a stage sharing a personal story the new intimacy?
Did phones evolve because we can’t handle intimacy, or can we not handle intimacy because of the phone?
The first generation to grow up with smart phones is in college where the “hookup culture” is now part of campus life. Students hook up late at night, and after doing the most intimate thing two humans can do, they will barely wave at each other the next day. I’m told that if you try to talk to the student you hooked up with, you are considered a “stalker” or “psycho.”
Are these students, and their inability to experience intimacy when sober, the first wave of casualties of social networks?
Those students at the university up the street from mine were early adapters of the screen. They, like us, thought it was really special to be able to communicate with hundreds, if not thousands of people at one time. Were those now long-dead students the canary in the coal mine of virtual connectedness?
I have wondered about this woman in China. If we checked her Facebook page would we see posts like this from friends, “Haven’t heard from you in a while. Hope everything’s OK(smiley face emoji)!” Could we comfort ourselves after a death by saying, “But I just liked his post?”
Will screen relationships be enough or are we, like that woman in China, starved for human connection?
Mary Carey lives in Chapel Hill with her husband, two sons and two dogs. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and @maryhelenecarey