“If our apartment was on fire, and you could save only one thing, what would it be?”
This was the question my brother posed to me a few days ago. Almost instantly, I replied: “my memory box”.
My memory box is a large blue storage container that holds my most cherished possessions since I was a kid — birthday cards from family and friends, arts and crafts from elementary school, and yearbooks with heartwarming messages from friends in a different time.
The box may be heavy, but I sure as heck would try my absolute best to rescue that blue storage container amidst the (hypothetical) flames. Every now and then, I find myself rummaging through my closet, gently wiping off the dust and smiling to myself as I carefully go through the inked pages and colourful school projects.
I can’t help but notice that it’s been a while since I put anything in that box. As I’ve grown older, and technology is integrated into every aspect of our lives, it seems like we become increasingly accepting of our memories becoming intangibles — stored in “the cloud”, saved on a USB, or recorded on a phone. Which is why it doesn’t surprise me to learn that the question my brother brought up was actually from a survey he had seen, for which the top response was “my phone”.
Social media and technology in general have weaved incredibly complex webs of connections and methods of communicating with each other. This international network truly transcends all boundaries, and makes it easier than ever to connect with another human being — anytime, anywhere.
And yet, my somewhat un-updated memory box makes me question just how connected I truly feel with other human beings. As birthday wishes become texts, announcements become Facebook posts, and congratulatory wishes become letters on a screen, I find myself reaching for authentic and uninterrupted connection. I’m left with screenshots of messages, a folder for special emails in my inbox, and an audio recording of a conversation between my grandmother, my mother and I in an attempt to capture and hold on to precious memories. But none of these quite do the job.
Let me explain a bit further.
When you receive a text from a human being, you have little to no idea of what is happening on the other end of this “connection”. The other human being might be talking to someone, eating lunch and going through their emails all while sending you a message. Their attention may be split in ways you aren’t even aware of, and suddenly, the message — no matter its content — seems a little less meaningful.
If someone calls you, there exists less potential for extreme multitasking. The other human being may still be doing work or reviewing emails, but their responses have to be instant — there is no time for carefully pre-mediated messages or the ability to maintain a 3-minute pregnant pause as they get distracted. When you’re on the phone with someone, chances are you can tell how engaged they are with the connection being created.
When someone writes — when I say write, I mean write, not type — to you, it signals that this human being took the time in their day to stop, sit down, pull out a pen and piece of paper, and express a certain message to you. When you receive it, you are aware that during the time this was created, their attention and energy were entirely focused on communicating something to you. Not only do you receive the message they’ve written, but as Marshall McLuhan famously stated, the medium is the message. A letter in itself says: “I am here, in this moment, focusing on you.”
And last, but certainly not least, when you meet with a human being in person, you may not have something tangible to take away, but you have an intangible infinitely more valuable than pixels on a screen or seconds of a clip — their whole, dedicated and unedited attention. Your memory of their body language, their laugh, their tears — this is a memory that sears into your mind like no gigabyte of storage can.
Technology may present more and more ways to communicate with each other, but whether it truly connects human beings is another question entirely. There remains something timelessly valuable and raw about wholly dedicating your time and energy to communicating with another human being. Our species needs warm and intimate contact to feel like we belong and are valued. The coldness of digital communication can make us feel lost and alone despite such an interconnected world.
I’m fully aware that up until now, I have been largely hypocritical when it comes to how seemingly critical I am of using technology to connect with others. So, consider this as a public service announcement for the future — if I decide to call you or even ask to write a letter to you, don’t question it. Embrace it. The same goes the other way — if you ever want to call or write something to me, I’m more than happy to be a part of that.
Writing to a human being or speaking with them in real time (whether on the phone or in person) — believe it or not — has become awkward for many members of our species. We seem to be unwilling to deal with the complexity of human relationships, so when the efficiency, comfort and safety of our keyboards present an unbelievably easy alternative, it becomes almost impossible to resist. But this lack of authentic connection is what affects so many human beings in our world today in so many different ways.
I hope to be a part of normalizing a phone call, printing out photos or writing a message to someone once again in an effort to foster my relationships with those human beings that mean the most to me. I encourage you to do the same, so when you are an old human being and look back on the journey that was your life, you feel the words and smiles of the human beings that made it so wonderful in the very core of your heart.