The World Outside

When given the opportunity to revamp Superman with his The Man of Steel, John Byrne gave us a very different view of Krypton, one in which couples like Superman's parent's never met. Everyone lived in isolation, genetic material from matched pairs combined in a gestation matrix in which machines controlled the growth of new life. It was a highly advanced society in which people had moved past physical contact, and were limited to communicating through viewscreens. 2008's WALL-E also gave us a society of loners, albeit a futuristic version of our own. With Earth buried in trash, her population had moved to the stars and eventually grown obese and reliant on machines to hover and ferry them around. Physical contact was forgotten, save for one accidental hand brush due to the chaos caused by the title character's arrival. Everyone is glued to mobile devices and computer screens and food dispensers, completely oblivious to other people.

How far off is that vision of the future? One of my friends at work marveled at how many people wished her a happy birthday on her social network site of choice, apparently her first since joining. She couldn't understand how even people she hadn't seen since elementary school remembered the day, but the site takes care of that, with a little reminder telling people when their friends were celebrating birthdays. In the virtual world, it's an ego boost of popularity. In the real world, there's less meaning behind it. Are e-mails and blogs and message boards and social networks on par with real emotion and communication? They certainly can be, and there are plenty of sincere messages, but I think the real danger lies in digital contact becoming the only contact. It's very easy to get illusions of closeness, when distance is growing.

I catch myself falling into this trap sometimes. It's no secret that I hate the phone. I'm an awkward speaker in real life, and my voice ranges from nasal and irritating to barely audible mumbling, depending on my familiarity with my audience. I may seem halfway intelligent in my writing, but I'm slow when it comes to thinking on the spot. Last week a friend left me a voicemail to check if I was coming to his daughter's birthday party, as well as to see if I could make a movie. I replied in an e-mail, telling him I'd call in a few days. When I did call to confirm the plans on my lunch break, he asked how things were going, and I feigned that I was walking back into my office when I was actually still two blocks away. Maybe I feared that he was going to start nagging me to join a dating service again, or maybe I just wasn't feeling up to conversing in general. My own antisocial quirks aside, the bigger picture is that technology gives me options I wouldn't have when dealing with people face to face.

We've come a long way, and the internet allows us to learn anything from anywhere within minutes. I was sorry to learn that one of my favorite actors, David Carradine, was found dead, hanging in a closet in Thailand. Minutes or hours after something so tragic happens halfway around the world, people in an office on Long Island can already be talking about it. We couldn't change anything or do anything about it, of course, only know.

My Uncle Jerry, whose dementia is growing worse, nearly burned down his apartment on Thursday. My mom and my Uncle Ciro, her oldest brother, have been taking turns visiting to feed Uncle Jerry and give him medication. Uncle Ciro was with my dad having his car inspected, and when he arrived at Uncle Jerry's he smelled smoke. Uncle Jerry shuffled to the door, slow to answer as always, and seemed oblivious to the fact that a plastic cup of coffee was sitting on a burner, melting and smoking. Uncle Ciro rushed over and moved it aside, not realizing that the empty burned was lit as well. Flames shot up, alarms went off, and in the end the fire was extinguished with no one hurt. If Uncle Ciro had been a few minutes later, it would have been a very different story. He and my mom had also checked out the first of many potential nursing homes on Thursday morning, as my Uncle Jerry clearly cannot live alone any longer.

Computers and cellphones are great. I'm at an age now where many of my friends have either moved out of state, or are too busy raising families to go to bars or movies. The internet bridges gaps that would have been far wider in the past. But it's no substitute for the outside world and, like my Uncle, we all need other people sometimes. It's very easy to build a Fortress of Solitude, and it's not really a bad thing to have. We just have to make sure to take flight outside those walls on a regular basis.


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