A few thoughts came to my mind as I was drinking coffee and watching myself and seven out of ten other visitors of a café: all at our phones or laptops, looking up things on the web. No sound of keyboards, the people not writing but not talking either; most of them being on their own, spending time in the virtual world. It is perhaps only a step from reading a book, but still it changes the atmosphere.
The virtual world is unbeatable in its offer of attractions: games, novels, old manuscripts, radio recordings, latest findings from the scientists, videos of your friends’ holidays, shops, online courses on all subjects, scans and photos of otherwise inaccessible works, recordings of the best musicians, jokes, movies, recipes, chats, auctions, photos, maps, virtual walks through cities, museums and lives of others, their living rooms, their thoughts, their stories.
And it is a world easier to deal with: full of unknown people and even friends easier to talk to (or not) if you are in the mood; available anytime and anywhere. You can see your friends via a web camera, talk to them, see how they react – if they smile, or knit their brows – and you can just ping them when you see them online, without arranging a meeting. You can compare different interpretations of the same aria by various vocalists for which in the real world you would have to look up and buy several different recordings. Almost everything is on the internet and usually for free.
So I am wondering whether an average face to face conversation can still be interesting for others. I imagine people must have been asking themselves this question many times in the past centuries: Can I compete with the knowledge in the books, and then with the news in the newspapers, and then with the news on TV, and now with the information on the internet? The first answer will probably be yes. Why? Because people want to have a contact with a real person in an authentic environment.
But is that enough? It could, if it is irreplaceable and unique to the real world, something that cannot be compensated by the virtual one. The opposite of virtual is physical: the touch, the smell. And the feeling of physical presence can’t be replaced by anything else. Moreover, the virtual world relies on our experience with the “real”. You can watch someone cooking a lunch over a camera but you can’t smell the food, feel the heat from the oven or pat them on the back; and without a previous physical experience you could not even imagine what it is like.
So why are we so inclined to spend more time online? Is it because we are looking for an easy way to spend time without the effort required in real interactions? If so, we could slowly lose part of the skill of communicating with others, and then be tempted to spend even less time trying. The virtual world is so accessible that it can be a kind of an escape: a way away from yourself and from others. When someone contacts you over the web, you can react only if you want to. You can show or hide. You are the ultimate decision maker. Everything is voluntary. People can easily click to send twenty emails with a copy-pasted content but no personal message in them.
Although we can do thousands of things the easy way just virtually, it seems it is not the rewarding way. It is not the way to build yourself stronger, wiser and more confident in the real world which is still here no matter how long anyone has been away from it. We just need to try harder, and use the internet as a tool to get information, to learn, to arrange things quickly – as a means, and not the end to itself – to have more time and maybe more input for the real face to face, in-person interaction. It is worth it, because nobody can hand you a cup of coffee over the internet.