Aphelion Issue 295, Volume 28
June 2024 --
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It was pointed out to me recently that there is a little bit of a paradox involved with the current communications revolution we're undergoing. The paradox doesn't affect everyone equally. Indeed, some of us are barely touched by it. Others seem to be hit pretty hard by it. What is it? We've got cell phones and e-mail and voice mail and instant messaging programs and chat rooms, etc. Dozens of new things to make communications easier, and yet- And yet we seem o be more isolated from each other than ever before.

I have friends online all over the world. Most of them I'll never meet in person. Through this wonderful web of technology we have (and it is wonderful, make no mistake about that) I can speak or text or interact with them in a chat room in real time. I can write them a letter, click on my computer screen, and know that they will be reading my message within moments. I can send them a photograph, or a video of my new grandson when he starts to take his first steps, or a recording of a friend playing their guitar; click send, contact! I can even be in a live chat with text, audio, and video of several people at the same time, and yet there is something missing. There is a kind of distance between some of us that has nothing to do with our relative geographical locations. It is as if the act of closing that physical distance by way of our electronic media has brought about an increase in the emotional distance between individuals.

As I said, it doesn't strike everyone equally. Some of us can still step away from the computer and out into the real world to interact with other people with no difficulty at all. Others of us have a problem dealing with people in the flesh. I, myself, have a fear of crowds. But I fight that by going to conventions, going out shopping in brick & mortar stores, traveling - for hours at a time, one way, sometimes - just to meet up with friends and talk. I don't know how I came by this phobia. I just grew into it, over the years. I know it wasn't caused by the Internet because I was suffering from it long before the Internet came to be. It isn't a fear of being outdoors, being away from my house, or of being in a new, strange place. I love the great outdoors. I enjoy getting out of the house and doing things. I'm not the least bit uncomfortable waking up in a hotel bed a thousand miles away from my home. Or waking up in a sleeping bag in a campground far from home, either. No, my phobia is of large groups of people, strangers to me in every way, gathered together wherever and why ever they congregate. Going to the Atlanta airport is a chore. Going shopping during the Holiday Season is worse. But I did get an insight into my problem at a convention several years back. For most of the weekend at the convention, I was fine. I was overjoyed to be there and having wonderful conversations with people I'd never met before. Some of whom became fast friends. But, and you knew there was going to be an exception of some sort, on the last day of the convention some of the local people came to the hotel for their own regular Sunday morning breakfast socializing. The convention attendees hadn't given my phobia a single twitch. But these strangers pushed it into overdrive. I tried to fight it, but after several hours the anxiety was simply too much. I said farewell to my new friends, threw my bags in the car, checked out of the hotel, and fled for home. It turned out that I fled into a short but nasty thunderstorm. Less than ten minutes drive from the hotel, I was trapped on a highway in a traffic jam I later learned was some seven miles long. I saw several car wrecks that had been caused by the storm as my car crept further amid the bumper-to-bumper traffic. It took several hours for emergency crews to clear those wrecks and restore traffic to normal. For most of that time, the traffic was halted completely. People got out of their vehicles and began conversations with others around them. I joined them, in several instances. No fear, no anxiety, just ordinary, everyday people that I didn't know and would never see again, united by circumstances beyond our control. It was quite an enlightening experience for me. In fact, that was the event that began my becoming able to combat my silly little phobia. I haven't ever gotten rid of it, but I eventually learned to almost totally ignore it. I am now able to go to a large public event and have a good time, without giving in to the urge to run away from the crowds. That urge to flee is still there, in the back of my mind, but I don't have to give into it. That gives me a small amount of insight into the isolation that some people online happen to show. But of course, not everyone is driven by a fear of personal interaction with others. I may be an average guy, but I wouldn't say that I'm typical of everyone. People are very much the same, and yet they are all very different.

But yet that distancing is sometimes there. Some people I have seen would rather text each other across a small room than to take a few steps and get face-to-face with each other. Some people seem gregarious and outgoing in a chatroom, but can't seem to bring themselves to interact with others offline. Is it because electronic communication allows us to adopt personae differing from our own, safe and secure in the knowledge that no one can actually touch them in any way? Perhaps, but I don't know for sure. Is there a psychological safety belt involved in being behind a computer screen on the information superhighway? I suppose that is possible, but again, I don't know. What I do know is that people are people, driven by complex emotions and drives and needs, but all pretty similar to one another when everything gets factored into the personal equation. Pretty much, people have always hidden behind masks, roles, characters of the personae we adopt and adapt. I believe that distance between us all has always been there. The Internet didn't cause it, but the Internet makes it easier to observe that distance being put into play in our personal interactions. There are just more people online. The larger sample size makes the gathering of data more accurate, so to speak. I imagine that back in the reaches of history there were people who were far more comfortable sending smoke signals to one another than they were when in a face-to-face meeting. At the core, we humans seem to be a little bit afraid of each other. If technology has proved anything, it shows that we haven't really changed much throughout our history. The better our means of communication, the more obvious the psychological distance we keep between each other becomes.

Drum-beats, smoke signals, telegraph messages, radio, telephones, text messaging, chat rooms... The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Of course, I'm a writer. So I could just be making it all up. What do you think? While you're thinking it over, I suppose I should quit yapping and let you get to reading the new issue of Aphelion. After all, that's why you came here. Enjoy the stories and poetry and articles. Click on over to our Forums when you're done and feel free to post your critiques and opinions. And thanks for your time,