Sociality is at the heart of human existence. According to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, relational and belonging needs are superseded in importance only by survival and safety needs.
Human connection brings complex values to our lives: relationships give us a sense of belonging in the group, a sense of identity in contrast to others in that group, an almost therapeutic-support system, and reason not to feel lonely. We learn from others’ experiences and insight, and we learn together by pursuing new experiences alongside those we befriend.
I believe that using the computer to make social connections is a very good thing and it helps to fulfill this very powerful need we all have, but it does fall short on some areas. Don’t get me wrong, this blog for example, according to the information on WordPress.com, is enabling me to socially connect with 400+ people in 9 different countries, and that is just the stats for the last 7 days, but a social connection without a human presence falls short in some very significant ways.
When we look at what makes a successful “relationship”, another word for a “human connection”, there are 5 key areas that are said to be necessary: Affection, Respect, Support, Quality Time and Appreciation.
Social media is excellent when it comes to respect, enabling people to listen to each other and to respond with messages, “likes”, and comments. It is also does a fair job in helping us support one another by offering platforms for advice and messages of encouragement. Appreciation is also served well by social media making it easier for us to show our gratitude to one another.
Where social media falls short, however, is with affection and quality time. Though we can send messages of “I love you” and tell people we care about them, and even have erotic chats or Skype sessions, social media does not give us the ability to actually touch each other, no matter what AT&T commercials would lead us to be believe. And quality time is just that “quality” time, not merely time. I am enjoying Skyping with my boys in Los Angeles while I am out of the country, but it is not the same as snuggling next to them before they go to sleep at night, discussing their day at school.
Touch, human touch, is irreplaceable and because it has the power to heal and to hurt, to arouse and to disgust it is not always welcomed, trusted or encouraged.
Yesterday, I did an experiment before I gave a talk about my work. I used it as a way of explaining my work and what I am interested in exploring when I make art. I went up to every person in attendance and shook their hand and said something specific to them. For example, I asked questions like “Where are you from?”, or made statements like “You have beautiful eyes.”, or “I like your sweater.”, things like that.
Many had computers on their laps and had to jostle them to make their hand available to shake. Some shook hands willingly, others seemed startled by the idea and reluctantly agreed.
When I think about the project I am working on here in Amsterdam, I am reminded how good it can feel to be touched by another human being and how hard it can be to satisfy this basic human need. Even in a relationship you are not guaranteed to be touched. It is interesting to me what people will pay for. I believe people mostly pay for things that they need, even if it isn’t the actual thing, but merely a substitution.