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Hug, Talk, Text: Thoughts on Intimacy, Embodiment and Technology

Hoping to experience something more elevated than the depressing powerlessness of my post college years, I devoted my early 20’s to spiritual development.

I meditated, chanted and studied ancient texts that spouted ancient wisdom: You are not your body. Identification with the body is ego. Identify with the breath.

It was an intellectually compelling notion but it didn’t really help me with my food or relationship issues. So I spent my late 20’s and 30’s correcting or at least adding to this dissociative way of thinking. I studied drama therapy, yoga and other embodied healing practices that encourage you to Be In your body and Connect With your body. The body which has vitality, wisdom, movement, limitations, expressions, surges of feeling, senses and odors.

The body is vulnerable. 

You are your body.

I became a devout student of embodiment and intimacy (in the psychological sense), and that is what I taught, and to some degree, still teach.

***

I recently saw the movie Her and found it quite provocative. The idea that someone is dating his operating system is as preposterous as it is imminently possible. In the background of the film, people walked through train stations by themselves — as many of us do today —  talking and gesturing to other beings (live or computerized) through their wireless devices, but not to each other.  It really drove home the point that engagement is no longer body or location dependent.  And it begged the question, when talking to an operating system, who are you really talking to?

In an article I wrote in 2011 called Simulationships, I posited that certain types of online relationships merely mimic real ones. My thinking then was, if you created lots of online “intimacy” but then became physically ill, would anyone in your cyber-cadre really show up for you? Who would take you to chemo, or bring you a pot of soup?

But in the movie Her, these questions were answered. Because if the protagonist got sick, his computer could not only keep him company, but also choose and download a movie to play, order soup from the best place in the city, and have it delivered. No, he couldn’t hug her thank you or goodnight, but he also didn’t have to worry about getting her sick.

If a computerized being or avatar can order you soup, does it matter if it can’t give you an actual hug, hold your hand, wipe your fevered brow?

***

I am a denizen of the modern world of dating, in which the telephone has become nearly extinct. To arrange dates and in between them, we stay in touch via text messaging, sometimes lengthy strings of them. I enjoy it, and I can’t help but wonder — what happened to talking?

In losing the voice contact, what have we lost? We have eliminated some of the messiness of growing a relationship. We do not experience the awkward pauses in which we must figure out what to say or how to say it. I can’t hear the exhaustion in his voice, nor he the thinner, higher quality of mine when I’m managing nervous excitement. Conversations are no longer interrupted or punctuated by dogs, children, or the various sounds of multitasking.

We don’t get to sink into that luscious silence, feeling the connection together in the breath-filled pauses between topics, but some of that manages to trickle into the texting experience. And I can enhance my natural wit with literal, on the spot editing. He doesn’t hear my empathic sighing. I don’t hear his laughter. We also don’t even have to formally say goodbye . . . sometimes a text goes unanswered and you have no idea why. Maybe it didn’t go through. Maybe it hit a nerve. Maybe it was time to get the laundry out of the dryer.

Maybe he simply fell asleep with the phone on his chest.

Lol.

Technology provides the perfect container for our cultural conflict about intimacy. It seems as if we are moving towards connection and dissociation at the same time. When we don’t include the body in our relationships, we don’t really have to contend with the confining (and yet equally thrilling) presence of what Sartre refers to as “the gaze of the other.”

As we move deeper into technology, I wonder if things are coming full circle.  Maybe I’m not my body after all. Is the body, slowly, slowly becoming obsolete?

I’m dying to know your thoughts. Please, share them below.

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22 Responses to “Hug, Talk, Text: Thoughts on Intimacy, Embodiment and Technology”

  1. Paul says:

    I LOVE this and agree that I do think we are coming full circle, or at least coming to ‘something,’ that may NOT be as disassociated as we have imagined for over One Hundred years or more. Edison was certainly viewed as shedding a disastrous light on society, bathing it in an ‘unearthly’ glow, removing us from the visceral pleasure of flame. Watson and Graham Bell were blamed for banishing facial gestures and minute detail from conversations, arguments, love. Photography was going to destroy painting and remove us further from the ‘raw’ of canvas. Film would destroy novels. Television would destroy Film. Digital will destroy print. CGI will destroy actors. It always seemed that it was the same argument and I always felt more like a curmudgeon fro complaining about smart phones because… well, I knew, it was another turning point. Great post Blair.

    • Blair Glaser says:

      Paul, Thanks so much for bringing your perspective here. Let’s not forget that Broadway has been dying for years!!! With every turning point there is something lost and something gained. We are moving SO quickly. It is invigorating. And how will we ever slow down? Is slowing down important? I forgot.

  2. Tony Cuckson says:

    In this world of time and space we live a duality.

    One thing is not good or bad but depends on what we do with it. We can use anything to move beyond this duality into union of the personal with the Divine.

    Relationship is the great mirror.

    It is, personal speaking, the most challenging growth experience on this planet. Relationship via computer doesn’t quite invite such emotional intensity that propels personal and spiritual growth.

    The internet, however, is I think a representation of inter-connectedness that we as the human community haven’t ever experienced before. It is for the first time really an inter-connected world.

    It is the invitation to what is called by Barbara Max Hubbard becoming homo-spiritus which is a quantum leap in consciousness beyond homo-sapiens.

    All is change at the moment and this is an invitation to moving beyond the sense of the separate sense of self into the embrace of the Universal Self.

    This requires a daily connection to the presence of Love as experienced through the body. I don’t simply mean the experience of sexual love here.

    If we invite, receive and return the expansiveness that this presence allows us to be and to love via new technology then this assists the progress to bringing higher consciousness into the collective called humanity.

    In Christian parlance this is referred to as bringing Heaven to Earth.

    The question for each individual to ask is this. Is our technology making us more loving, compassionate and empowered in the sense that we invite the highest good of all?

    I know it does this for me but I won’t be giving up my embodied friendships and intimacy with my partner and the animals in my life and the natural world that I love so much.

    The danger is that technology further disembodies us and we become less connected to the natural world and to the ability to feel intimate with others. We simply become heads on legs.

    I have noticed that on retreat people now rush to their computer and mobile phones to get a fix of whatever they think is missing when there is time out. This never used to happen. It feels that this breaks the dynamic that retreat invites.

    Whatever, way the technology goes one has the choice to make conscious decisions. It begins with intention and hopefully the intention follows the heart and soul radiance of the individual.

    • Blair Glaser says:

      Thanks for your inspiring words, Tony. “One thing is not good or bad but depends on what we do with it.” That really is at the heart of all the questions, isn’t it? What is our intention with technology (and do we even consider our intentions?). “The danger is that technology further disembodies us and we become less connected to the natural world and to the ability to feel intimate with others. We simply become heads on legs.” That is the danger as I see it as well. We become heads on legs, out of touch with our true needs and our true qualities.

  3. Paul says:

    How could I forget Theater! HOMER! Really, the first or at least documented Theater AND Literature!!!!! All the way to yup, Broadway. I don’t know if we slow down but I think we ‘settle down.’ At first it appeared that Radio and Television was going to keep us captive in our homes. I think in time we’ll get so used to our phones that we, hopefully, won’t be as in a trance with them. We adapt. I think it’ll be OK. Walden wasn’t written that long ago and it was kind of about exactly what we’re talking about here. I think keeping the questions alive, walking in the woods and remembering helps. We’ll see though because it won’t really be about us. It’ll be about the children. Will they even know how to print in Twenty Years? Is that even important?

    • Blair Glaser says:

      Paul, very true. Although I’m less worried about printing and more worried about eye contact. Will they value walking in the woods beyond another experience to post and share about? Will they be able to distinguish between the representation of their lives on social media and their actual inner experience? And is THIS important?

  4. Hi Blair —

    This is a wonderful post, opening up a subject that needs some air. I agree with what you seem to be saying, that a risk technology poses (and it’s not the technology that’s the actual problem) is that we use it ever more easily to artificially set a boundary on our relationships. In that we lose a richness and closeness that might have been there had we been face to face, able to touch each other emotionally. We have always made our choices about when and how we go deeper and more intimately with one another, I suppose, but technology may abstract and depersonalize the choice.

    On the other side, I would say technology can also be used to connect people who might not have connected. I think of my experience with eHarmony and how that started very much with technology and a choice to get to know each other better that probably neither my wife or nor I would have made without it. Had we been in the same room at the same time, we both probably would have said, “not her” and “not him.” (We’ve talked about that!) But here it is anyway, a beautiful match and we have now been very happily married for four years plus. And where did it start? With that question at the end of the profile that asked, “What’s your favorite book?” And she said, “The Sea and the Bells” by Pablo Neruda. And I said to myself, who wouldn’t want to get to know such a lovely presence?

    All the best
    Dan

    • Blair Glaser says:

      Dan, What a beautiful story, thank you so much for sharing. Technology opens up so many worlds — and I do love it. It is allowing for this very moment of connection with you, whose thoughts and posts I have admired for the better part of a year. And I look forward to the day, should it come, where I get to meet the embodied Dan to add to my 2D experience of you and the Dan in my imagination. But if it doesn’t . . . in this case I’d say all has been gained and nothing lost. Thanks so much for your comment.

  5. Paul says:

    I think they WILL value nature. That will be in the education; certainly all of them won’t, so many adults and even elderly ones are already disconnected from nature and are content that way. As for the future generations being able to distinguish between the representation of their lives on social media and their actual inner experience…. I would hope so. I think it’ll be the Social Media that changes. In a sense, and this is only my opinion…. Radio, Television, Photography, Theater, Literature, Film, may be suffering economically, I don’t think they are in terms of content. I’ve think they’ve adapted and improved and are always doing so. Because people make them. We make the Social Media and I think the generations to come will change it. In fact, since Social Media is somewhat new… Maybe they’ll discard it altogether for something better or more visceral. Who knows? Or as you say… Is it important?

  6. Alli Polin says:

    What a fantastic post, Blair and an important question that you pose. The movie you describe reminds me of Electric Dreams from many moons ago – but that didn’t end quite as sweetly.

    I have so many meaningful virtual relationships but I’ve often wondered about people who drop out or drop off. What happened to them? How can I find out? How can I help? I had a real, human, face-to-face friend a few years ago and as our paths shifted we did not see each other quite as often and dwindled down to email. When I looked for her on Facebook and saw that her postings had stopped, I did some googling… she had died. I was heartbroken that we would not swap stories or encourage each other again. Every time I read her emails, I heard her voice so now having that trail of technology, I can still “hear” her and appreciate her words of wisdom.

    So funny to see comments on Theater too. There is a reason that my husband and I take our kids to live theater and TV, from the comfort of our living room, is not enough. The magic of the relationship between the actors and the audience is so special and it’s all of the beating hearts in the room together that make the experience magical.

    For me, living remotely, technology is a lifeline, but it can’t be my only one.

    Exceptional post, Blair!

    • Blair Glaser says:

      Thanks Alli, for your kind words and thoughtful post. The story about your friend is sad and alarming. Virtual relationships are new and dear to me as well. They even offer certain things that embodied relationships don’t — convenience, brevity, a particular type of simpatico. But when people simply close the screen on you without explanation, it is puzzling. I am so glad you have your family with you abroad so that you can soak up all the richness of being connected to their physical presence. And exposing them to theater, too! A great way to keep the magic of embodiment alive. Thanks again as always for your thoughtful comments and adding to the conversation, Alli.

  7. You have some insightful readers, Blair. I wish I would have seen the movie. I sit at home now and type at this keyboard thankful that I have a community to listen and possibly react to my words. This is different, though, than the “messiness” inherent in relationships with someone who has a heart beat in front of me. I struggle when I think this world has changed during the past decade and will continue to evolve during the next dozen years. This is one of those paradigm shifts, a significant shift that will alter societies forever. My children will think, breathe, walk, and act differently because of the continuous connection to this electronic world. I cannot judge. The change will go on whether I want it to continue or not. The “messiness” will not be missed and the quality of relationships will be different. Digital filtering will be norm – accurate words and gestures will be different – speech may be subordinate to other means of communication. And yet I cannot judge. There will be some who cling to direct language like audiophiles cling to vinyl. And the world will continue to change.

    • Blair Glaser says:

      I agree, David, my readers are sophisticated, including you! Why can we not judge? I happen to agree with you that it is not useful to do so, but sometimes judgments are necessary. Although feeling is not judging. Excitement and grief are a part of my experience with most change and I guess I have a lot of feelings about the changes afoot even though they are not right or wrong, and there are arguably more advantages than losses.
      Definitely see that flick if you get a chance! Thanks as always for your insights and rich comments, David.

  8. sarah says:

    Thank you for this – provocative indeed! As a dancer, I know that I need to be in touch with my own physical presence as well as that of the people I’m connecting with. An in-person experience is so rich, and we say so much between and beneath our words. The technology is flat for me. Especially because texting forces us to be as concise as possible. We’re missing out on the thrill of discourse and expounding and full expression. I’m not ready to leave the body behind…

    • Blair Glaser says:

      Sarah, thank you so much for your comment and for championing the body. You make some great points about savoring the in-person experience, including not having to be hemmed in by brevity or even reduced letters. Gr8 pts, no wht I mean?

  9. Terri Klass says:

    This is a very poignant post, Blair and one worth this wonderful dialogue!

    Virtual relationships can be wonderful and even deeper once people meet face to face. I think that sites like Facebook, Twitter or Dating services can open doors for people, yet, I still believe that the human contact piece is essential.Even hangouts can make the relationships more fulfilling.

    I guess what I am saying and thinking is that technology can begin a process of connecting human souls together but may not be a completer.

    Great job!

    • Blair Glaser says:

      Thanks, Terri! I am loving this dialogue, too. And I agree, the computer is not a connection completer! And like you, I am very grateful for what the connections it has brought me. Thanks for your support and comments.

  10. Achim Nowak says:

    Blair,

    I much enjoyed reading this post, and I am forever intrigued by the layers and nuances of intimacy. I think of it all as different sorts of languages. I am enjoying the joys of these languages – the joys of texting, the joys of tweeting. Because these newer languages are quick and highly verbal, the intimacy for me offers a quick and highly verbal jolt. The unexpected reward of twitter (I’m a newbie tweeter) – it has been the magnificent foreplay to many in-person encounters. Richly human, old-school-intimate encounters.

    • Blair Glaser says:

      Hi Achim,
      So nice to see you here.
      “the magnificent foreplay to many in-person encounters.” Beautiful phrase and I think there is a theme emerging — people enjoy online communication as a way to meet people. I too, experience a “jolt” and as Ben says below, it is even addictive. I love your use of the term “old-school intimate” and I will continue to treasure it, even as I venture out further from the body and into my phone. Thanks again for bringing your bitch thoughts here.

  11. Ben says:

    Very well written with some nice observations. I, for one, am not one of the people who enjoys text as conversation. All the cues, good and not as good, that you mention being missed are essential to our humanness. The ability to “edit” ourselves, while sometimes enhancing our natural wit, takes away from authenticity to some degree. After all, we’re flawed beings and even if we have a natural talent we are not free from mistakes while expressing it. I’ve watched the transition from phone to instant messaging to texting and I feel it’s a devolution of our ability to communicate. Additionally, it propagates our addiction to technology. I’m fairly versed in the manifestations of addiction and I say with all surety that tech is an addiction with a pleasure response just like drugs, sex and so on. Yes, technology has its place and text messaging can be a convenient way to convey quick messages. It remains, though, that we are blessed with 5 senses all of which enhance our experience while communicating with one another be it intellectually, emotionally or physically. There’s no looking back at this point but there’s still a telephone which, while only engaging one of the senses, at least provides us clues that the person on the other end of the conversation is indeed human.

    • Blair Glaser says:

      Ben, Thanks for posting this here. You bring a whole new rich element into the conversation by talking about addiction. And addiction as we know, is a killer of intimacy. There is no looking back, so how can we move forward with more grace, attention and respect for our humanity?

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