Wednesday, December 22, 2010

All Thumbs

It has been a number of years since I travelled anywhere by train. A couple of weeks ago I made the trip from Guelph to Ottawa that way. It was comfortable and a great deal less stressful than driving on my own would have been. It had all the conveniences. You could purchase food and drink without ever leaving your seat in the event you hadn’t brought anything along with you. Wireless internet was available for those with laptops in their hand luggage. The attendants were pleasant and helpful and the whole trip went without a glitch.

I did discover that I am one of those people who find it impossible to read in a moving vehicle without suffering almost immediately from motion sickness. That meant that using my computer was also out of the question. I was left with very few options for occupying the hours stretching ahead of me. I could have slept I suppose but I wasn’t particularly tired. My seatmate showed little inclination for conversation and in fact, dozed off almost immediately. I glanced around at my fellow travellers and was struck by the fact that although every seat in the car was occupied there was not a single word being spoken anywhere. Each person seemed to be wrapped in his or her own personal cone of silence.

Everywhere I looked I saw gazes locked onto books or computer screens and ears stopped up with headphones attached to iPods or other devices. No one made eye contact at all with those seated right next to them. Every few minutes someone would pull out a blackberry or smart phone to check for messages and thumbs would fly over miniature keyboards as they responded or formulated text messages of their own. It always amazes me that anyone can type at such speeds using only their thumbs when I can hardly see the letters on the tiny keys without straining my eyes. We used to say that someone who was all thumbs was clumsy but that hardly holds true these days. It was fascinating to witness the silent activity going on all around me but it was also a little sad.

With all the ways that are available these days to get connected socially through electronics we’ve lost the art of connecting face to face. It’s possible to have a list of ‘friends’ numbering in the hundreds or thousands on social networking sites but I suspect it is a lot like an ocean that is only an inch or two deep. People who are very active on those sites often confess to feeling isolated and lonely. There is some value in tools like Facebook. The problem comes when they take the place of real interpersonal contact. We need the chance to look into each other’s eyes and share a hug from time to time. Human contact that involves more than our thumbs is essential to our mental and emotional health.

I don’t believe we were designed to walk alone. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to dispense with the handheld devices and lose the headphones from time to time to focus on the person next to us. If we’re not careful we’ll forget how.