On ambient intimacy and assistive devices

[This post was originally posted at Hoyden About Town on January 27, 2009.]

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 of 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.

6 thoughts on “On ambient intimacy and assistive devices

  1. Word.

    I’d like to add that there’s this whole “internet communication is one-dimensional and meaningless and terribly incomplete compared to Real Life because it’s all text without body language!” meme that I find incredibly offensive, because hi? I’m on the autistic spectrum, and I get approximately a thousand times as much nonexplicit information from online communication as face-to-face? I don’t see where people get off telling me that I am incapable of having a rich, deep, meaningful conversation, which is what you are essentially doing if you’re telling me online conversation is worthless and body language is a vitally important part of any interaction.
    .-= Kaz´s last blog ..On talking vs. silence and currently-abledness =-.

  2. I agree, totally.

    The Internet is an assistive device for me, also. I communicate much better in text than in real-time speech, because I have more time to process things and respond. I have a lot of difficulty finding my way around, too, and could probably use a cellphone with a GPS and turn-by turn directions. Plus, the Internet just gives me access to so much information that’s really hard to find in meatspace. Like, oh, the awesomeness that is the Disability Studies Archive at Leeds in the UK.

    Kaz’s comment reminded me of something I’ve noticed. People who don’t have writing disabilities who have the same difficulties communicating in writing as I do in real-time speech will place their difficulties as flaws inherent in writing, rather than in themselves. (“Writing is harder because you don’t have the benefit of facial expressions and other nonverbal communication”). Whereas all the “expert” literature about my diagnosis will place my difficulties communicating face-to-face as intrinsic to me. (“These sorts of people do not understand nonverbal communication.”)
    .-= Tera´s last blog ..Trailer dump:Avatar =-.

  3. OH, thankyou Kaz and Tera for your comments! That’s a huge dimension to the privileging of face-to-face discussion and denigration of text.

    Another one for me is the thought-speed factor and my weirdness with audio processing (which for me is not a diagnosed ‘disorder’ as such): listening to someone speak at length about something complex just doesn’t work well for me unless I’ve got text material to look at as well – which led to me being one of those “annoying” students who wrote almost everything down while lecturers were talking. Because the only way I could focus was for the information to go from ear to hand to computer, into my eyes, and then into my brain.

    Right now I can manage instant messaging conversations far, far better than phone calls, perhaps for the same sort of reason.

  4. For me and my friends, the Internet—blogging, Facebook, instant messaging—is a safe space where we can talk about disability and chronic illness, because talking about it in meatspace is stigmatized. I wouldn’t even have known that my friends were dealing with the same stuff if I hadn’t started blogging about it.

    I’m not sure if this has to do with mental illness, brain weirdness, or what—but I am super socially awkward. Written communications are so much more comfortable, meaningful, and quick. Aural information is much harder to process. Face-to-face, I stumble over words, freeze up, could say it so much better if I had a keyboard. Also, I probably can’t hear what you’re saying, and when I do, I won’t remember it as well as if you just wrote it down.

    Everyone needs a space where they can be themselves, express themselves in their preferred way. And it’s fine if, for you, that’s meatspace—but it sure isn’t for everyone.

  5. This, so much this. Having Borderline Personality Disorder means I find it really hard to understand other people as, well, people. I can’t read facial expressions very well and I have a tendency to put my foot in my mouth because I’m reading the conversation totally wrongly. Communicating with people on the internet is different. I have time to think about what I’m saying. I have time to read carefully what the other person has said and to deconstruct that in my head, make as much sense of it as I can and respond accordingly. In a real-life conversation I don’t have time to do that, and it makes it very hard for me.

    I can understand from the physical limitation point of view as well. I don’t/can’t get out as much as I’d like, due to this as-yet-unnamed chronic pain/tiredness condition, so the internet really is a lifeline for communicating with people, even the people I know ‘in real life’, when I am unable to get out to see them.
    .-= Anji´s last blog ..Cosigning – An Open Letter To Feministing =-.

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