A while ago I was watching an episode of Murdoch Mysteries, a detective series set in Toronto in the late 1890’s. At the end of the episode our hero, Detective William Murdoch, says goodbye to the visiting Egyptologist who was a central figure in the story. From the way the scene was acted, it struck me that both characters expected never to meet again. Their parting was final. And back in the 1890’s that would have been the norm.
In fact, as recently as 20 years ago, if you went to school with someone or worked with them for a time or met them on a trip or at a conference, saying goodbye usually was final. Graduations, job changes and vacation endings were bittersweet precisely because they were endings.
Sure there were always a few people we grew exceptionally close to. For those special people, keeping in touch required work, conscious effort like writing letters, sending post cards or making the occasional long distance phone call which used to cost real money. But for the most part people passed in and out of our lives all the time.
This isn’t true anymore.
Today, by default, we stay connected to everyone forever.
When people change jobs or cities or move out of regular daily contact, they linger on in our lives as Facebook friends, LinkedIn connections or Instagram followers. Years go by and we continue to see them in our feeds, posting about their kids growing up or their new job or their latest vacation. We see their cat photos. While they might recede into the digital background of our lives, they don’t fade away entirely. There’s never a final parting.
Now it takes conscious effort to disconnect from someone. To sever the relationship you have to unfriend or unfollow or block them. You’re explicitly rejecting them, expelling them from your life. It feels a little uncomfortable, even a little anti-social. So you find a reason, a justification, something more than just decluttering your contact list, like discovering the person is rabidly pro-Trump or anti-vaccination. In fact the main disadvantage of all this persistent connection is that it can be very hard to completely purge undesirable people from your life. But usually the advantages of staying in touch forever outweigh the disadvantages.
Social media and other internet technologies enable us to maintain relationships despite distance and circumstance. The corollary is that they help us avoid the pain of parting. They hold out the tantalizing possibility of reunion.
And it’s not just the internet. Reliable air travel helps too. Two hundred years ago, if you left the country of your birth to make a new life in a new land, chances are you would never see your parents, siblings, or neighbors again. A wrenching final goodbye! Now you can just hop on a plane and visit each other. And between visits you can Skype, Facetime, text or email.
Nowadays we don’t even say goodbye in our online conversations. There’s just a longer gap between messages. A particular conversation might run its course, peter out into an exchange of smileys or thumbs-up emoji’s, but there’s no way to “hang up” at the end of a text message or Messenger conversation. The medium is asynchronous, so a gap of a few minutes or a couple of hours is normal. A gap of a few weeks or months isn’t unusual either, it’s just a longer gap. It’s not the end. It’s not goodbye.
Avoiding the pain of parting in nothing new. It’s baked into our language, into how we say goodbye. The French say “Au revoir,” and the Germans say “Auf Wiedersehen.” In Russian, it’s “Do svidaniya,” (До свидания) and in Mandarin Chinese, “Zai jian” (再见). They’re all variants of the same thing: “see/meet you again.” In other words, “this is not our final parting.”
The pain of parting seems to be so terrible that we go to great lengths to avoid it. Is that because it reminds us of the Final Parting that awaits us all? Or is it because we crave connection in a world where we’ve become increasingly isolated, as Harvard Professor Robert Putnam has famously documented in his book Bowling Alone?
Whatever the reason, technology helps us reduce that pain, though it can’t completely eliminate it, of course. The truth is we still feel what Shakespeare called the “sweet sorrow” of parting even if we remain connected online.
But how real are relationships that exist only online? Can you actually have a meaningful connection when all your interactions are mediated through devices and text? Or are they just zombie relationships that we can’t bring ourselves to terminate?
As I see it, the time and energy we devote to these relationships is a strong signal of their continuing importance in our lives. Our interactions may not be as rich or as frequent, but just because they’re online doesn’t mean they aren’t real.
I think this perpetual connection is overwhelmingly a good thing. Instead of a binary on/off state, our relationships now exist along a continuum of connectivity. At one end are the people we see every day in the physical world; our family, co-workers and close friends. In fact, the vast majority of our online communication is with these people, the ones we’re already closest to. Next come people we don’t see often; former classmates or colleagues or distant relatives, followed by people we don’t see at all anymore. We stay in touch with them online, keeping up to date about their kids, their jobs and their vacations. If we do meet again, at family or college reunions or on trips to cities where old friends now live, re-connecting is easier and more natural. We can slide back along that continuum, reestablishing in-person contact.
The continuum works the other way too. Increasingly we encounter people online first and only later meet face to face to break bread and exchange pheromones.
As technology continues to advance, online communication will get easier, richer and more pervasive. We’ll be able not just to hear and see each other, but also to share immersive experiences using virtual or augmented reality, holographic imaging, wall-sized displays and other yet-to-be-invented technologies. Today’s online games, where people connect over the internet to fight battles or go on quests together provide a glimpse of the possibilities.
What will this mean?
We could become more insular. Some people might want to stay tightly connected to the communities where they were born or went to school. Don’t want to leave the warm embrace of your village or your circle of friends? Take them with you! Wherever you go, whether it’s on the other side of town or the other side of the planet. If you want, you’ll be able to live your entire life inside a comfortable bubble, never saying goodbye to anyone, and never admitting anyone new either.
On the other hand, we could become more open, choosing to explore broadly, looking for potential friends or mates from all over the world and enjoying a wide variety of activities online before deciding to move up the continuum and get together in person. Online dating is an early indication of this trend as The Economist magazine points out in this article, Modern Love.
The choice will be ours.
Either way, technology enriches our relationships with the people we see every day, the people we just met and the people we might never see again.
And it reduces the pain of loss when someone leaves our life because we never have to say goodbye.