Is Technology Making Us Intimate Strangers?

Every day when I walk out of my house I feel surrounded. Surrounded by mere civilians so loaded down with the latest equipment that any military commander would be envious. Cell phones, beepers, headsets, watches that both tell time and give good e-mail--smart, sleek, technological fashion statements that enable you to be reached any time, anywhere; devices that allow you to keep up and keep track and that keep you tethered to the daily grind. America is on the move, utterly self-absorbed, multitasking, busy, busy, busy.

So what's the matter with me, daring to go about the streets without any of these things, a dinosaur sorely out of step with the times? Why can't I just capitulate, go along with The Program? After all, it might make me more efficient and productive, perhaps even give me a sense of power and importance.

Frankly, I worry about the freedom we give up, the time to think and reflect, the time to consider where we've been in order to see where we are--or want to be--going. For many people these are painful things they don't necessarily want to dwell on. Self-reflection is far different--and far more difficult--than self-absorption, but the pain that self-absorption can inflict on others is acute.

Last summer, on as lovely an evening as one can hope for in central Virginia, I was at my daughter's lacrosse practice. Standing next to me was a father more intent on the cell-phone conversation he was having (which did not sound terribly pressing) than on watching his daughter play. Time and again, she would look toward him, craving his attention, but he never saw her. Nor, for that matter, did another girl's mother see her child, focused as she was on her laptop, merrily tapping away.

Before you get antsy (or feel too guilty), stop reading this and zero in on the next dot-com start-up vying for your attention, some confessions are in order. I've had e-mail only for a little more than a year, and I worry that I'm starting to become obsessed with it. In the intoxicating game of popularity that we all play, e-mail has presented another way for others to reach out to us. If someone hasn't left us a phone message or a fax, there is always the chance that an e-mail awaits. I can't even finish this essay without checking--three times already--to see if another one came through. I have also checked my stocks and a favorite Web site--all because they are there and are so tantalizingly available. I am not proud of my lack of discipline, but there you have it. Nor am I proud of the fact that when I read to my 6-year-old daughter at night, I sometimes reach for the phone when it rings, only to have her admonish me--"Daddy, don't!"--a sharp rebuke for being so quick to interrupt our sacred time together.

Speaking of which, do you remember when you and your friends would go to the beach to swim and sun and take leave of your lives for an afternoon or longer? These days, I go to the beach and see teenagers come out of the water and instantly get on their cell phones. They can't imagine a life without a cell phone, and they can't imagine coming to the beach without it. In their view of the world, I am just a guy from the old days. A guy who needs to chill.

Nonetheless, I still say: why not step back and view all this progress from a different angle? Instead of trying to figure out ways to do a hundred things at once, why not slow things down? After all, the greatest gift you can offer another person is your ability to listen, to let that person feel that you are intent on what he or she is saying, that you have all the time in the world. (The individuals I know who can do that are few, but they stand out conspicuously in my mind.) Through interviewing people I write about, I have come to learn how much people yearn to be understood, how much they want and need to be able to explain themselves.

Technology, for the most part, creates the illusion of intimacy. As marvelous as it can be, it also foils us. It keeps us from the best of ourselves and enables us to avoid others. It makes us into intimate strangers.

To me, the most splendid thing about a place like New York City, where I lived for a long time, is that you can walk the streets day after day, year after year, and always see something new, something that will astonish or touch you. It may be a detail on a building, or the way the light hits the magnificent public library at a particular time, or even the moment when your doorman has an extra spring in his step. But if you're not open to these things, if you're too busy walking down the street glued to your phone and cut off from all that is around you, you're going to miss something. It may seem intangible and, therefore, unimportant, but those somethings have a way of adding up.