A Detached Closeness

Are computers going to make us feel we no longer have the need for human contact? University of Virginia Professor John Sullivan thinks there are better ways to communicate.

By Panya Monford

Imagine getting married over the Internet. The justice of the peace could put an application for a marriage certificate on a Web page, and through a chat room labeled "Marriage 'R Us," the judge can pronounce you man and wife. Everyday you'll chat with your spouse over email, sending pictures that you've scanned. How did you meet? In college, of course, in your social psychology class of 60,000 students who all log on to the class every Monday and Wednesday from different cities throughout the nation.

This scenario may be a little extreme, but it has to make you think. Is technology making our lives impersonal? Are we closer to the products of this high-tech age than we are to most people? John Sullivan, an English professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, would believe so. "Who is your favorite TV character, who lives four doors down to your right?" Sullivan asks. More often than not, you will know your favorite television character better than your neighbors. Technology, the computer specifically, is taking over our lives, replacing everyday human contact and everyday activities with something John Sullivan calls "depersonalized intimacy."

Sullivan believes that "depersonalized intimacy" is taking over our relationships, our education, and our sense of community. Computers are re-creating everything we do. We no longer have to deal with real people, we can talk to them, get mad at them, and annul a contact with them all through the computer. We don't have to go to work or school; the Internet can educate or employ us. There is no need to socialize at parties anymore; we can particpate in a party right on a chat line. Through these availabilities there may be a feeling of intimacy, but there is in actuality no interaction and no real closeness with anyone but a computer or some other aspect of technology. Computers and technology are taking over all humanity.

Relationships now have a depersonalized intimacy thanks to computers. Affected are not only romantic relationships, but those with friends and family. Any possible chance of forming future relationships may also lose out because of technology. If we stop going out because all that requires us to leave our homes has been taken care of by computer technology, then we will stop dealing with actual people. What about that guy or girl you met at the grocery store? Would that have happened if you ordered your groceries over the phone?

Even emailing is regarded with some skepticism by Sullivan. He feels that personas change over email. "It is uncivil. Interpersonal dimensia changes." We do not worry about grammatical errors, which may be a good thing, but he is concerned that the writing is unthoughtful and un-thought. Sullivan would rather talk to people person-to-person. You can observe body language and feelings, and witness uncut emotion with no chance to edit what is said.

As Sullivan sits at his desk with his legs crossed, wearing casual slacks and a polo shirt, a small computer ironically furnishes the top of it. Sullivan has been a professor at the University of Virginia for 30 years. He has just written a book called The C-Span Revolution, which discusses media issues, and the video tapes for this project are stuffed into his office, surrounded by books. Sullivan also has been teaching a course for the past two years called Media Culture and is now teaching a course on memory at the university. Are we justifying the use of technology for almost everything we do? Sullivan points out that beepers were originally for business purposes. Now everyone has one. What is our justification? We need to stay in touch. But before, however, telephones with answering machines were good enough. We are moving further and further away from 'relating' with one another.

As Sullivan continues to discuss with excitement, you notice his gray-white hair and the reading glasses to fit, and he inquires, "Has it [beepers] made you want to read less? I don't think you can make that leap." But television and the Internet, Sullivan knows, have deterred our attention away from books and conversation.

Books and conversation are two of the key ingredients mixed into the bowl of education; but they are at risk of being discarded because of computers. What if all classes were taught through technology alone? Sullivan argues that if all classes resulted in television teaching, it would lack something. If all classes were taught by computer, "everybody would stay at home. What would you learn staying at home?" Sullivan declares that part of the college experience is getting away from home. Just as much is learned outside of class as inside. He asks, "What would happen to fraternities and sororities? They have rituals and past histories that can't be expressed through the Internet." The same goes for life. You have to experience it for yourself to learn anything. Always sitting at a computer will teach you nothing about life skills.

Sullivan smirks when he is asked about his class on memory. The laugh lines, or is it better to say smirk lines, exude a knowledge that is sensed when first meeting him. Perhaps he knew that this question about his class will lead to the clincher in his argument against this technology take-over. Because if you think about it, doesn't technolgy affect our ability to memorize? For example, we may know how to do calculus, but we can't remember the basic functions of this math like multiplying fractions. We buy a $130 calculator to do the calculations for us. The computer remembers all the difficult information that we don't. All we have to do is remember the key that will give us this information.

This class on memory also demonstrates how a basic sense of community is taken away by computer technology. The class has three basic concepts: rhetoric, community, and a usable past. Sullivan teaches that there cannot be a community without a past. This usable past should be used as a "civil religion." This civil religion is necessary for the maintenance of community. We learn from our mistakes by learning from our history.

This religion also helps to keep the past alive and thriving. We tell stories of our past, using rhetoric, in order to live and to maintain our community. The past isn't necessarily the past, however; it is a look into the future. Do not your parents and grandparents constantly tell you stories of their childhood to give you an idea of how to live now and in the future? We should consider the past as a guide to understanding what steps to take in the future, not only to benefit ourselves but in order to maintain a community.

But "this is a market place society," Sullivan interjects. Those who create the technology are only out for economic gains. Whatever makes money is what they produce. What truly counts will not be found on the computer, or the Internet. The computer doesn't capture the true essence of community and past and the computer doesn't promote the future of communities either.

Community is now a chat room where no one in reality knows anyone "intimately." The people involved believe they're experiencing intimacy, but it is an intimacy without actually being intimate. Rhetoric is no longer exchanged through actual words but through keys on a keyboard. Sullivan categorizes it as, "an intimacy at certain levels that is depersonalized."

Sullivan's face scrunches up at the idea of chat rooms. "Chat rooms could be your virtual community." It becomes real without being real. Sullivan willingly admits that he has never "messed" with a chat room.

So where are computers going to take us in the future? How impersonal will it get? The quality of human life may be near its destruction. People may become either nostalgic or apathetic about the word "human." The Internet is looking more and more like newspapers; advertisements are starting to look more and more like television. Will we only appreciate technology more? Is it causing us to spiral down a path of complete isolation? You may say that technology's advancements are only for our benefit; the wide range of possibilities are endless. You may think the Internet is a great liberating device--is it? If it leads to the desecration of humanity, is it still a welcome boon? Can this trend be stopped? Sullivan says yes. "The number of forces will prevent its fullest exploitation." Technology "is going to end up exactly where we don't think it will."