Illustration credit: Marina Sagona
What do I know about the Web? Does it connect me and my office at home to anything meaningful? Does it weigh a package so that I don’t have to schlep down to the post office for the right postage? Does it ask me how I’m feeling and wish me a good day? Does it explain a sunrise or keep me in touch with my brothers hundreds of miles away? Well, yes and no.
I’m a writer and editor for Herman Miller, Inc. Two decades ago, as a kind of pioneer, I became a “remote user.” When they began calling me that, I wondered if I would work like my television remote. Nothing’s that simple. Then I became a “home office worker,” which means I pay for heat, electricity, and water during the day. There’s nobody here to joke with, except the dog. And I wondered if I could keep connected to my company. Now people tell me I have an “alternative work style.” And they say that’s perfectly acceptable.
You’d think by now I would be used to connecting myself to my colleagues 140 or so miles away. But that really doesn’t tell me how they feel, what they are wearing, how their faces change when they laugh or get mad.
But connections are two-way streets, or should I say two-way data and communication links. Connections, true connections, let you discover more than what’s on the surface of the page or the screen. I wonder about all the electronic connections these days and whether they give me more than the superficial. When I send this essay in to my editor attached to an email, I won’t be able to see her grimace at the subject or frown at my mistakes.
In a charming little piece about connections that he wrote years ago, design lecturer Ralph Caplan observed, “Sometimes it seems that connection is a human impulse almost as deep as love and fear, and freighted with the same urgency.” As he often does, Ralph hit the nail on the head. We do feel the need to be connected, even if it’s only under the auspices of AT&T or Comcast. My need for connection lies behind my patience with technology and its discontents. My desire for connection forces me to keep trying, to keep reaching out without touching anyone at all. Some connection is better than none.
On the other hand, solitude has its advantages. I don’t have to smile politely at stupid jokes. I can wear pretty much what I like, though I have to dress for the FedEx delivery person. I have plenty of peace and quiet, which is good for writing and editing. Yes, there are times when I appreciate being unconnected.
Several years ago, I worked on a project that explored ways of helping older people stay in their own homes rather than moving in with relatives or moving to a nursing home. The Miami Jewish Home was then in the middle of an experiment to link older people via computers with other older people and with service organizations–shopping, medical information, home repairs, and so on. And they were loving it. They perched their computers on kitchen counters and dining room tables and keyboarded away. They told each other about their children and grandchildren, kept up with information about their medications, gave and got tips about how to manage at home. All electronically. These were connections that worked.
Yet at the same time, many of these people loved to go to the grocery store and avoided automated teller machines like the plague. Why? Because they liked the human connections in the produce section and at a bank window. It’s the temptation to forego the human connections that worries me about cyberlinks. The cyberworld of William Gibson is full of technowizardry but somehow lacking the human, emotional depth of the relationships people yearn for.
At this moment, our ten-year-old son Russell is writing a book report ten feet from me on the Mac. He doesn’t seem to care that I’m in the room. Connected to another being? Who cares, unless that other human will tell him how to spell a word (something his spell-check won’t always do). I like having him here. It makes me feel that I’m part of a group. I’ll do my homework, and he can do his. And somehow I feel like we’ve gone beyond the words and the screens; just maybe our computer-enhanced writing will display a bit of the human connection we have established.
By Clark Malcolm