By Paul Woodruff September 7, 2023 at 6:45 a.m. EDT
Paul Woodruff, a professor of philosophy emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin, is finishing a book called “Surviving Technology.”
My good friends know that my end is near. Several of them have flown from far away to see me in Texas. They come for an hour or two of conversation, and then they fly home. That’s an expensive visit, and time-consuming for them. Why aren’t they satisfied to see me over the internet? I offer them that way out, but they insist on the trip. Why?
My friends tell me the internet is not a healthy place to develop friendships. I agree.
In my latest meeting with one friend, I gained a growing understanding of him at this stage in his life, and he of me, from subtle clues in our posture, expressions and body language — clues we could not have captured on the web. We kept close eye contact most of the time — something we could not have done on the internet. In the end, I felt that soul had touched soul.
Another recent visitor and I both changed as we came to know each other better. He told me he had shelved a beloved project to devote time to his business. We had little need for words after he told me of his decision. By contrast, the web would have allowed us hardly anything but words to go on.
Yet another friend told me that he had come to value in-person meetings because the business he had started was entirely in virtual space, and he saw its shortcomings every day. During his business meetings, he tells me, he suspects that many of his workers are multitasking — head and shoulders pretending to be paying attention, hands below camera range busy on other projects. They would not get away with that in person, he says. Because worries like this bother him every day, he sets a higher value than ever on seeing friends face to face. In-person encounters have become more intense for him, more special than they were before. Today, he wastes no time on small talk when we meet. We are each focused on the other.P
I am not against the medium as such. I have taught on Zoom, and I know its strengths and weaknesses. I also understand that internet technology allows us to make and maintain connections that we would otherwise be denied. I know a stay-at-home parent with a large family who rejoices in her Zoom and Facebook connections. Without technology, she would be isolated, as parents were in the old days. Being physically together might be the gold standard for connecting, but we must not discount the value of other options. Whatever form of connection we are allowed is a gift.Share this articleNo subscription required to readShare
But web-based connections are simply not as good as in-person ones. Technology tempts us into being satisfied with pseudo-friendships, and these can be dangerous. You’d be a fool to marry or promise sex to someone you had never met off-screen. That’s because the internet can’t reliably protect us from falsehood. Now, artificial intelligence has become a champion at falsehood. It can create false images of people — even of my friends — and get me to believe they are real.
Friends should be able to trust each other with secrets. Trust is at the heart of friendship, and trust can’t get started without privacy. The most valuable things friends say with each other must be safe behind a wall of “Don’t tell anyone else.” My wife and I need to process a rift in a colleague’s marriage to be clear about our own, but we don’t want the colleague to know what we are thinking. My wife and I are best friends, so I can trust her to keep our conversation private. But nothing has ever been private on the web. If I dare not tell you the truth of my heart, you cannot be my friend. But I don’t dare tell the truth of my heart to anyone I know through the internet. It follows that I cannot have friends through the internet.
I am delighted that my friends are flying in to see me from far away. They warm my soul. And having such good friends keeps me honest with myself and others. We do not come together to say goodbye. We come together to know each other better, right now, as we are at this hour, today. Each visit brings a growth of understanding in real time. I am very lucky to have such friends.
They are right to come in person. In actual presence, they can hold my hand, stroke my brow. At the end of my life, if they were trying to see me through the internet, they would fail. That dying thing will not be me. I am who I am through my actions, and dying is not an action. It is a happening. At the end, I will have no comfort in being observed. At the end, I cannot be seen. I want to be touched.