Two hundred years ago, you conveyed information to a person by talking to him face-to-face, or you got out a quill and inkwell and wrote a letter. Some folks expanded their audience by writing books or articles, but for the most part, you knew the person to whom you spoke or wrote. As you were writing, you could think about his voice or the way she flutters her hands when she talks about boys.
Now in the Digital Age, communication includes talking to people on the phone, text messaging, e-mail, beepers, instant messages, forum postings, blog commentary or sending a plain old snail mail letter. With these expanded modes of communication, it is now considerably more common for relationships to be formed without ever meeting in person. For example, in most online classes you never see your classmates. Instead, you exchange ideas through the written word or by speaking through microphones.
In a many ways, this lack of physicality levels the playing field. With online communication, people are judged more on characteristics related to personality, rather than on fashion, chemistry, or biology. In other words, how you think and how you treat people has more of an impact than how you dress, look, or smell.
Some Internet users have figured out this changing dynamic and decided to capitalize on it. Short, squat men can present themselves as tall, dark, and handsome. They can adopt the persona they imagine, rather than the one they experience. In an online class, Brad Pitt or Danny DeVito could be asking to borrow your notes, but you don't automatically know who it is. And while no one admits to it, behavior changes as a result.
Some theorists and science fiction writers have suggested that the next step for those enraptured with their imaginary identity is to leave our bodies behind completely. One episode of the X-files talks about an entire personality that has been uploaded into a vast system. The person's mind, emotion, memories, consciousness gain eternal and expanded consciousness as a result of the shedding of his body. In that world, computer networks take on the nirvana of ascension because there are no more bodily limitations. No sweat or stink or hunger or adultery.
But while we tend to view our true selves as separate from our bodies, they are not. Our mind rises up from the unbelievably complicated biochemistry that makes us who we are. It also controls what we think and feel. If you meddle with this chemistry, you change. For example, insanity results from long term sleep deprivation. The need for rest and dreaming is governed by our bodies. Similarly, if you fail to eat, your blood sugar drops, your ability to think clearly diminishes, and you get cranky.
Our way of being in the world is governed by our bodies. There is more in a simple touch than can be conveyed in language. Would we really be better off, without, for instance, kissing?
We can adopt identities in the cyber world, but we are still the bodies behind the keyboard, on the other end of the phone, writing the e-mails. We may adopt an Oz-like divinity (pay no attention to that man behind the keyboard). But like Oz, we are still our own frumpy selves. We still eat dinner. And we still die.
Science fiction books and TV shows may depict a future where we are disembodied intellects but we aren't composed of 0s and 1s of computer code, but cells and blood, messy biology. When we use computers, we are using, as we have for thousands of years, tools that, one way or another, we control by manipulating our bodies.
When you lose that bodily connection, you lose a part of your humanity. So sure, progress marches on, but in the end, we still sweat, stink, and get hungry. And that's not such a bad thing after all.