Tag Archives: proximics

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It Was Supposed to be Just a Thought Experiment

Does a life continue to hold meaning if it has to be sustained remotely, with devices that only deliver small fragments of ourselves to others?

A seminar I regularly teach in the Philosophy of Communication started at the end of January in a room that comfortably held it’s 16 members, most nearing graduation.  The course considers a range of eclectic thinkers, many focused on how high expectations for communicating with others runs afoul of unseen obstacles. A key premise in the course is that we overestimate what we think we can achieve when we address others. A continuous thread develops on what the effects of “disembodied” communication has done to us as a species.  For most human history life happened in small groups and communities.  Communication was in real time and close spaces.  It was the early Victorians who began to see the wonders of “communication at a distance,” triggered first by the telegraph, and later with electronic refinements that made phones, radio and all of our modern paraphanalia possible.  Charles Cooley, one of the founding figures in the discipline of sociology, took delight in the possibilities of the idea of mass communication.  Others like Henry David Thoreau were not so sure. Thoreau famously pushed for the kind of life that would be fully grounded in the world outside one’s own door. “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas,” he noted, but folks in distant places may “have nothing important to communicate. . .”

Tracing the rise of the tools that make it possible to send verbal artifacts of ourselves to others is a long narrative, especially in terms of the now accepted view that our heads are often far removed from wherever our bodies may be situated.  Demands on our attention can come from anywhere.

Did we lose too much to lose the human birthright of proximity?

One of theorists we considered was Joshua Meyrowitz, who noted that electronic media “destroy the specialness of time and place.”  Building on his concerns are other media theorists, he explores what  happens to the essential communication model of conversation when it is understood to not be direct or synchronous.  Most online platforms we use deliver content in this form. The seminar raised arguments and counterarguments about the effects of living out-of-sync with only verbal or visual fragments.

One day in March we discovered the that the essays we discussed had prepared us for more than these thought experiments.  The seminar became a distance-learning exercise created by the pandemic.  We were in our own spaces and trying to stay in touch to continue to talk about the virtues of being in the same space.

My students, who are far more savvy in using social media, suddenly faced a fully digital future where the world was to be experienced mostly from the old bedrooms they thought they had left for good when they moved to campus. And I suddenly felt like a performer without an audience. Can a seminar based on discussion of common readings really work online? Does it mean as much to connect only with words?

To be sure, campuses have the tools and platforms to deliver a lot of material to students.  But is the residential experience easily expendable?  Did we lose too much to lose the human birthright of proximity?

Most Americans who recently had outside commitments to jobs, organizations or schools are now asking a different form of the same question. Does my work flourish in close contact with others? Is the phone or a Zoom link enough? And most importantly, does a life hold meaning if it has to be sustained by others remotely?

Lately, some of my students have reported how much they miss portions of their prior circumstances based on a lot of face-to-face interaction.  I suppose that view confirmed my own bias as well.  It also made us pause to consider what we’d lost.


1The course included a number of readings by Sherry Turkle, Kenneth Gergen and others, and three books: John Peters’ Speaking Into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication, Joshua Meyrowitz’s No Sense of Place:  The Impact of Media on Social Behavior, and Gary Woodward, The Perfect Response, Studies of the Rhetorical Personality.

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Tight Spaces

[The Interpersonal dynamics of Communication are always interesting, and never more so than when we are pushed into close proximity with others. Cramped conditions can be ad-hoc laboratories: chances to see how individuals cope with another’s intrusion into their intimate space.This piece from 2014 is a ‘close reading’ of these kinds of encounters, with an important lesson that usually follows] 

Life has a way of randomly throwing us together with complete strangers in tight spaces.  Trains, elevators and planes typically violate the two- to four-foot zone that the study of proxemics says Americans want to preserve for themselves.  How do we cope?

We’ll skip sitting in steerage on an airliner, where the experience is something to be endured, and where travelers are thankful to still have free use of the pressurized air.  But consider the ubiquitous elevator, and the mix-and-match experience of sharing a meal in a railroad dining car.

As little closets expected to hold 10 or 12 people, elevators represent the triumph of necessity over comfort. Walking up twelve flights of stairs is a good workout. But no one wants to arrive at their business destination looking like they just finished the New York Marathon. So in the cramped space of the little vertical room eyes are averted to the ceiling, the poster advertising the restaurant in the lobby, or to a middle distance that is supposed to relieve others of the need to respond. It actually becomes harder to remain completely disengaged when only one or two are on an elevator. But there are safe tropes for a brief conversation that can help pass the time.  Comments on the weather are usually safe, as are observations on how slow this particular version of the vertical room is. In a hotel, perhaps a timid query about where a co-passenger is from will work. But even that can tread near the borders of the acceptable. Not surprisingly, our comfort in these settings seems to be in direct proportion to the frequency of the experience. Living in the center of Chicago or New York, a person learns how to be a compatible stranger.

As the elevator went up the mood of the passengers inevitably went down.

A few years ago I was at a convention at a large urban hotel where the management thought it would be a good idea to include a small built-in television just above the elevator’s control panel. Strangers who stepped in had to be ready for more than a vertical ride. They were immediately thrust into the world of CNN, where a good day means covering a national or world crisis with live and often disturbing images of mayhem. On this occasion I recall a report focusing on community outrage over a police shooting. The story featured a home video of police beating and subduing two African American men.  Gunshots followed and one of the men died.

Endlessly looping the footage of the attacks over audio discussions of excessive force had the effect of throwing many convention-goers out of their celebratory mood and into the much harder world of a socially polarized nation. As the elevator went up the mood of the passengers inevitably went down.

Here’s the interesting thing. The collection of individuals in the elevator became common witnesses to an ugly incident.  And yet no one wanted to react; no one wanted to reveal themselves to strangers by overtly reacting to the report. Opinions remained too intimate to risk with this transitional group.  Even so, our daily lives are not unlike this transitional moment. Like the tiny space that shuttles between floors, the pervasiveness of our media constantly deliver us to social situations which are not stable for very long.  Media relentlessly push us into vastly different crises that are part of the human drama: some comforting and most disturbing.

Eating in an Amtrak dining car is as close as most of us will get to making contact with a random group of ordinary Americans.

Long-distance rail travel is another interesting case. The day of the long-distance passenger train has mostly passed in the United States.  Even so, some travelers and a handful of trains remain. By custom, a single passenger eating in the dining car of a train will be asked to join others to make a table of four. Amtrak doesn’t accommodate the shy who want to eat alone. Perhaps no other social routine is so likely to throw a person into the intimacy of a shared meal with total strangers. And yet the experience can be surprisingly refreshing.

If most of us live in a bubble of like-minded friends, the dining car is easily going to pierce it. On a recent trip that included lunch and diner I met a clearly well-heeled woman from Virginia horse country returning home after a speech to a woman’s group.  We sat across from a trucker from Elkhart Indiana who delivers buses all over the U.S. (and had to tell us about his $60,000-a-year salary).  At other meals I met two retired professors from Berkeley on their way to see family members in Minnesota, a grizzled Florida retiree returning from a football game in Nebraska, and a perfectly dressed older woman off to see friends in the District of Columbia.

The rules of the table were always clear: references to hometowns, the lateness of the train, and dispersed families are all fair game. Politics, religion and other “third rail” topics are not.  We also had the common experience of having hit a car just after midnight.  It had died and been hastily abandoned on the tracks.  So we compared notes on who had been able to sleep while fire crews pulled the impaled automobile off the front of the engine.

My experience is that Midwesterners sometimes go on for too long about the prospects of their city or college football teams. I usually return the favor by becoming loquacious about the surprising beauty of New Jersey. But there is a bigger lesson here. Spending time in these close quarters is usually reassuring.  If we allow it, even this chance encounter can remind us of our shared and simple decency.