It’s a familiar moment now, despite the pervasiveness of Blackberries and iPhones. You are a guest in someone’s home, or someone is a guest in yours, and the guest whips out a laptop and asks for the wireless key. Some confused scrambling ensues (Is it the serial number on the router? Who set the password anyway?), a string of meaningless characters are entered, and then all wait for the little machine to search and find the secure network.
“Are you connected?”
The guest scrolls mouse over icon: “Connected!”
Sighs of mild relief all around, and everyone turns to respective screens and keyboards with equal access to “the world.” The funny thing is that you can fly over the oceans with a laptop computer in tow, and when you land halfway across the Earth, unload and connect, the world—as figured by websites bookmarked, passwords cached, and screen smudged—looks exactly the same as it did wherever you came from. So to whom, or what, exactly are we connecting?
Technology has given us a rich vocabulary with which to describe the information and post-information age in which we live, and I’m not talking about words originating to capture new gadgets and innovations. I leave it to the etymologists to debate the relative significance of “blog” and “tweet,” even “Kindle” and “Google.” What I’m interested in is the way that ordinary words, long part of our vocabularies, have been refigured: “Network. ”Worldwide.” “Secure.” “Connection.” After all, the way we describe our world says the most about how we inhabit it.
“Network,” for example, is both noun and verb, the former a system of individuals or entities with material relation to one another. To put it in contemporary terms, a network is that which is comprised of those who are “linked-in.” The verb is the cocktail party, the donning of suits, the exchanging of cards, and, now, the “friending” of acquaintances. But “network” has also transcended that level of specificity and no longer suggests a particular group or interaction. The word has assumed universality; it draws into itself every party with access to the internet. We all know, don’t we, that the web is worldwide?
Which brings me to the question of “connection.” If we consider the Latin root, the word refers to a “fastening together,” that which is “bound” or “tied.” Today, “connection” refers to access. To be connected to the internet—to have successfully entered that wireless key—doesn’t mean you are bound or tied to anyone or anything. It simply means that you have access to individuals, information, and ideas to whom and with which you must still strive to build a meaningful relation. Connection is only just the possibility of connection.
A second irony: With every new platform-possibility for connection, the threat of loss of connectivity, especially among “the younger generation,” looms greater. We connect virtually so much of the time, the story goes, that we don’t know what it means to connect really anymore.
And a third: When connection means access, those without access have even less possibility of connecting. Many have championed the internet’s democratization of information. But our seemingly ubiquitous network actually excludes millions who remain on the other side of the digital divide. So the more connected “everyone” is, the deeper the disconnect from “everyone else” outside the system.
Michael Jackson dies, and the internet is abuzz. The world is throwing dance parties and ravaging thrift shops for red leather jackets. Even the indefatigable Twitter temporarily freezes as users bring down the site with their tributes. We access Jackson’s work on YouTube, Amazon, and a score of other opportunistic sites that pop up to seize the market-moment. We express our sadness by posting notes and images, forwarding links and articles, and appropriately updating our statuses. It seems everyone is part of this constructed, collective mourning, from Jaipur to Johannesburg, Rio to Reno.
To be clear, I have nothing against shared expressions of shock and grief; in fact, I participated in much of the above. Rather, my reason for characterizing our seeming “connection” to the King of Pop’s death is to draw a contrast to all the other moments with which we don’t connect—whether through ignorance, apathy, or dumb will—and all the other people to whom we don’t feel, or perform, a connection.
The 1 in every 99.1 American adults who are in prison. The 10 billion animals raised and killed in U.S. factory farms. All the undocumented workers on whose labor we rely, and on whose backs we build our lives. The millions of slum children in countries like India, the ones who weren’t pictured in Slumdog Millionaire. At the risk of sounding crass: choose your subaltern.
Are they connected? Are we connected? How connected is anyone, really? How worldwide is our “www,” and how networked are we when we go about the computing and clicking that conditions our daily lives?
We are literally, technologically, more connected to each other than ever before in history, and yet connectivity has never felt so prescribed, compelled, and profoundly limited. I would argue that this has less to do with the virtuality of modern-day connection (we all still interact in person, even if only with family and colleagues), and more to do with the ruse of connectivity itself.
Every day I wake up and I connect to the internet. I connect to my email. I connect to the handful of sites from which I get my news. I connect to a dozen friends through social media. I connect cell phone to charger. Remote to TV. GPS to car.
I am totally plugged in. And yet I live in constant fear of disconnection. Who among us hasn’t felt the low grade panic of my-cell-phone’s-dead, wireless-is-down, satellite-hasn’t-found-us-yet, call-still-hasn’t-come-through, can’t-check-my-email?
Relax, I say. There’s nothing to fear from lack of connectivity. You can always get the signal back. It’s the assumption of connection—before we’ve even begun to do the work of connecting—that could be truly scary.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.