Monthly Archives: April 2015

The Intimacy of Proximity and The Privilege of Distance

Waves crashing on a beach
The Power of Presence
I have watched my relationship with my children evolve from me as a frustrated, ineffective power-broker, to one where I listen more, listen differently, and am less invested in having my way. And much of this shift happened because of an erosion of my illusions from the ceaseless wash of living in near constant contact with my children. There is a change that happens when our edges are perpetually touched by someone else’s – both are reshaped into something new. And what’s on my mind, is how, or even if, we are capable of digital touch.

When we share a physical space, we share the felt experience of our companions. Humans are deeply social creatures; we feel most complete when we feel fully understood by one another. But we have an equally intrinsic need for solitude. A need for the quiet, unmolested space of ourselves. Through the interplay of these desires, we learn what our soul, our True Self needs for its next phase of unfolding, and we calibrate the path of our True North.

When we live too much in isolation we lack precious perspective, and the relief of seeing ourselves in the greatness and baseness of others. It is in the pressure of being together that we discover our limits, by breaching the boundaries of our good intentions. I never intend to yell at my children, but I do. I never intend to be distant from my husband, but I am. These acts are part of the full expression of my humanity – the immediate assertion of my urgent and neglected desires – for the chaos to cease, for my will to be acknowledged, for solitude in a close space. Equally surprising (and more delightful) are the spontaneous confessions of love, the wonder of watching snow fall, the gratitude expressed for favorite clothes washed, and favorite meals made. Receiving and absorbing these acts is equally important for living a complete life; they reinforce what I value, not because I know it, but because I feel it.

These thousands of small interactions are how I teach the people I love, and teach myself, what I need. Words can lead us to an agreement, but only a shared discomfort, or a shared joy creates a shared experience. It is almost impossible for me to live a set of values into the world, if I haven’t integrated them with my desire through personal experience – knowing about them is not enough, I have to touch them, and be touched by them. This is the marrow of intimacy, the merged sensation of a shared life. How I choose to acknowledge my behavior is how I learn to listen to myself and grow into a person more capable of serving others.

What I miss the most about the jobs I was paid to do is the shared work of a common goal. I miss the tacit intimacy in the act of showing up, I care about this. I will come here, day after day, and help you with this thing we both love. I have come to understand, through deliberately withdrawing, how much I require intellectual companionship. And what I love about raising my children is the explicit intimacy of being in constant presence with people I cherish. Through deliberately engaging with them I have learned that relentless contact forces a full expression of my humanity. It is only through confronting our ruptured shadows that we are instructed in our deepest needs, and invited to grow into the space that beckons. I care about you. I will be here, day after day. I will learn to love myself more fully, so that I may love you more fully. The act of sharing our lives with others is a participatory prayer that tests our relationships. It is an act of creation by which we enrich the world through what we give away.

I have come to deeply value the sensuality of close living, despite the fact that I also find it exhausting and stressful. The physical, emotional and auditory cues a person provides are incredibly useful for understanding how to have a relationship with them. It is the continuity of exposure that makes it possible to learn the rich, complex patterns out of which people and relationships evolve. My children are incapable of doing anything less than crashing into my edges with the same regularity and unpredictability as the sea from which all life emerged. Rolling in this brackish space forces me to honestly examine my boundaries, and redefine them.

Like everything, these signals are contextual. They are patterned. They take time to learn, and longer to interpret. Evolution is the slow ghost we grow into, so that we might die complete. When we encounter behavior that doesn’t match a person’s words, we receive an invitation to engage. When we see them again and again, we have the chance to – and thank goodness, because it takes time to work up the courage to show up whole. When our shadow-side throws the yoke of manners, we leave ourselves exposed and vulnerable. Proximity tests our relationships, by drawing us in to the point that we are forced us apart. Our bodies lead us to act out our full identity, they live with a ruthless honesty and belie the narratives we prefer. And that identity, the dark and the bright, the overt and the unknown, is shaped in turn by what we rub against.

This Profile is Not My Body
I find Social Media unsatisfying and one dimensional. There are different platforms, and different tools, but Facebook, Google+, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Sanpchat, blogging, all of these are essentially asynchronous broadcast platforms, that allow mostly written and visual snapshots of what someone was thinking or doing. The Social Web promises radically uninhibited communication, but our most prominent tools offer us little more than a wide variety of selfies – here’s what I bought, here’s what I like, here’s what I think, here’s what I hate, here’s an adorable cat gif, here’s my foot at the beach. And these bits don’t allow for the richness of shared experience in an embodied way, or in a simultaneous occurrence. The resonance I discover is so fleeting, that I struggle to integrate it in a way that informs how I live in the world. Social media isn’t social, it’s a marketplace of other people’s selfies. It’s a high volume, transactional system, a glossy log of the lives our peers and loved ones mostly live without us. We talk about how the internet “connects us” but really, it connects us to a history of people’s selective, recorded expression. It gives us a tool for finding people who express things we like, but it is not a tool for being together. That, just as always, is a responsibility that resides with us.

The Power of Privilege
Social Media privileges a style of communication that succeeds without a reliance on physical proximity. Like all creative works, this technology reflects the values and insecurities of its builders and proponents. As someone who relies heavily on my sensory experience and wants togetherness to be part of my relationships, my identity, my expressed humanity, I feel unfulfilled by the promise of Social Media. And as is so often the case, when my desire is mis-matched with a prevailing power structure, I feel less-than. I feel isolated. I feel a deep urge to conform myself to an uncomfortable context, because that is the power of power. It’s so attractive it blinds people to the alternative of their own truth.

We increasingly seek, curate, and cultivate our relationships through digital communication. Without the repetitive intimacy of proximity to define (and erode) our edges, it becomes simpler to turn away from discomfort. As our boundaries become more diffuse we mark them with what we prefer, rather than what we encounter; it’s becoming easier to create an identity that’s shaped only by what we’re comfortable with. The reverse of this abstraction is also true. As our relationships become more abstract, less personalized, and less proximate, what we don’t like is easily hidden from us. How will this influence what we value in our interactions with others? How will it define the way we think about relationship, inform what we’re capable of giving, and our ability to empathize with the realities of others?

It is so hard to live a modern lifestyle without exchanging privacy for convenience that most of us have given up trying to do anything otherwise. Our social institutions, from banks, to friends, to schools, have raced to embrace technologies that accelerate the pace of our interactions, make them possible without physical presence, and measure us to provide insight and customization that will enhance our future engagements. The designers and evangelists of these technologies naturally favor the technology-based solutions they’ve created, and that we’ve adopted. We’re creating a feedback loop that reduces the edges we bump into, even as it amplifies our reach. And as we do this, we collectively begin to favor technological solutions to our human problems. We begin to favor what’s available, over what we need.

What is the extent to which we’ll cede our personal power in exchange for a promises of safety, knowledge, and advancement? As corporations grapple with the consequences of technology use – the ability to summon workers on demand, the at once tacit and manifest authority of Big Data, and their inability to protect the data they’ve collected – I see an upsetting pattern that consolidates power into the existing structures rather than fulfilling the promises they claim. The technology itself is becoming elevated as superior to the experience it creates, and pushes risk back onto the most vulnerable participants.

Uber, Handy and other companies laud the flexibility they afford their workers, while remaining inexplicably deaf to the insecurity that accompanies that freedom. In order to better serve customers and maximize profits, Starbucks and other fast food chains algorithmically adjust schedules and wreak havoc in the lives of employees who alternately scramble get daycare, or bridge the gap of lost wages, depending on how their hours change. In the name of better security, credit card companies are developing biometric authorization, which literally embodies the security risk in the cardholder.

“‘Removing card account numbers from the processing and storage of payments represents one of the most innovative and promising technologies we’ve seen in decades,’ said Visa Chief Executive Charlie Scharf in a news release.” And from the same article: “By getting rid of the sensitive card information, banks and merchants can leave hackers with nothing of value to steal if they break into their computer servers.”

To me, this just doesn’t count as innovation. The storage receptacle is changing, but the underlying concern is completely un-addressed: hackers gonna hack, and if there ain’t nothing left in the database, where do you think they’ll look next? Does merging our money with our identity, and our biology, really make us more safe? How does it benefit us to carry the risk of a financial contract in our flesh? It worked out in the Merchant of Venice, but few of us enjoy a great defense to ensure a happy ending.

Privilege emerges from the consensus of a population that prefers to mimic power, rather than question it. Check the “I agree to Terms” box. Swipe right. Like it. We are in the phase between Benefit and Standardization; Bondage is slumbering with one eye open.