Monday, January 13, 2014

Relationships and Presence

In my Colson Center article 'Hollowing out the Habits of Attention (part 3)', I suggested that the temptation with online relationships—or even real-world relationships in which the majority of communication occurs through texting—is that we can act as if we were disembodied and thereby suspend the vulnerability and fragility connected to our body.

Michael Heim warned about these types of disembodied relationships back in his 1994 book The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality,
“Today’s computer communication cuts the physical face out of the communication process. Computers stick the windows of the soul behind monitors, headsets and datasuits… The living non-representable face is the primal source of reasonability, the direct, warm link between private bodies. Without directly meeting others physically, our ethics languishes. Face-to-face communication, the fleshly bond between people, supports a long-term warmth and loyalty, a sense of obligation for which the computer-mediated communities have not yet been tested.”
In its most extreme manifestation, the preference for disembodied relationships finds expression in men who do not even want to have sex since virtual girlfriends can satisfy all their needs. Even in less extreme forms, however, the ubiquity of virtual communication is making it hard to be attentive to real flesh-and-blood relationships.

The really scary thing is that the more time we spend in front of the computer, the more our brain structures change so that we become unable to relate to real flesh-and-blood people. As Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan explain in their book iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind,
“As the brain evolves and shifts its focus toward new technological skills, it drifts away from fundamental social skills, such as reading facial expressions during conversation or grasping the emotional context of a subtle gesture. A Standford University study found that for every hour we spend on our computers, traditional face-to-face interaction time with other people drops by nearly thirty minutes. With the weakening of the brain's neural circuitry controlling human contact, our social interactions may become awkward, and we tend to misinterpret, and even miss subtle, nonverbal messages."

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