For the record, I’m exponentially more articulate in writing than I am in speaking extemporaneously

It’s late in the evening when I tell him that I read the description of the panel he’s moderating on Saturday. It’s likely that by this point, he still hasn’t prepared the questions he’ll be asking the panelists, but he knows better than to look to me for any inspiration in that arena. Still, he’s asks what I think about the panel– or rather: "What do you think it’s about? The way it’s written on the site, it just seems so… widespread. The topics are kind of all over the place."

I try to remember exactly how the description went, and fail. Still. "Well, obviously it’s built around the new forms of mainstream communication and our generation’s growing use of it, to where digital forms of communication– e-mails, chats, IMs, text messages– are becoming the dominant ones. I don’t know, it just reminds me of a discussion we had in one of my classes at USD, either in one of my upper-division writing classes or one of my comm classes, and we talked about the impact digital communication was having on human relations."

He looks at me, waiting. The pause extends as I try to form coherent thoughts.

"It’s the whole idea of, because there’s this generation of people who’ve learned to express themselves predominantly through online or wireless channels, they’ve reduced their abilities to express themselves with to people face-to-face. Interpersonal social skills are affected. Our ability to form human relations in the real world diminishes as we become more and more engaged in forming digital relations, and so on."

"But what does that matter?" he counters.

I give him a blank stare, unsure if he’s playing devil’s advocate or if he genuinely means this. I ask for clarification: "Interpersonal skills?" He affirms. I’m still a little incredulous. "Because– because that’s part of what makes us human. That’s what we are."

"That’s what we were," he corrects me. "Look at technology. Look at everything we can do online. Who needs the real world? It’s irrelevant."

I concede that technology has done great things in eliminating borders: "You can communicate, instantly, with people halfway around the world. You can keep in touch with more people with less effort and often at no or minimal cost. I’ll give you that. The digital realm is great for that. But it doesn’t provide for any of our senses beyond visual or aural. There’s no–" I fish wildly for something to make my case. I’m actually getting upset about this; I read too much Saint-Exupéry [1] growing up. Out of desperation, I turn to my watered-down version of the Socratic method:

"Okay. You can either be standing in the middle of a virtual garden or a real one. Which would you choose?" He chooses the real one. "Exactly. Because of the experience, right? You can hear the wind in the trees and smell the flowers and feel the sunshine on your skin and the grass under your feet."

There’s a beat. Then: "Now. You can either be on Skype with me for weeks, months even, 24/7, and we’re always connected that way, we can talk to each other and even *see* each other– or you can have one hour, just one, with me in person. Which would you choose?"

And without even hesitating, he replies, "The one hour with you." And I ask him why. And his expression is this exquisite combination of intensity and sweetness as he tells me: "Because I’d get to hold you."

And I smile. "You see? And that’s what makes us human, or part of it, anyway. Without the ability to connect and interact with other people in the physical world, we’d just be robots. That’s why interpersonal social skills are crucial tools, and that’s why the real world isn’t irrelevant. As connected we can be online, to hundreds of thousands, to millions of people worldwide– without someone to share things with offline, we are ultimately alone. Only, we’re not, because we are physically surrounded by communities of those very people. It’s just a matter of whether we are able to connect, to communicate with them."

A small victory, but a meaningful one. Meaningful enough, to me.

[1] Who is the source for numerous well-known quotes, such as, "There is no hope or joy except in human relations."


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