Proximity in the Digital Age

My high school was located in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico; the entire student body had to share one single router together (that is why, when people at Wheaton complain about the Internet speed, my reaction is always: “I’ve seen worse”). I could never call my parents on Skype because the connection was always jammed and slow. We heard each other’s voices only during the weekend. So most of the times when we had a special event on campus and when everyone was hanging out together, I would sneak back into my room to take advantage of the Internet speed, in order to stay in touch with the people that I felt connected too, with the network that I felt I belonged to.

Seven years have passed and technology has changed drastically. I have better Internet speed, Facetime, Viber – all kinds of smart apps that aim to make people feel more connected. More connection, more conversations with my parents. More connection, more daily talk with friends. I often viewed this affordance of technology as completely advantageous, but that view is one-sided. After reading in Off the Network: Disrupting the Digital World, in which Ulises Ali Mejias offers an extensive and disconcerting claim in regards to how digital networks are changing the way people and societies function, I could see the other side of the conversation in chapter 6: “Proximity and Conflict”. Now I also realize: more connection, less interaction with my intermediate environment.

Mejias argues:

The notion of the near as what is spatially proximal is being remodelled into a notion of the near as what is socially proximal – what we feel relevant to us socially, regardless of whether it is spatially near or far (97)

This argument holds true to what I’ve been feeling throughout my stay abroad. I always have to make a trade-off between spending time virtually with people that are spatially far away and participating in what is more spatially immediate and available. I would not go out and party on Friday night because that is the time when my mom goes online. When my house is watching a movie and my dad asks me to talk, I would excuse myself and go talk to him. By being anti-social in a network, I become more social in another. As someone who is privileged in the other side of the digital divide, my “near is no longer bound by space, but instead is something that is constructed through participation in digital networks” (97).

So does it mean the more advanced our technology gets, the more the divide between by proximate and distant networks will be more expanded? Does it mean people who are more privileged on the other side of digital divide will have a much more intense tension between being virtually inclusive and being physically exclusive? It seems like technological advances these days have focused much more on reconfiguring further distance and forgotten about our immediate proximity? Consider these two examples:

Researchers at the University of Washington are developing a human-to-human, brain-to-brain noninvasive interface. “The system allows one researcher to remotely control the hand of another researcher, across the internet, merely by thinking about moving his hand. The researchers are already looking at a two-way system, to allow for a more “equitable” telepathic link between the two human brains, and the telepathic communication of complex information.” (Anthony)

We had a discussion about Facebook’s 2-billion dollar deal with Oculus VR Inc, a maker of virtual-reality glasses for gaming. Professor Stenger asked us if we would like to hangout virtually with fake people yet with real soul or be with real, yet fake people. Everyone protested against the idea of the glass, but I was too timid to admit that I would want it. But now, after reading Mejias’ discussion, I have to ask myself again. Would I, though?

Maybe not. Not because I do not want to feel closer and more in touch with people who live so far from me, I want balance between my two networks. Borgmann, as quoted in Mejia, also claims that “use of the Internet at home leaves people feeling lonely and unhappy” (56). So by staying connected with my distant network, most of the time, I feel lonely and detached from this community I am in.

I would agree with Mejias that digital technology (and networks) are creating inequality amongst users not because of the digital divide itself, but it is also because of how the technology industry has focused on reenforcing the idea of a lifestyle that heavily relies on digital connection. Perhaps there should be more innovations that value proximate human connections that could catch up with our advancements in technology for distant bonds.

 

Citations:

Anthony , Sebastian . “First human brain-to-brain interface allows remote control over the internet, telepathy coming soon | ExtremeTech.” ExtremeTech. http://www.extremetech.com/extreme/165081-first-human-brain-to-brain-interface-allows-remote-control-over-the-internet-telepathy-coming-soon (accessed).

Mejias, Ulises Ali. Off the network: disrupting the digital world: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2013.

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