friendship: on- and off-screen

Real friendship shows itself in action and affection. The real friend is the one who comes to the rescue in your hour of need; who is there with comfort in adversity and who shares with you his own success. This is hard to do on the screen — the screen, after all, is primarily a locus of information, and is only a place of action insofar as communication is a form of action. Only words, and not hands or the things they carry, can reach from it to comfort the sufferer, to ward off an enemy’s blows, or to provide any of the tangible assets of friendship in a time of need. It is arguable that the more people satisfy their need for companionship through relationships carried out on the screen, the less will they develop friendships of that other kind, the kind that offers help and comfort in the real trials of human life. Friendships that are carried out primarily on the screen cannot easily be lifted off it, and when they are so lifted, there is no guarantee that they will take any strain. Indeed, it is precisely their cost-free, screen-friendly character that attracts many people to them — so much so, students of mine tell me, that they fear addiction, and often have to forbid themselves to go to their Facebook account for days on end, in order to get on with their real lives and their real relationships. What we are witnessing is a change in the attention that mediates and gives rise to friendship. In the once normal conditions of human contact, people became friends by being in each other’s presence, understanding all the many subtle signals, verbal and bodily, whereby another testifies to his character, emotions, and intentions, and building affection and trust in tandem. Attention was fixed on the other — on his face, words, and gestures. And his nature as an embodied person was the focus of the friendly feelings that he inspired. People building friendship in this way are strongly aware that they appear to the other as the other appears to them. The other’s face is a mirror in which they see their own. Precisely because attention is fixed on the other there is an opportunity for self-knowledge and self-discovery, for that expanding freedom in the presence of the other which is one of the joys of human life. The object of friendly feelings looks back at you, and freely responds to your free activity, amplifying both your awareness and his own.

via The New Atlantis.