Whether it’s for work, study or leisure, it has become fairly common for twenty-somethings to pack their suitcases and jet off to travel the world. What could have once been a unique experience in terms of travelling alone and to experience one’s culture anew, has now become somewhat of a lived dichotomy between being home and away through the marked use of technology.
In the pre-networked days, to travel alone meant leaving your whole world behind you to teeter into unknown cultural terrains. The only news from home would be through snail mail or the monthly (expensive) phone call.
Nowadays, the Internet holds our world together in a network infrastructure, and wireless Internet devices, make our networks portable. What’s more is that online communication (such as e-mail or Skype) is free and instant, championing both constraints of these classic communication methods. Therefore, tethered, we carry a sense of ‘home’ with us, through our mobile Internet devices.
During my solo travels in Asia and continental Europe, the smartphone was my Swiss Army knife of sociality since it carried my physically scattered social networks intact. It offered an instant portal to people, news and memes that kept me up to date with the rhythm of life in Malta. As heavenly as it might read on paper, in practice, it proved to create somewhat of an inner-conflict.
In a sense, I was in-between worlds, because my best-friends weren’t necessarily in the city I was nor in Malta – but on the Internet.
For instance: while I rattled my bicycle to and from the library, in a quaint cobble-stoned city in the Netherlands, one of my best-friends attended pub-quizzes behind the York Minster after lectures, while another boiled haggis for occasional Sunday lunches in Glasgow. The three of us Maltese ventured alone, yet social networking apps such as Facebook messenger or WhatsApp allowed us to remain pretty much together.
Irrespective of where our loved ones are, the idea of here and there is somehow shattered through this newly acquired networked intimacy. The phone has facilitated communication with all our friends, irrespective of where they are, altering our perception of time and space; it has come to represent a ‘mobile home’.
My German friend Saba had once told me, “I moved from Germany four years ago, I went to Botswana, I went to Luxemburg, to France. I always took my friends with me, through my smartphone. That’s how I felt. Now I can talk to my friends instantly through my phone.”
Like Saba, my friends travelled with me from the Philippines, to Italy, to Belgium and to the Netherlands thanks to the Internet, and more intimately via Skype.
Video-conferencing (like Skype or FaceTime), is a fairly new and very common means of maintaining close contact with those that matter most. The quality of the call makes up for physical meetings, when these are not possible. While living in the Netherlands, my Polish housemate used to Skype with his mother in Warsaw almost every evening, “I feel that we are near each other during the conversation,” he used to tell me.
Our brains seem to record so-called ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ events so similarly that modern technologies conspire to blur these realms as well. As a matter of fact, we code face-to-face and online experiences similarly, often with equal realness. One may notice this in everyday language, when we speak of online encounters as if they were real: How is Sarah doing? Fine, I guess. I spoke to her on WhatsApp. Did you meet her new boyfriend? Yes, I saw them together on Facebook.
The sense of visual immediacy experienced via video-conferencing and modern social networking creates a simulation of presence and intimacy. Such that, even when people are physically distant, social networks could act as a connective tissue, coordinating and synchronising conversations with friends who are scattered across the world that would otherwise dissolve into silence.
Nonetheless, these mediated communication platforms do not merely substitute face-to-face interaction, but constitute a new kind of presence.
The Internet and smartphone could be used to either enhance a sense of belonging to the place where one is physically present, or it could alienate the individual from fully experiencing the actual place, culture and surroundings.
From my experience, technology compensates for rarity of physical encounters, but doesn’t replace them. Even though the Internet eliminates feelings of distance, the sense of presence and level of intimacy is only short-lived. At the end of the day, we all need to live certain aspects of our lives together with the people that we love most, and cannot be replaced through a screen.
Before the emergence of online social networking, communities were formed around a fixed geographical space and therefore led to a tangible concept of what it means to belong and feel at home within a given space.
Now the Internet beckons us to ‘come together’ across a medium, suggesting that we can feel and experience home, and belong somewhere that is not necessarily the same place we are physically bound to.
Living in a network society, it has become easier for me to define home in terms of people who are scattered, than a physical town or city. To the upcoming generation, our sense of belonging need not necessarily be tied down to residential geography but a new, emotional geography.
This article was originally published in the December 2013 issue of The Sunday Circle.