Human Touch Is Still Needed in This World

There is an alarming trend in this country of interpreting electronic means of communication as being nearly as good as face-to-face contact. This only grows stronger with the advent of new technology such as video conferencing and the prevalence of personal computers and Web cams.

The trend began with e-mail, and everybody started getting up in arms about how e-mail was going to destroy the art of letter writing. The whole idea behind that concern is ridiculous. Most e-mails sent to others are concise and to the point, like notes left on someone’s door or messages on an answering machine: “”Sorry I couldn’t meet you today, how about tomorrow at 1:30? Call me.””

However, e-mails to people whom you are keeping in touch with and whom you are some distance away from tend to be longer and more explanatory, and often take more time to prepare than these short notes. In this way, e-mail does not destroy the art of letter writing, made nearly obsolete by the advent of long-distance telephone service, but actually preserves it to some extent.

What e-mail does threaten are phone conversations. I’m not talking about the conversations people are having with their clients as they hurtle down Interstate 5, but the conversations between friends separated by distance. E-mail is cheaper, quicker, less involved and more reliable in reaching someone than a phone call. I am as guilty of this shortcut communication method as anyone, preferring to hand out my e-mail address rather than my phone number because I am often out of the house but able to access a computer.

However, no amount of smileys will convey the subtle nuances of a mere phone call, and there are many times I goad myself about not picking up the handset next to my computer and giving my best friend in Davis, Calif. a ring. I have not seen her since winter break, and to hear her voice when I actually do call is a wonderful feeling. Yes, occasionally we ICQ each other; but on ICQ, can you laugh with each another? Of course not, especially when you’re not alone in the room. And I know I’m not the only one who types “”lol”” when I’m not really laughing. That doesn’t even count.

There is a terrific sense of “”withness”” that you only get when you’re actually with someone. Even on the phone, the purity of the withness is fairly low: You talk to someone on the phone; you talk with someone in person.

It’s almost like attending a lecture, where the lecturer is distant from you. You can talk to the professor and you’ll get an answer, but you are not talking with your professor. Even in the rare occasion that you are invited to the front of the room by a professor, you are only a guest, hovering in a kind of limbo where the professor is forced to pay attention to you, but must still acknowledge the rest of the audience.

Go with a professor to lunch, and you’ll experience this weird sensation of being recognized as almost an equal, which is very disconcerting given the previous experience of being the one taught to, taught at, in an audience situation.

This indescribable thing, this preconception-shattering feeling, is what I am referring to as “”withness.”” And it is this feeling that people need to really bond with one another. It is for lack of this that the many Internet romances cropping up around the world fail so often, despite honesty and yearning for companionship. It is for lack of withness that long-distance relationships so commonly fall apart; that husbands overseas tryst with foreign women when they are so, so faithful at home … they crave the withness they once had with their counterparts.

And now I see this sickening trend entering the courts — many judges are allowing divorced parents with custody of their children to move states away from their ex-spouses, regardless of the other parent’s relationship with the child. They give the noncustodial parent their minimum entitlement of visitation days and justify their decisions with the fact that the parent can set up video conferencing with their child for the rest of the time.

Video conferencing, with its tantalizing illusion of “”withness,”” cannot and must not be a substitute for actual physical proximity or physical contact. I cannot be the only one who has heard of the study in which infants who received physical, loving contact with another human being had many positive attributes compared to babies who did not. This is not a coincidence. Those poor untouched babies suffered from a lack of withness.

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