Keeping in Touch

Posted on May 2, 2012

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In 1981, I read a book by someone who was extremely well-known in some obscure field. I can no longer remember his well-known name, so there’s little chance the obscure field will spring to mind. But I do recall that at one point he offered this as his theory of life: “We’re all in constant motion, striving at any given moment to tell everyone else where we are and where we’re going.” I used quotation marks there to give the impression that this is precisely what the man said. However, those are probably not his exact words. In fact, they may not have been from a book, or a newspaper or magazine article. It could have been something my boss paraphrased and relayed to me during an important, late-night editorial meeting as we prepared our monthly newsletter for publication. Or my boss might have been hosting an informal gathering, and I happened to be standing within hearing range while sweeping the floor around his desk. Now that I think of it, the source of the theory may not have been well-known at all. I was hoping it was Arthur Schopenhauer or Immanuel Kant, because they were both German philosophers, and quoting a German philosopher makes you sound smart. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anything either one of them ever said that so much as resembles the thing about people being in constant motion. But I’m very certain it was 1981.

At the time, I thought the quote was trivial and narrow-minded, reducing life to a pointless sliver of its actual significance. As far as I could tell, most people were doing more than just moving around and announcing their location. And some, of course, were doing a lot less. I had a friend who skipped two grades and was accepted to Princeton when he was sixteen. He tended to say things that were hard for me to understand, and I soon grew to hate him. At the other extreme, we had neighbors who wouldn’t even answer the door. If you waved to them in the street, they turned their heads and pretended to be examining something on the ground.

I had no way of being sure, but it seemed to me that back then, people went about their business quietly, nurturing their dreams and pursuing their goals in private ways. The truth is, I rarely knew where anyone was. If there was a party over the weekend, I learned about it on Monday morning when I heard my classmates discussing the highlights at school. On a larger scale, the nations of the West were locked in a hostile staring contest with the Soviet Union, so secrecy and discretion still had value. In those days, a spy knew how to keep his mouth shut, although gangsters and quite a few Cabinet members had suddenly become pretty blabby.

Thirty years later, it appears more and more as though that quote accurately describes much of our activity. And while I originally dismissed the idea as either off-target if false or a sad description of humanity if true, I now accept that it explains a lot. Everyone has a basic need to feel important, at least occasionally. At least to someone. Part of that feeling is derived from being in contact with friends, family, and colleagues — not just when necessary, but when desired — and sharing with them every possible shred of information.

“I’m at the party store, shopping for paper plates.”

“I may take a nap this afternoon.”

“That veggie wrap I had for lunch was amazing!”

“I think I have a bladder infection.”

The content of the messages is less crucial than the signal on which they’re carried. It’s a form of echo-location, similar to the ability certain bats possess to find and catch mosquitoes flitting around in total darkness. But in our case it says, “I’m over here. Are you there? I’m not alone, am I? You are there. Thank goodness! How about now? Are you still there?”

There’s a part of me that sees this need for continual feedback as weak and pathetic, as evidence that we’re becoming fearful and dependent. Didn’t technology promise to make us more powerful? Why the obsession with LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook? What purpose are those text messages, emails, and phone calls serving? The mass of updates, announcements, and self-promotion seem to blur together, like a million people all talking at the same time. Does anybody really hear anything?

I’m not sure.

A few nights ago, I was driving past a small pond near my home. It was just after sunset on an otherwise quiet stretch of road, and then the silence exploded into a piercing and relentless howl. I later discovered that the noise was coming from spring peepers, brown tree frogs that are no more than an inch long and live in and around vegetation growing close to stagnant water. The chirp of one spring peeper can be mistaken for that of a bird. Hundreds of them could be the soundtrack for a nervous breakdown. These are the males calling out to prospective mates with a shrillness that can be heard a mile away. The result is a shocking cacophony that makes me wonder: can the females possibly distinguish individual suitors in all of that madness? And if they can, what message are they receiving? Are frogs capable of alluring conversation? I mean something beyond “Pick me! Pick me!”

I’ve never seen a spring peeper, but I know they’re there. And because they live only about three years, it wasn’t very long ago that these particular frogs weren’t in that pond. They must be the spawn of a reproductive process that began with their fathers shattering the stillness of another cool evening — shrieking their brains out, really — with a torrent of updates, announcements, and self-promotion. “I’m over here. Are you there? I’m not alone, am I? You are there. Thank goodness! How about now? Are you still there?”

That isn’t so different from what we humans do. According to an obscure man named Georg Simmel, we develop self-esteem and a sense of place by seeking “the awareness of others.” In this scheme, we actually depend on social interaction. Furthermore, the greater the numbers involved (the more interaction we experience), the greater our own “freedom and flexibility.” Our very personalities, then, require the recognition and acknowledgment of others. So maybe it’s more helpful than I realized for me to learn about your party plates, or to tell you about my afternoon nap. More than just where we are and where we’re going, they say something about who we are — to ourselves and to each other.

By the way, Georg Simmel was a German philosopher. Did you notice that I quoted him?

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