On ambient intimacy and assistive devices

I was having a discussion about ambient intimacy in a couple of elsewheres, where I tried (and possibly failed) to say that what is so reviled by opinion editors and other meatsnobs can be useful in all sorts of ways.

I like the little slices of life on my friends’ livejournals, however trivial, because I just can’t access this sort chatter in my meatspace. Yes, I want to know how your daughter went on the first day of school, that you cooked a delicious recipe for dinner, that the eggplants are flowering, how your doctor visit was, what you thought of Big Love last night, that work is pissing you off, where you spent election day, or that the storm didn’t blow your roof off.

The internet is the virtual watercooler (or coffeehouse, or playgroup, or pub) for people like me, isolated due to disability. And I’m fed up with able-bodied folk slamming electronic community as a meaningless half-life. I’m sick of internet use being constructed as a signifier of a person as a pathetic loser worthy of mockery. And I’m over ignorant pundits reviling the rise in electronic community as The End of the World as We Know It, a one-way highway to the inevitable disengaged, apolitical fragmentation of society.

I think there might be an analogy to be drawn here with physical assistive devices. People who use wheelchairs, for example, use wheelchairs. They get around in them. Wheelchairs are useful, value-neutral objects. People are not “bound” to them; they’re not “condemned” to life in a wheelchair. The use of a wheelchair doesn’t mark a person as either a sinister or pitiable caricature. And above all, people are not synonymous with their wheelchairs. They’re people who use a mobility device, a tool.

The internet may be many things, but it is also my social assistive device. And that’s not tragic, or threatening, or worthy of scorn. It just is.

Categories: social justice, technology

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31 replies

  1. I have not been really public about it but I myself suffer from two debilitating illnesses. The internet has become very important as an outlet since becoming I became sick. There was a time when I would not have understood the post. I would not have seen the connections as real. Now that I spend a great deal of time online learning and interacting with others I understand that the internet allows connection and this can be vitally important if you like me spend a lot of time at home. It makes me feel as though I am not alone and allows me to continue to engage in a way that is stimulating. Too me it is very much real.
    Renee’s last blog post..A Little Boob For JetBlue and Delta Goes A Long Way

  2. It’s also important for people in rural areas – there’s no-one I know in person (outside my household) with whom I can talk nerdy, or who does the same kind of papercraft as me. It lets me stay in touch with my “tribes” in a way that would be impossible living where I do.

  3. I’ve found it very important as an ex-pat; it keeps me in touch with the communities that matter to me in the old country. The e-friendships I have are real, not just make-do. I have quite a sense of community with a dozen or so (or maybe even more, depending) people whose blogs I frequent, and who in turn frequent mine.
    The thing is, my blog community was important to me even before I left NZ, and before I started my own blog. It’s not a substitute for anything, it,s not a ‘make-do’. It’s a real community that happens to work through the ‘net.
    Good post, Lauredhel.

  4. I want to thank you for making me examine my able-bodied privilege with your posts lately, Lauredhel. I really appreciate you posting on it.
    As a born-and-bred geek, though, I never quite understand why and how people think the internet “isn’t real”. I mean, did people feel that pen pals weren’t “real” once upon a time? Though I suppose that attitude does explain why people feel free to behave like wankers online in ways they never would offline.
    @lilacsigil – Good point. I’ve found it’s also a lifeline for people who are subculture fiends stuck in corporate mainstream hell.
    Jet’s last blog post..There are no free passes today. You’re still an asshole.

  5. Right on. As I’ve written elsewhere, some of my most important life events have happened on the internet, including falling in love (which precipitated my move to These Fair Shores), support when my late partner had long hospital stays, mourning when she died unexpectedly (most of her funeral service consisted of tributes from people she’d never met irl). Now it’s an important part of my PhD work. Like Deborah I use blogs and other internet thingies to keep in touch with friends and family around the world. I think the real losers are the people who don’t allow themselves to get involved with the incredible emotional and intellectual richness that the internet has to offer.

  6. Why are friends made via blogging and the internet any less real than penpals? I don’t understand the snobbery. Mind you, perhaps that’s because I find the internet to be an important contact with the rest of the world. I first started blogging when my first child was 4 months old. I love the feeling of community, of getting a little snapshot into other people’s lives, and of getting different points of view. While I’m not working (as at the moment – on maternity leave again) I find it so important to keep up the blogging. It stops me from getting lonely or bored. I don’t understand why people have to be negative about it.
    As for the importance of the internet for people with disabilities – my Mum just broke her ankle, and she has found the difficulty in getting around very socially isolating. During my teens I was in a wheelchair for a short period of time after an operation on my legs, and had difficulty walking for some time afterwards, so I know exactly how she feels. It’s scary. The internet can be a great tool for alleviating those feelings of loneliness and vulnerability – you can connect with other people who are in the same situation, and other people who understand.

  7. “Meatsnobs”: Love it. I intend to use this word soon and often.
    e.g. Friend who paints: “I don’t know how on earth you find the time to read stuff on the internet…. ”
    (Erm, because my blog-writing is my equivalent of your painting, maybe?)

  8. Spot on as usual, thank you Lauredhel. 95% of my communications and social relationships are online, and I’m always struggling to define and/or emphasise the importance of this to people not in the same boat.

  9. I like blogging as a way of keeping up with my ‘meat’ friends and my electronic impulse friends. I like it as a way of talking about things no one here in the 3D space wants to talk to me about. I like it that, sometimes, means you can get good wishes from all around the world (or at least England, UK, US and NZ as well as Australia) which makes me feel less isolated here in our funny little national capital. I like that I meet people who force me to assess my ideas and opinions, and other people who make me feel comfily confirmed.
    Unless you are all imaginary? Hello? Hello? (smiley face icon here because am too tired to bother indicating humour with language use).

  10. I think there are many people who have enhanced social lives because of the internet. For me, its the first time I’ve actually found other women (except my mother) who genuinely like science fiction, and can discuss it in a feminist, but also appreciative way.
    And many of my extended family in NZ feel part of my sons’ lives in a way which would never have happened 30 years ago – we don’t talk, but they read my blog, and when we see each other, we have a shared conversation based on knowing what is going on with each other.
    Great post, as usual.

  11. I think it fair to say that having internet friends literally saved my sanity when I was in the throes of Post Natal Depression (twice) and dealing with the confusions of long-undiagnosed bipolar disorder: even though I was only just managing to get the kids dressed and off to school and could simply not manage to get dressed myself after that (so therefore I couldn’t go out and chat to the neighbours because I was in my jimjams) I could get online and have intellectual discussions to feed the inner geek as well as learning about my invisible friends socially in the more general forums: who roasted their own coffee, who knitted, who hiked, who kayaked and who had a blog about their rather large penis (that was a surprise). The books and films and music and exhibitions and festivals that they loved and loathed, and erudite and witty discussions of why.
    Without the stimulation and genuine social contact involved in these forums I would have stultified and shrunk and dwindled instead of coming through the other side with invisible friends around the globe, a vastly improved appreciation for the art of crafting prose, and the ability to earn some money making websites for other people. I’ve come to the point where I’m beginning to pity people who don’t interact regularly online in dedicated forums of one sort or another – how can they fully explore their interests, whims and peculiar curiosities without like-minded invisible friends?

  12. Yes. Yes. And thank you for illuminating this as a piece of ableism. I suspect that the same kind of pearl-clutching happened around the time the telephone replaced handwritten notes.
    Jay’s last blog post..Facebook Is High School ~ by Jay

  13. All things considering, I suspect these people must be jealous of people having lively active lives despite whatever other circumstances. As a computer nerd and as the girlfriend of a computer nerd, I find it sad that people can’t consider social interaction on the internet to be just that: social interaction.
    My mother is a children’s librarian and the internet had actually allowed her to be able to participate in her community like she never could before. We’re a small rural area despite being the 3rd largest city in our state and the school never had the money to send her to conferences or anything. She’s a whole lot happier being able to have friends who share her interests.
    It makes me very sad that there’s this perception that the internet is less. My bf’s and my current thesis is the (hopefully eventual) development of the implantation hardware to allow people who otherwise might not be able to even move to allow them on the computer, so that they might be able to interact with friends, family, and the outside world.
    Able-ism burns me, because it demonstrates how people are selfish, attempting to deny people even a social life. Bah!

  14. Something I didn’t put in the LJ comment is this… The internet opened a whole bunch of information and connection to me, allowed me to start interacting with the world as a woman before I had actually transitioned. I cannot tell you how invaluable it was to me, how much it made a difference in my ability to work out some of my issues.

  15. The internet was the first place that I truly felt socially accepted — the first place where I found people who were not related to me, who really seemed to want to spend time with me without making me feel bad about myself half the time. I’m pretty sure that the only reason I was confident enough to go out and make RL friends at uni was because meeting people online made me realise that there were others out there like me.

  16. Right on, Lauredhel. 🙂 🙂 🙂 The Internet has enabled and aided some very important areas of my life and mind. And there are meatspace friends I wouldn’t be able to interact with much without the Internet, too.
    Jay, that is exactly what happened. It was thought that the telephone would be the end of conversation.
    Chally’s last blog post..Australia Day 2009

  17. I probably know one person IRL who I can discuss feminism and disability with. I have lost IRL friends because of conflict over those same issues. Yet here and elsewhere on the net I can find any number of people who share similar concerns and I find it hugely enriching. I’ve also been exposed to more critical thinking on a broader range of issues in the last couple of years than at any other time in my life . I feel sorry for those “meatsnobs” (Huh!) too.

  18. Interesting post, but I feel a bit like you’re preaching to the converted here. I think the very short and last sentence of your post sums it up: it just is.

  19. Interesting post, but I feel a bit like you’re preaching to the converted here.

    I can never tell what will constitute “preaching to the converted” here, chops. Some things that I think are statements of the bleeding obvious will meet with argument. I’ve had quite a few comments on the cross-post of this saying that they’ve been trying to explain this to people who have resisted their explanations, and that this is a useful summing-up, and can they re-quote it? So I don’t believe that the writing or publication of this piece was pointless.
    Glad the post touched a happy nerve for lots of you. polerin, Margaret, lilacsigil, tigtog, and others – you make great points about how electronic community can be of use to people in all sorts of different situations.

  20. Thanks for the post Lauredhel. Virtually my entire social life is conducted ‘virtually’, also due to disability, and is no less ‘real’ to me as a by-product of technology.
    “Meatspace”. Love it, but ewwww…
    Deus Ex Macintosh’s last blog post..The 20-Year Tallyman

  21. Lauredhel, what a fantastic analysis.
    I was at a party recently and we were talking about general knowledge, particularly about pop culture and contemporary events and issues and people asked me how I came to have a good one (in their opinion) – subscribe to a couple of great blogs I recommended. This was particularly the case for me because my academic studies had always been fairly narrow – maths/science at school and specific areas of economics at post-graduate level.

  22. The internet is only a communication tool. I’m a bit nonplussed by anyone who sees it as an inferior one. What do they expect, you and tigtog write to one another with quills and parchment??

  23. Delivered by carrier pidgeon I expect.

  24. huckle@22, I don’t agree that the internet is ‘only’ a communication tool. It is far, far more than that. As well as having been created by a human culture, it is also a culture itself, and, amazingly, a creator of cultures (like this one we are participating in). It has enriched out lives far more than any mere tool could have. My ‘meatspace’ life (I’m with DEM on this – ewww!) is interwoven with my online life every day.
    M-H’s last blog post..Farewell

  25. M-H, I’m not sure what you’re disagreeing with here. The internet isn’t a “creator of cultures”, humans are. And online communities are wondrous cultures indeed, and online connections are just as real as connections mediated with other tools – which is exactly what huckle is getting at.

  26. I’m disagreeing with the opinion that the internet is ‘only’ a tool for communication. It is also a databasing facility, an encyclopedia, a music library, an image gallery…. You’re right; humans create culture, but the affordances of the internet mean that we can create cultures that weren’t possible twenty years ago. I’m taking the argument further, not disagreeing with it per se.
    M-H’s last blog post..Farewell

  27. Re: “Meatspace” heh, that’s an old sci-fi/cyberpunk reference, lurf it. related is “wetware” (contrasting hardware and software).
    M-H: I would say that the majority of those things are attempts at communication. Asynchronous perhaps, but still communication. I know I want people to think about what I mean or what I see when I take photos 🙂

  28. polerin, the places I go on the internet (notice I say ‘places’, because they are real spaces) offer me much more than communication. For example, along with two public blogs I have another blog which is simply a place for me to put stuff that occurs to me about my PhD, where I can ‘think out loud’, kind of, wherever I am and have a record of that. It isn’t open to anyone except me: how is that communication? I am a member of a crafting site (along with 250,ooo others) which offers communication possibilities, sure (forums, marketplaces). But it also offers spaces where you can catalogue your materials, your projects (with extensive notes), your wishlists etc, and link to photos in flickr. None of this comes into the category of communication per se; although it may be communicated to someone else that’s not its primary purpose.
    The extent to which things that happen on the internet mirror, enrich and affect how people live their lives is the subject of a lot of study. I think that conceptualising the internet as only a communication medium is not facing up to the amount of life that it is possible to live there and the kinds of cultures people are building there. All culture is built on communication, but it attains a greater significance as it develops and takes on a life of its own.
    M-H’s last blog post..Farewell

  29. Excellent post, Lauredhel.

  30. THANKYOU. I love the internet, it makes me feel connected to my friends when I visit my family (because my regular life is situated 1000 k’s from my family), and my parents are just now getting into emailing because I’m overseas for the year and away from everyone.
    I love that Facebook and my friends’ blogs let me read about things they think that they might not say in person, or that I’d otherwise miss. A lot of my friends are scattered around Australia and the globe, so this is how we keep in contact.
    And I do have friends I’ve never met – I’ve been on LJ since 2002 and I’ve got people on my flist I’ve had for all that time. I genuinely care what’s happening in their lives and one in particular has become a friend I can really talk to about my life.

  31. I’m another of the geeky type who’s always regarded the socialisation I do on the internet as part of my “Real Life” (TM). After all, these are real people I’m talking with (or, if one or more of you happens to be a highly elaborate bit of programming, real computers).
    The internet isn’t just a godsend for those with physical issues which limit their interactions. I’m a case in point: I have a degree of social insecurity and paranoia which means that in any “in person” meeting, I will tend to feel other people are judging me negatively. They may not be judging me negatively – heck, they might not be judging me at all, or even giving a damn about who the heck I am – but I will tend to react as though they were. I also have a minor problem with following conversations in circumstances where there are multiple people talking, since I do have problems picking up on words and similar. An in-person social situation for me is a form of severe stress, since I’m generally concentrating very hard on trying to make a good impression, and also on listening to what the other persons present have to say. By contrast, on the ‘net, while I’m still able to interact with people in real time (instant messaging, IRC etc) I’m also able to interact in a time-delayed manner, where the entire conversation can happen over a period of hours, or even days. The interaction is in text, rather than via voice, which means I’m relying less on a sense I don’t trust too much (hearing) and more on a set of skills I’ve highly developed (reading and interpreting text).
    Best of all, the people I meet online know *me* before they meet my body – and they can make judgements about whether or not they want to know me based on far better criteria than my physical appearance. Well, far better to my mind – after all, *I* live inside my head, and that’s what’s on display when I post online.
    Meg Thornton’s last blog post..Things I find in my RSS ticker, part 2

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