Is anyone out there?

I recently co-facilitated a two-day workshop for climate crisis activists from a number of communities in Ontario and Quebec. In the opening round of introductions, many of them spoke about feeling alone and isolated, except for their online connections with other activists (whom they had not met in person) and activist organizations. One young women, with tears in her eyes, said:

“I read about something awful that’s happening with climate change on Twitter, and I like it and retweet it, but then I sit by myself and wonder: Will anyone read it? Does anyone care? Will anyone do anything?”

These feelings were palpable in the room as the weekend began. By the end of our two days together, when we asked everyone how they had found the session, they were effusive in their appreciation for what we had shared with them, but even more they were grateful for the time they had been able to spend, in real life, in the same room, talking, learning, listening, eating and laughing with like-minded people.

This is not a screed about the evils of the internet. I could not do my job without it. I learn and teach online. I see the ways in which it materially improves the lives of the women on whom most of my work is focused by increasing their access to legal information, legal advice and emotional support. It facilitates some kinds of political organizing. It can make communication easier (I find it much more satisfying to have an email conversation with my very hard-of-hearing father than to try to talk to him on the telephone). I can catch up on the news online when it is convenient for me rather than when a newscast airs on television or radio.

Where did it all start?

The Vietnam War (1955 – 1975) overlapped with the rise of television culture in the United States: between 1950 and 1966, the percentage of American homes with a television set rose from 9% to 93%:

“For the first time in American history, the news from the frontline was brought straight into the living room.”

The war created a new place for television and, even after it ended, people continued to turn to their television sets for the information and companionship they had previously found in books, neighbours and friends.

Alice, in Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Pigs in Heaven, is married to a man who watches the Home Shopping Channel, with the sound muted, all day long:

“She hates television, and not just because her husband has left her for one: she hates it on principle. . . .  If people won’t talk to each other, they shouldn’t count on strangers in suits and makeup to give them the straight dope.”

Happily for Alice, she leaves Harland, who believes there is no point in ever going anywhere because you can see it on TV, but better, because the camera can get up really close, for a man who shoots his TV to prove his love for her.

Unfriended friends

Whether television or the internet, we can overdo it and then realize, as James Avramenko did recently, that our lives consist of little more than scrolling through social media and convincing ourselves we have a life. Avramenko has begun the slow process of breaking up with his more than 500 FB friends, doing so by making a personal phone to each one for a real conversation:

“We think if we look at someone [on Facebook], and we check where they are in the world, then we’ve checked in. . . . That’s not a relationship. It’s voyeurism. . . I say, tongue in cheek, that I’m trying to lose all my friends, but I’m actually trying to get them back in a more mindful way.”

Like the young woman at the workshop, we all need real life human to human contact as well as that which happens online. They both have lots to offer, but we lose more when we fail to connect person to person.

As Kingsolver’s Alice says:

“[b]eing there in person is not the same as watching. You might see things better on television, but you’ll never know if you were alive or dead while you watched.”

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