Dis, Connected

I got a text from D today. He was at home, bored, suspended from school after another fight. He's 18, my mentee, and lives in south Brooklyn, struggling to get on track and graduate high school. Like most high school kids he spends a lot of time on his phone -- Instagram, texting, or just staring expectantly at the screen. College isn't really an option, and when I suggested he use his time to explore culinary schools (his idea), he replied, 'can't go on the computer.'

He lives a few blocks from two libraries and a community resource center. His answer reminded me of a time 10 years ago when, as a schoolteacher, I took a class to the library to research book reports. The first few kids ran to the computers, and the rest waited helplessly, surrounded by centuries of knowledge, complaining there was nothing they could do without the Internet.

Marx. Engels. Nietzsche. Freud. A week's worth of The New York Times has more information than these men saw in their lifetimes. When I graduated college a few years ago -- OK, 20 -- there was no Internet, or even cell phones. It's a funny thing, this 'connected' world of ours. We've become so dependent on technology to learn that our digestion of information is every day less and less human. It's a little like trying to connect an actual chicken to the cling-wrapped boneless, skinless breasts in grocery stores.

We are, at all times, evermore surrounded by and closer to everything -- incessantly bombarded with information. The sheer volume and speed of data to which we have access makes today's reality nearly incomprehensible for yesterday's generation, and can obscure real from fake, important from irrelevant. The Huffington Post, as just one tiny example, publishes a new article every 58 seconds. It can be really hard to quench your thirst drinking from the proverbial fire hose -- really what happens is that everything just gets a little bit wet.

This rush toward efficiency as a function of speed is accepted as a noble pursuit in the digital age in much the same way as the addiction to work has been in this country for some time -- health and family be damned. (I am not, it should be noted, averse to hard work, nor am I a Luddite -- technology, like a screwdriver, is a tool, and if we put up shelves or break into cars is a matter of our choosing). And yet, somehow, all this effort to connect seems to be taking us farther away from each other.

I'm an only child of divorced parents, neither of whom remarried. But I need both hands and at least one foot to count the kids I shared bedrooms, kitchens, and bathrooms with before I hit my teens. It wasn't so unusual in rural California in the 70s and 80s, these little communities of shared conveniences. Sometimes there was even plumbing, or electricity, or both.

One cabin I lived in with my mom had neither, but there was a phone. It was actually a party line, shared by four different households, and it was the last stop on the phone line, meaning that people who lived farther out who needed to make a call would come and use it. Before dialing, you had to lift up the receiver and listen for a minute to make sure your neighbors weren't in the middle of a conversation. Say what you will about cellular technology, but if you really want to know about open source information, try a party line.

On a recent trip home I caught up with a friend I hadn't seen since high school. I shared a bedroom with him and his brother for a couple of years, and sitting and talking with him overwhelmed me in a beautiful way. There's something about the intimacy of a small community that keeps you humble and safe at the same time. The awkward stages and embarrassments, the skeletons -- they are always there in the firmament, in the collected unspoken, and that shared understanding is grounding.

More people now live in cities than don't, and I wonder how our humanity is affected by our connectivity. Sitting on a subway car in NYC I am surrounded by people, and the vast majority are wearing headphones and staring at some sort of electronic device, here but not, increasingly isolated in their search for connection.

In the early days of Twitter's ascendance, I went to a "140 character conference" -- the bleeding edge of the digitally inclined, the 'cloud' connected. And here were the innovators of this nascent platform, these connecters -- invariably awkward at making conversation, at as much of a loss to communicate when not behind the safety of their screens as those school kids were when asked to find information from actual books.

The first rule of being an environmentalist is that everything is connected. And we are all, unquestionably, products of our environment. A couple days ago, on the one-year anniversary of the Newtown school massacre in Connecticut, another kid wandered into a school in Colorado and started shooting. I don't remember school shootings in the news growing up, but in the last 15 years or so they seem tragically frequent. And I wonder just how alone we may be becoming in the face of all this connectivity.