The Internet - according to The Internet
My good friend, and now-fellow-blogger at E3P2S, and I recently had a discussion about how the internet is modifying our social spaces. I have been living in Geneva, Switzerland for the past 5 months and 1 week, and have consistently turned towards the internet for my social interactions while being here. That is not to say that social spaces were unavailable here; I am an intern, surrounded by other interns, and we are all in similar states of not-being-at-home and being-without-friends. This creates a magnetic power between us, a visceral adherence to each other - we're clinging together, huddled in the darkness of a strange and difficult city, searching each other for qualities which remind us of cherished loved ones at home.
There are a number of contingencies that make the available social spaces in Geneva difficult to operate within. Geneva is a city with an outstanding number of transient people. Every city has tourists, students, employees trying their luck in a new place, et cetera, but Geneva seems to have more of these transient individuals than average. It's an expensive city to live in, with so many rules and regulations that even people who work here for a long time often choose to live in the very near-by towns of France. On top of these fondly-named 'Border-Crossers', there is a very large population of international students, international employees, and a constant flux of travellers who come for personal or business reasons. Geneva has a poor sense of who it is, being so close to France and full of international people, and in such an unstable environment the social space is poorly developed - the city does not offer a warm or inviting atmosphere.
But let me be more specific, and begin to illustrate my own experience. As an intern, I am here for only six months. I entered into the city as a transient person, and joined the ranks of other transient people also engaged in internships at various stages. My fellow interns and I do our best to create a sense of community, cooking together, meeting for coffee and to visit museums on weekends, and generally trying to make it easier for each other to be here. BUT! Forming connections with people and making real, deep friendships, which take time to develop, is not at all easy and sometimes not possible. Some people I met when I arrived were only weeks away from leaving as their internship would be over. Others were half-way through, so we would have just enough time to get to know each other and begin those slow-growing roots of friendship when they would have to leave Geneva. My very good friend was only one month in to her internship when I arrived, and so we had lots of time to develop a good and strong friendship. But she left last week to return to Japan. Not exactly right next door.
I found myself in the fall feeling unattached and drifting, and didn't easily fit with a lot of the personalities around me. I find myself now, the 'oldest' intern in the building. All of those people I knew and had friendships with are gone back to their countries of origin to pursue careers or their studies, and I am surrounded by new interns just beginning their time here. In some senses it is easier to be the 'old' intern; some kind of wisdom is attributed to me from having lived in Geneva for "such a long time" (that should give you some idea of the length of time people typically stay here!) and for having as much information as I do about the general mechanics of the office. The new people are disoriented, trying to figure out what to make of this strange place, and trying to find people to begin friendships with. I can facilitate their introduction, show them the cheap restaurants, the free activities, get them used to having people in for dinner, advise them about how to find more work if they don't have enough to keep them busy. But I am actually in the same place that I was in at the very beginning. Unattached, with my greatest Geneva-friend gone away, and three more weeks before I leave myself.
This brings me finally to where this posting began: the internet. In the early days of my internship, through the difficult episodes in the fall, and right up to this very moment, I have depended on the internet to provide me with the social interactions that could truly sustain me. Every day I send dozens of emails, post comments and links on Facebook, read the blogs of my friends and of other interesting people, and actually spend *hours* on GChat, Facebook chat, and Skype. In fact, because of the way that interns are spread out through the building, I have even managed to connect all the intern-offices on each floor through GMail accounts so we can chat to each other - sending the requisite GMail invitations whenever necessary. I told my partner one day that I feel like the ethernet cables are my veins, and the strings of 0s and 1s are my blood. My work PC and trusty MacBook (Pro - nbd) have been the hearts pumping life into and through my body.
At various times in these past six months I've asked myself if this is healthy. Shouldn't I be out in the social space immediately surrounding me in Geneva? Doesn't this mean that I'm somehow living in a less fulfilling way? I think that there is a strong idea that being connected to the computer too much is unhealthy, pitiable, and indicates an inability to bond and interact with in-the-flesh people. I do agree that there can be extremes of computer-dependency - those people who jeopardize their health playing Worlds of Warcraft for 18 hours straight come to mind immediately.
However, I think that the internet has developed into a social and creative space in its own right, where actual social encounters can and do happen. Part of why I spend so much time on the internet in Geneva is that the available social spaces do not provide the fulfilling relationships or meaningful encounters that I crave. The internet, by way of connecting me to people who deeply matter to me and whose daily lives are immensely important to me, does provide exactly that kind of social space for me. Communicating through the internet for hours each day is not me being anti-social or exhibiting reclusive tendencies - it is actually me reaching out through the wireless waves to make a connection that *I need to make* in order to feel sane and to stay healthy.
The internet is an ever-changing tool that we can use for many millions of things, but its primary offering to us is enhanced communication. The act of Googling something is an act of communication, where a person asks the internet to find what other people know about something. All of our communication strategies are being driven by the technologies made available by the internet, and this is actually a very positive development. It is important to maintain a balance between in-person contact and internet-contact, but we may also need to adjust our views of what the internet can do for us as social animals. Communication with friends and family at the click of a button in my Skype account is invaluable, and were it not for internet-enabled social space I would have gone insane in Geneva.