The Blessings and Burden of Distance

Whatever else might be changing in this Digital age surely our relationship to physical distance is changing. Thriving through that transition isn’t as simple as maximizing the gains and minimizing the losses. We’ll find our satisfactions in some subtle blending of both, a sweet and sour sauce infused throughout our experience and history. Some of that confection is in our hands. Some will simply emerge from a mysterious calculus of time, action, and emotion, for better or worse. As always when considering the Analog/Digital tectonics, I’m more focused on the former, while keeping a hopeful and wary eye out for the later.

Analog Distance
Part of the reason for all this ambiguity is the complex nature of our relationship to Analog distance. Physical distance is a marker both of loss and gain.

For example, we treasure the security that comes from distance. That security might be mild when it’s just the fenced-in backyard that provides us some little space from even our best of neighbors. It can be quite intense when it separates us and our loved ones by many miles from the various predators that have always lurked in society and that the most fortunate of us have not had to physically encounter with any frequency.

On the other hand, this same physical distance is a trouble. At best, we feel that angst when we can’t sit across the table from a friend or cherished family member, hear the immediate tenor of their voice, savor the play of light across their face, feel the steadying weight of their presence that comes with close proximity. At worst, we agonize over it when we can’t receive or give critical care either for some medical aliment of our own or for the sufferings of those far away like the Hatian people.

And that’s just one slice across our experience of physical distance. Somewhere in between is the combined joy and agony of having one’s child leave home for the last time. It’s coming from the day they’re born and parents work for it and dread it. If we’re lucky, there’s a day they finally come to retrieve their stuff, hugs all around, and off they drive to that first job that lets them pay for their car, their residence, and all the various costs of independence. Our hearts swell with a swirl of pride and loss as the car turns the corner down this familiar, inevitable block. Yeah, sometimes that particular physical separation takes months or years or never quite happens at all. But it’s a fairly common experience of how the same physical separation that gives our lives being also tugs at the emotional attachments that give our lives meaning.

And That’s Just The Analog Experience Of Distance
As we filter our on-going lives back and forth through that membrane between Analog and Digital, what of our history, our expertise, and our frustrations with distance comes with us? What of the millennia of societal evolution and the minutiae of individual experience still applies? What familiar gauges, controls, and mechanisms still work?

Certainly the brute force security of distance is lost. From the irritating but largely innocuous spam in our inbox through the viruses that corrupt and disable our personal computing to horrific direct access of predators and scam artists to the most vulnerable among us, that safe barrier of physical separation is gone. Yeah, we throw up hopefully named things like firewalls, parental filters and routers between us and the swirling them/it that threatens us, but it’s an arms race with an ever escalating complexity subject to failure and ever rising costs in dollars and attention subject to exhaustion.

How’d we let that happen? Well, perhaps brute force separation packed its bags and left in that same swirl of activity and celebration when we welcomed in the virtual projection of ourselves into the wider world. Hoping to better manage that tug of war between independence-as-being and attachment-as-meaning we ran headlong across the Digital bridge over Analog distance. E-mail is so much more immediate than snail mail. Video conferences are so superior to a scratchy long distance phone call. IM, Twitter, Facebook better than, well, distance-driven lack of any interaction at all.

So What Now?
I’m not going back. I won’t be the Luddite terrorist to lay dynamite at the foundations of that bridge. I won’t give up my connections to my closest friends that are thousands of miles away. I won’t give up the wonderful chance conversations with smart folks across the planet that read these words and images I cast out in the digital commons. I won’t give up the random, personal, even sometimes trivial messages that arrive off a family e-mail distribution list that one of my delightful cousins maintains.
For each of us, our response to and management of the new worlds brought into being by the laws of Digital distance will have some flavor of our response to and management of Analog distance. Our satisfactions in this new world? We’ll find them in the balance between being open and skeptical. We’ll maintain them to the degree that we pay attention what is changing and what’s not.

One thought on “The Blessings and Burden of Distance

  1. Byron, good treatment – right scope and sensitive to what's up and what's down in the post e-mail generation, so far. Thanks!

    I'm several years into social and professional networking, esp. web 2.0 environments built on wikis. Some I follow up more frequently and more intensively than others, for a complex of reasons that are not themselves stable. (Sounds like normal life.) I've explored development too, in connection with non-profit work.
    What's realized to date?
    Ups – (1) staying in touch with old friends, as you pointed out.
    (2) some correspondents evolve into and remain in-person friends, with personal visits from year to year and fairly frequent posting or e-mail.
    Downs – the distance is really a pain. Sometimes correspondence isn't enough. But, just as in earlier times, we put up with it. Touching the mind and heart of the other – even if in argument – with some of what we write. Makes the enterprise tolerable. Sometimes we need a phone call; sometimes only a visit would do, but circumstances, esp. distance, don't allow.
    Ups and downs – technology… is a mixed bag. Recently I pulled over to the roadside somewhere in Covington Co. MS and typed out an understanding that resonated at once with the recipient and resolved a good bit of mutual difficulty. A phone call or hand-written note would not have helped. My timing was just right. On the other hand, there are the technical complication, risks to privacy, and time/money costs.
    Last, social site banter, while fun sometimes, can be time consuming, misunderstood (and thus more time consuming), and makes potentially long term records that are not so retractable nor ephemeral as a comment at a party.
    And an icon or thumb is emphatically NO substitute for breathing, dressed, looking, gesturing… PEOPLE in the flesh. Of course, electronic withdrawal is easier too.

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