Friday 30 September 2016

The art of human connection, found in a tech-mad world

The outburst of emotion following last Saturday's Yes vote shows we still long for human touch

Published 31/05/2015 | 02:30

'And perhaps the energy in Dublin last weekend reminded us of that. That we can't substitute digital communication for genuine interaction'
'And perhaps the energy in Dublin last weekend reminded us of that. That we can't substitute digital communication for genuine interaction'

Recently, I went to St Stephen's Green with a group of friends to train with a video and microphone.

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We had decided to do a vox pop, where we would ask passers-by to give their thoughts on a subject and record it on camera.

We had two questions, both quite personal. The first was 'when was the last time you cried?' The second: 'What is the craziest thing you have ever done for love?'

I stood at the bridge and watched as blank faces rushed by. People on their way to work, men in suits glued to mobile phones, girls texting, teenagers plugged in to headphones. And I thought to myself: 'This is going to be a disaster.'

And then something funny happened.

We only needed to ask them to stop for a moment, and their stories came tumbling out. There were tales of family feuds; a man who hadn't spoken to his brother in years; another who divorced his wife and married her again after discovering he couldn't live without her. There was a girl who confided that she went against her religion for the sake of love and someone else who said he found it hard to speak about his mother without becoming emotional. And so he did.

Then, there was the man who confided how he fell in love with a woman 20 years ago. Although he had married since and he professed to being happy, he said he had never managed to find that same connection with anyone again. He had written about her over time, but had kept it to himself. Before leaving, he said: "Do you think I could share it with you?"

In the few short lines, he described how he wondered where she is now and if she was happy. And afterwards, he grabbed my arm and told me how much my reaction meant to him.

I thought about it since - how in the white noise of the digital age, all those people racing around us were still all willing to stop, to take time out of their day, for some real human connection. They found a relief, even joy, in sharing their stories, the most intimate details of their lives, with a complete stranger - just because they were asked.

In what Kate Otto calls the 'disconnectivity paradox', we are more in touch than ever before with people across vast distances. But the very nature of our hyper-connected lifestyle threatens our ability to interact with any great meaning.

We exchange dozens of short messages a day with a wide group of friends or family, rather than have one quality conversation.

We are complex social beings, but online, our views are limited to 140 characters, our lives squeezed into highlight reels for profile pages. We have 'friends' and 'follow people' from their breakfast to their nightly updates that we wouldn't know what to say to if we bumped into them on the street.

This 'skin hungry' generation are social animals at heart and we have a primal need to connect. And I'm talking about real-life connection.

Maybe that's why perhaps - in addition to achieving equality - last week's celebrations following the same-sex marriage referendum felt so good?

In the months leading up to it, social media played a monumental role in the drive and online became the battleground for sharing opinions and taking part in the debate.

Hashtags such as #marref2015, #turnout and #hometovote trended strongly on Twitter (to such an extent that the company's headquarters has now erected a monument to mark the event in their US headquarters).

But by Saturday, it was #proudtobeirish and, with the victory of a collective goal behind them, the digital generation finally got off their computers and Twitter and Facebook pages, and poured onto the streets to share the experience in the flesh, and with each other.

Flags were waved, faces painted and people stood shoulder to shoulder in Dublin Castle square where that energy, that feeling that we are all part of this same collective consciousness, hit home again.

You didn't need to have an excuse or ring around friends to see if anyone could meet up. People travelled in groups and on their own because they had a reason to. Strangers bonded over pints, new friendships were sealed and a country's ties was strengthened among a generation who might have become a bit too fond of digital communication to connect and, even exist.

Whether you agree with the result or not, it showed what happens when people come together for - what they believe to be - the common greater good.

It's no secret now that young people are suffering an "epidemic" of loneliness, on a par with the levels of isolation experienced by the elderly, despite being more "connected" than ever before. We know we have a primal urge to feel that we "belong" to a community and feel part of a greater humanity. We just need a reason to and we need to make an effort to.

And perhaps the energy in Dublin last weekend reminded us of that. That we can't substitute digital communication for genuine interaction. Within hours @repealtheeighth was trending. But we don't need another referendum to take time out from the blue din of screens to really be present again.

Sunday Independent

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