Intimacy and the Digital Inferno

Digital Inferno explores the effects on person to person intimacy when people spend a lot of time on their smart phones, tablets, computers and when they begin to see the world partly through augmented reality (Glasses etc.).

The book explores the impact of the digital realm on intimacy in home and social life. Intimacy is a very precious form of connection. We can feel more or less intimate with other people. Intimacy is not only about physical connection and what happens in bed. Intimacy can happen between friends, for example, when we share a confidential problem. Intimacy is about closeness, about valuable connection, a sense of being in tune with each other – physically, emotionally. A parent is intimate with their children when those children feel they can share their worries and problems with them. Friends are intimate when they can be vulnerable with each other. Colleagues at work can be intimate when they can safely challenge each other, admit to weaknesses and really celebrate success together. We can feel in an intimate connection with nature – close to it, able to feel its impact, and to feel we can affect it in ways that change and enhance it.

The book attempts to look at the impact on intimacy of connecting more and more with others digitally. There are a lot of practical activities in the book, specifically around the idea of “placement”. Placing digital devices in the home is a key way to get more out of them and also not to sacrifice the intimacy of family life and relationships.

Placing smart phones and tablets away from the bedroom and the places where we eat is a big part of this. What I call “digital distraction” undermines intimacy, where the last thing we do at night is to check in our our Facebook alerts instead of wishing and kissing our partner goodnight.

Intimacy involves directness and gentleness. When my smart phone suddenly buzzes in my pocket as I am giving full attention to a partner or a child, this is a fairly brutal interruption. We are becoming used to it and lowering our expectations of other people. The quality of our physical connection gets diluted over time and we adjust, expecting less. That’s a big part of the problem – that many people don’t even realise what they are missing – those subtle and precious feelings that pass between people when are fully present for them.

Here’s some more on that:

There is also the issue of online intimacy. The book looks at the world of the “smiley” and other forms of digital gesturing. What do we gain and lose from that? Here’s a link to an article I wrote recently about that:

Intimacy develops with presence. Intimacy requires attention and authentic connection. This can get lost in the digital realm even as we “hug”, “poke” and send dozens of kisses. I believe we can find intimacy on line when we are moire mindful of what we write – when we type more eloquently, almost poetically. But, most, of all, when we combine digital acts with physical ones. Many children are now Skyping their elderly parents and relatives more regularly but physically visiting them less. Poor grandad would ideally like both – a call AND a visit. His need of company is only fully realised in the room where we breathe the same air.

Is this me just being old-fashioned? I spoke to a lot of people during the three years of writing digital inferno. Some people (particularly younger people spoke of sharing intimate moments online, but just about everyone still gave more value to physical presence over digital connection. it isn’t a case of either-or, it’s a case of both. The ability to text someone I miss with an “X” can be wonderful, and a thrill can be felt when we get an “X” back. But I didn’t find anyone who was happy with that digital form as the main form, the default. Intimacy, for many, is about:
– presence and the feeling that people are there with and for us
– eye contact
– feelings of closeness and vicinity
– trust
– being “embodied” – being able to share physical gestures
– meeting at the level of ideas

This isn’t as easy to achieve for many people online. For many it takes more effort, and the realm of social media tends yo encourage 14 characters and quick responses. For the majority, a smiley is a poor replacement for a real smile.

Here are five “intimacy” scenarios:

1. You are sharing some important worries and feelings with a close friend. They are looking at you and half listening. Their augmented reality glasses are projecting some emails and Twitter notifications as they “listen”

2. Your child runs out of the school door and you are waiting at the gate, engaged in a text conversation with a friend. All your child needs is one second of eye contact with your “hello”. She doesn’t even get that, but receives a cursory “Hello”, without eye contact. She wanders off to her friends, less confident than she would have been with such a bit of real connection

3. You and your partner are lying in bed. He’s trying to chat to you. You have your back to him, the smartphone is on the floor on low light. You say “yes” every so often as he speaks, as you check whether you have won that signed book on Ebay.

4. You’ve noticed you are getting more “X”s from your partner on texts than real kisses when you are physically together. it used to be the other way around.

5. Your friend types “So how are you?” on Facebook chat. You type “Not great. Have been a bit moody and not sure what to do about problem at work. Otherwise, OK”. There is a fifteen minute silence or pause. Then you get an alert from that friend. He has typed: “Kewl! x”

Do you recognise any of these scenarios? Do they bother you? How can we maintain and even enhance intimacy when digitally engaged?

About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

Posted on October 30, 2014, in Key themes. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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