Eye Contact, I Contact, iContact: The Clash Of Privacy Ideals

Last January when I first moved to Austin, my dog rudely ran up to some girl on the sidewalk and started sniffing her feet. I told her that he was getting used to living in a city. This was because I was embarrassed that he had gone up to her at all.  I was also probably indulging in one of my favorite pastimes of dog-projection.

Now, I can be standing at the traffic light next to someone for three and a half minutes and not say hi or even look them in the eye. Granted, my dog isn’t sniffing their feet, because we have been pretty much avoiding the common sidewalk; but still. I’ve got that “New York Stare” or whatever. This post has some cool citations that verify the experience that in cities, people are just less likely to look you in the eye and talk to you. It’s a commonly known and unexciting fact.

Learning About Eye Contact & What It Can Convey

Eye contact is important.

  • Sales people can use it to manipulate and influence your feelings.
  • Public speakers can use it to feel less embarrassed by anchoring to one person in the crowd at a time.
  • If you are on a date, you can use it wisely to help someone feel comfortable and at least not creep them out any further.
  • Dogs can use it to make you think they’re people.

There are endless ways of using eye contact and many benefits it can bring.

NLP, or Neuro Linguistic Programming, is something I was introduced to in a trailer in the Rockies long ago. There was a book in a free pile, and me and my friend pored over the pages by candle light trying to learn all the tricks; I never succeeded. The NLP website  has a detailed system of how to use eye contact and eye movements to learn about what someone is even thinking about.

The eyes are the doorways to the soul, someone once said. It’s not too far from true.

Sharing, Contacting, Connecting: The Current Ideal of Accessibility

In many ways, sharing and connecting with people is supposed to be cool and fun. It is encouraged. We make profiles on Facebook and WordPress, gathering friends and contacts like corn in a satchel to bring home for sustenance. We keep ourselves known, current, and available.

Today I was listening to an old Ani Difranco album and one of my favorite songs, “Cloud Blood,” came on. Here is a verse as I hear it (I lost the liner notes):

Stopped on the top of the ridge
Just to feel the wind on my Rand McNally.

I feel the air go cold
as I drift in to the first blue, blue valley
And you’re wondering how far down you are on my
call back list,
but you don’t realize
Every time I find I’m by a phone

the landscape shifts.

That verse used to be one of my favorites. I would think of the person I had a crush on and remember times of traveling through mountains and forests, unreachable until I came along a pay phone.

Now, we are all reachable. All of the time. Most of us, anyway. Anyone reading this probably is. Gone are the days of Rand McNally maps, pay phones, and actual phone numbers. Here are the days of online contacts, emails, GPS, Facebook messages and online diaries. Even when people are on some adventure far from society, we can see a new post every day on Facebook or Instagram detailing their spiritual and enlivening journey. Zillions of apps exist so that we can advertise where we work out, what we are eating, who we are with, even which games we are playing.

This is fine. I am not against this. In some ways, it helps people stay healthier and become motivated. What I do not appreciate is double standards and underlying conflicts and contradictions that make perfectly grounded and sensitive people feel as if they are going a bit nuts.

What’s the Problem?

On Facebook, we are encouraged to identify ourselves, where we’ve been, where we plan to go, who we are hanging out with, what brand we purchase, and which coupons we want to claim. (This clip of a Pete Holmes bit illustrates what I mean)

The information we share goes to thousands of people and many companies. We never have to see the people or make eye contact with them, but we advertise and share with them just the same. Even on Skype we can’t make eye contact.

This standard of share-everything doesn’t quite apply when we meet people in real life, though. In that case, the rules are generally: Don”t say hi, don’t start talking, don’t randomly ask how their day is. They’ve already told thousands of people on their mobile Facebook; they don’t need to tell you! (There’s a recent Onion article, “It’s not Okay to Just Start Talking To People You Don’t Know” that nicely displays this side of it)

The Future: A Society Of Control Freaks?

I think this is going to affect us later on more than we may realize. We are turning into control freaks. Online, I can connect without having to worry about the feeling of actual connection. My Screen/No Screen post covers this as well.

But what is happening to our real day to day experience of each other? What type of control are we becoming reliant upon in order to feel “comfortable” connecting with people?

I realize that Austin is a rather friendly city, and at certain coffee shops or parks, there are definitely more chances of starting a conversation or having eye contact. But I see other people pretty much every single time I leave my house, and usually, conversations do not happen and neither does comfortable eye contact.

Waking Up & Aiming Towards Resolving The Discrepancy

It doesn’t matter if you feel comfortable sharing every last detail about your day on Facebook or on your blog if you can’t sit next to someone on a park bench and engage in some type of connection without funneling all of your attention straight into a device; at least in my opinion.

To try and resolve this discrepancy in myself, I am going to be making more of an effort to allow those strange feelings of “connection” to arise when I am near strangers and to smile more often when I do happen to make eye contact with someone.

I realize that sometimes, this may lead to some type of creepy misunderstanding; but more often than not, it won’t. It will lead to connection; to two humans seeing each other and not turning away simply because of fear or awkwardness.

How do you feel about eye contact? Do you live in a place that has lots of friendly eye-contacty people, or do you live in a place where it doesn’t happen at all?

Does it depend on what part of town you are in, or what type of location you are in? Maybe the time of day, or the way you feel?

Do you think that our ability to talk to random people on park benches should be improved, or should it be left to whither in the dust while we all get really, really good at sharing details of our lives with faraway strangers?

Screen/No Screen: My Commitment to the Uncomfortable

There was a moment at the airport where I was watching two people on their iPads. One was an older woman, the other was a small child. They happened to be sitting next to each other with a seat in between.

I knew I as inspired, but didn’t know why. Then it became clear.

There is a game I play now called “Screen/No Screen.” Here are the rules:

  • Randomly notice throughout the day whether you are looking at a screen or not at a screen.
  • Regardless of which it is, yell it joyfully in your head. (Screen! or, No Screen!)
  • Soak in the details of whichever it happens to be.

This game is proving to be quite fun. Sometimes I’m doing the dishes and I yell silently, “No Screen!” I proceed to notice all the possible details that I can about the moment that make it not-a-screen. The three dimensions. The colors of the soap bubbles. The way they smell. The temperature and texture of the water. The sounds around me. The bigness of the world; it’s independence from my fingers.

Then other times I say “Screen!” and I notice the flatness, the control, the comfortable sterility. I notice the relaxed feeling I have at the complete absence of social pressure. I take a second to look at the space between the back of the computer and the wall, or the space between my face and the screen. The space around us, the space above me. All of it.

Why Play Screen/No Screen?

There is one thing I’ve noticed about certain potently scary and dismal interpretations of where mankind is headed. Take Wall-E, for example. I love that freaking movie. Also, take Farenheit 451. Look at the worst parts of those potential futures.

The biggest problem is not the technology or evilness of people. It is that the people don’t quite have perspective. The ones that do maintain perspective and a willingness to be uncomfortable are the ones that make it. They are the ones that still dare to walk in the rain. The ones that can talk to each other without an electric medium. The ones that can see what is happening rather than being a mindless part of it for the sake of not feeling awkward.

For me, the willingness to be uncomfortable is the primary difference between just looking around at the world and being glued to a screen.

Understanding The Allure

There are a lot of reasons to have a screen, especially for those of us that are socially awkward or shy. For instance:

  • It gives you full control.
  • It doesn’t get emotionally hurt by anything you do.
  • It can’t judge you.
  • It is bright and shiny.
  • It is easily replaceable.

All of these things make it seem like a great choice in the moment-to-moment. But making that choice every time anything is awkward is what can lead to problems.

That is, after all, how I got addicted to cigarettes. They became the solution to any possible feeling of awkwardness, joy, sadness, anything.

Why would I want my cell phone or computer to do the same thing? Should I make a happy status update every time something good happens, check Facebook any time I feel awkward in a coffee shop, look at my email as soon as we are high enough above the clouds so that the in-flight WiFi works?

Or could I talk to a stranger, look out at the TOPS OF CLOUDS, make a new friend at the coffee place, feeling awkward or scared sometimes but doing it anyway?

Just Notice

No matter how much fun the screens are, no matter how much we need them for our jobs or social plans, we can always remember to note that sometimes we are looking at them, and sometimes we are not. No judgement; just noticing.

Instead of making a commitment to my health or happiness or joy or talent, I am going to make a commitment now to not fear being uncomfortable. When that feeling arises, as it undoubtedly will, it is simply a sign that I am not fully absorbed in an emotionally sterile future, and that I am still alive. There is no reason to intentionally use fewer screens because I can play Screen/No Screen and trust that I will not forget the difference.

How do you feel about screens, technology, tablets, phones, computers? Are they all-good or all-bad or somewhere in between? Do they affect your levels of inspiration in any way?

Do you think humanity is bound to rely on these things more and more for social interactions, or do you think there will always be people who have a sense of perspective on the whole scene?

I love to hear what you think!