View from Rue Saint-Georges

Disconnection in a Connected Age

On the mixed blessing of technological advancement

By Thomas Chatterton Williams | May 1, 2019
Flickr/demandaj
Flickr/demandaj

When I first lived abroad, in the north of France in 2003, I used a flip phone for texting my few local friends to make plans and for having long, in-depth conversations with my parents on Sundays. It was an exhilarating experience to be abroad, a period of discovery and immense learning—about the world, who I was, and who I wanted to be. It was also a lonely time in my life. I barely worked—my job teaching English required just 10 hours each week, and I took my sick days liberally. I didn’t really use the Internet back then. Although I’d acclimated to having a high-speed connection at college, I didn’t bother to get Wi-Fi in my new flat. Three or four times a week, I went to a cyber café and caught up on all of my emails. The rest of the time, I read text on paper, met with people face to face, or ruminated on my own thoughts.

Now that I find myself living overseas a second time, I realize how technological leaps have changed the way that I communicate with friends and family. FaceTime, in particular, the medium of choice for calling home on Sundays (which allows my children to see their grandparents), has been the single most effective tool for keeping a family that gets together twice a year from feeling like a group of vaguely familiar strangers. And yet, I’ve started to wonder if this magical faux-proximity hasn’t come at the price of a shallower, more rushed and performative sort of engagement that discourages genuine intimacy. The staccato, emoji-and-typo-laced text messages that allow me to banter constantly with my mother and closest friends have replaced the once or twice weekly, paragraphs-long missives we used to send each other to make sense of our lives—letters that were filled, necessarily, with real news since we didn’t observe each other passively through Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. I’ve been thinking about something my friend Marjon wrote in an essay titled, “Why Long Phone Conversations Are Necessary to My Happiness”:

A phone call is a remarkably contained experience between two people in a world that otherwise demands we share everything. It’s funny how, for all the advancement I’ve seen in technology, the phone still feels novel. It still feels like there is always something new to say and share and solve, simply by dialing the right number.

I have no doubt that she is right, the only question is how to recondition myself to this.

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