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Stephanie Sandberg

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Can You Hear Me Now?

Posted: 03/24/2012 10:38 am

A man called my house last night and said, "OK, you'll never guess who this is," and took a big breath. Then he said, "Do you remember riding on a big white horse?" His voice got louder. "Do you remember playing ball in front of the house?" I was guarded as I tried to figure out who was trying to get something from me, and how he figured out details from my childhood. Was he dangerous? Why so excited? "It's David!" He nearly shouted, "I found you!" He knew those details -- and others, like fighting and skinny-dipping and roller-skating and watching Gilligan's Island while eating Graham crackers together after getting off the bus -- because he built them with me. I was glad, and slightly annoyed that he hadn't friended or sent me an e-mail after 30 years instead so I could answer in my own time, with preparation. I didn't really have time to talk at the moment. "OK, but before you go," he said, "I want you to know, I know we went our separate ways in high school and all, but you were my best friend growing up, and I Ioved you." So intimate, so in-your-face, so yesterday, awkward. Thrilling.

The sad account of Tyler Clementi's short time at Rutgers, brought to vivid display in last week's trial and in last month's New Yorker profile, exposes a deficit that feels like a missed opportunity: direct conversation. To me there seemed to be an alarming lack of simple human interaction around him in his final days. While it may not have saved his life, had Clementi and his roommate not been having parallel conversations with outside friends -- while dipping into each other's public postings to inform their points of view, sometimes while sitting within inches of each other -- but instead speaking to one another, surely the dynamic would have been different, no? They were living out loud, but not to each other. It's hard without practicing.

I wonder what Susan Sontag, whose observations on the effect of technology (anyway, cameras) on experience found the base note for my own take on it, would say. In On Photography, Sontag posits that the taking of pictures blocks a person from the true moment, to paraphrase from one piece of the argument. Instead of seeing the Grand Canyon, breathing it in, tourists think what a good picture it would be, and about where to take it. Instead of contemplating the coyote, they consider the effect back home of showing the picture they took of it eating a badger. The organic experience of the thing is subsumed by the consideration and implementation of the camera. (The book also explicates on the photo's role in power structures and capitalist societies, among other things, but I stick with what of the Sontag oeuvre I can access, like volcanos and tourists. And I wish I could have listened in to Sontag's early conversations with Annie Liebovitz on this topic.)

I spent years not taking pictures, with Sontag finding that it altered the authenticity of the moment as soon as someone pulled out a camera. At some point that changed, and I'm glad now to take pictures and happier to have them to share and remember things by. I'm glad too to have the technology that allows blogging and texting, and some of the smartest people I know keep their Twitter vein open and fed all day. And for marketers, of course it's a must. But constantly broadcasting my own thoughts, activities, location? I fear that I'd start Twitter-filtering whatever occasional thoughts I might have beyond the grocery list, so ephemeral to start, such a blessing in their unformed arrival, suddenly made concrete and prioritized by Twitter-worthiness. But that's just elderly me.

The majority of young adults of course use IM, texting, and social media to talk and chill. This is perhaps more useful for growing citizens than just watching TV, except when it replaces direct confrontation and all the messy trappings of face-to-face conversation, like eye contact, body language, thinking on your feet and simply being live in the moment. I wish Dharun Ravi had turned away from his screen toward his roommate, if only to say WTF! An older dude, here in our room? I wish Tyler had turned to face Dharun directly and instead of checking his roommate's Twitter account for the 38th time, he should have walked over and spoken one of those times instead of reading it online. You never know.

My former neighbor David drives his own rig now, which is what he always wanted to do when we were growing up. I've thought of him often over the years, as the only person I knew who did exactly what he planned to do, and that he's probably the happiest. I'll ask him this afternoon when I'm calling him back during his run from West Virginia to Vermont, when, thanks to technology, he can talk to me hands-free while we review our childhood together. LOL, sort of.