When I started my psychotherapy practice in 1985, the world was dramatically different than today. There was no internet. There were no cell phones. There was no e-mail. There were no texts. All media--books, newspapers and magazines, were physical and in-print, not on-line. And if I wanted to have a conversation with someone, there were two options: face to face and on the phone.
In many ways, things were much simpler back then. When my first book, Living With Vision: Reclaiming the Power of the Heart, was published in 1988, I threw a big book launch party at a Boston area nightclub to bring people together to celebrate in community. If I were to publish a new book tomorrow, I would set up a Facebook fan page for the book, organize a party on Meetup.com, send out an event announcement using Constant Contact, post announcements on LinkedIn and on my regular Facebook page, and tweet updates as often as possible to let people know.
As a writer and psychotherapist, I feel the changes from our old face to face based relating culture to our modern technology based more virtual culture. As a person, I feel the changes even more strongly, and watch the changes color the landscape of others' lives.
People of all ages can spend hours chatting with "friends" on Facebook, without ever leaving the comfort of their living room. They can "talk" while dressed in their pajamas and never utter a spoken word. Committees can meeting using a free internet conference calling service, and never need a face to face meeting to get their work done. Teens or older adults can communicate daily with their loved ones through texts and e-mails, forgetting or perhaps never learning that some topics are best discussed in person and not in a virtual medium.
At its best, virtual communication allows us to feel connected easily, quickly and without much logistical work to be at a certain place at a certain time. At its worst, virtual communication leaves us feeling isolated, connected but alone, missing the special meaning of a look on someone's face, a gleam in the eye, or the warm, nurturing feeling of a hug or caress. Some experiences translate into virtual moments. Others simply do not.
In late March, the Wall Street Journal published an article about the increase of teenage depression with Facebook use. On the one hand, many teens feel a wider social network than kids in their actual classes at school through their connection of Facebook friends. On the other hand, they may feel lonely and disconnected, because all of their communications take place when they are by themselves with only a computer as their companion. If they try to arrange a time to "hang out," they may find their phone call unanswered, or their plan forgotten as their friend gets lost in a sea of cyberconversations or video games, while time marches on. Facebook allows people to post photos that create an image of life as wonderful and fun, even if real life is not nearly so grand. And people create "avatar-like" personas, never needing to do equal work to develop their inner personas.
No matter how many virtual tools we develop to stay "in touch," communicate quickly, efficiently and replace the need for a meeting real-time, if we go too far on the virtual side of the human-technology continuum, a part of our spirit gets lost. If you are sad, does it not feel better to look into the eyes of an understanding friend? If you are scared, can a text replace a hug? Can a kiss be replaced by an e-mail saying "I love you?" Our human senses make life richer and more meaningful. WHh lose them in our relating with others?
While I can talk to someone on the phone and counsel them on Skype, I cannot reach out and touch them, or bring the full energy of my heart to them when we are so far away. Some part of relating simply cannot be whole when done at a distance. To "be with" someone, really means being with them.
Just like the experiments with the clothand wire monkeys in my freshman psychology class, there are lessons about the emotional and spiritual cost of a more virtual and less tactile existence. Technology can help us share our words, ideas and thoughts, but to physically feel another's presence, hold another's hand, and feel the beat of another person's heart in a mutual embrace introduces a much deeper, essential dimension of human experience into our lives. May we never forget the important of being face to face people in our increasingly virtual world.