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Recovering the Human[e] Gaze
Digital mediation has led to a "thinning" of our social responsibilities and personal needs.
By Savannah Anne Carman
I remember where I was standing in March of 2020—at the coffee shop on the corner of Austin and 23rd—when I realized my work was about to change. What I didn’t realize was how drastic things would change. Not a week went by before social life lost a dimension. Suddenly “social” interactions were flattened to a screen, and even more troubling, facial communication was discouraged and eye contact warped. While the coffee shop remained open and was happy to keep me, I now had to take up a job without human interaction. For the next two months I baked bagels, working in the lonely hours of the morning when the street lights only blink yellow. Months went on and the precautions continued. Easter was relegated to living rooms as quarantine expectations lapsed, fashionable masks started to trend in the wake of extended mask mandates, and my bluelight glasses became a daily necessity. Not only were our faces now blocked by a cloth or another masking device, “social distancing” left us with no choice but to limit our vision to the mediation of screens. In consequence, our relationships and social milieu became defaced. This disturbed me then, but the continuation and acceptance of these as “the new normal” disturbs me even more.
Of course, FaceTime and video calls were not new to me. In fact, they were a special form of communication reserved for family and close friends. But the specialness was because it was one step closer to being physically present with someone, face-to-face, not because the mediation itself was desirable, regardless of mediation’s convenience. My disturbance to the new trend is rooted in the human need to be with the other person in the flesh. More specifically, to look the other in the eyes, and them in mine. The screen itself has been and still is a problem of its own sort, but it has now become a preference. And this preference is anything but humane. Instead of afternoon visits, front porch conversations, or shared meals, we have opted for “engagement” with the other that is 2-D, delayed, and disabled. Almost more unsettling than the pandemic has been the normalization of digital interaction as if there is no loss and only gain. While I don’t deny that there are advantages to remote work that digital tools allow (stay-at-home moms and family needs being major examples), I am unsettled by the new trend that seems to be more than just a trend, but a new precedent. And the prevalence goes beyond digital mediation for work to include social media as a whole, the new “public square” for public engagement.
In spring 2021, I attended (yet another) webinar hosted by the Christian Study Center of Gainesville, FL. The host, L. M. Sacasas, elucidated the ideas of Ivan Illich, a priest and cultural critic of the late 20th century. I was struck by the relevance of Illich’s reflections on the ways that modern technology helps or inhibits humane—or what Illich might call “sensual”—engagements with the other. In the presentation, “Reclaiming the Senses: Ivan Illich and the History of Perception,” Sacasas framed the discussion by explaining Illich’s distinction between tools and systems. The difference is one wherein
our understanding of the body [is] subsumed in what [Illich] called ‘an ontology of systems.’ That we [are] in danger of understanding the body as a system… What [is] being lost in this transition [is] the body itself as a distinct material reality and the ground of human experience.
In response to and denial of a neutral position about tools, Illich wanted to “get people to think about what tools do to our perception, rather than what we can do with them. To look at how tools shape our mind, how their use shapes our perception of reality, rather than how we shape reality by applying or using them.” Sacasas further developed the implications of this thought by turning to Illich’s research into the history of sight. In his findings, Illich came to propose that “the ethics of the gaze is important because the habits or the total character of the person is dependent on the way that a person acts… It determines the type of people we become.” And it’s not just about what we see, but how we see: The medium of our sight, whether it is immediate or mediated, matters. It’s not just if we interact with a person, but how, if we interact in our bodies.
The pervading use of digital mediation as a substitute for physical interaction exposes individuals to precarious if not downright harmful social habits. This is not a commentary on the use of digital tools per se, especially in a time of crises or in the general scenario of distance. Instead, my concern is about how the lack of physical presence has led to an emaciation of our social responsibilities and personal needs. Aristotle’s observation that we are social creatures is now illuminated all the more by the absence of that need being fulfilled. We might have been tending to “health” in some ways, but we have simultaneously started to become ill in want of face-to-face engagement. We see this in reports of adult anxiety nearly tripling and depression quadrupling from 2019 to 2021. Suicide among young girls ages 12-18 also increased from 2019 to 2021 by 50.6%. And for children, those who were in their first year of development have manifested stunts in cognitive development, likely due to the lack of social interaction with other children. These are just some of the costs of divorcing physical presence, particularly face-to-face interaction, from our everyday life.
In order to curb these consequences, both for the sake of recovery but also for the good inherent to them, we must recover our social responsibilities and all they entail. What I’m thinking of, and what Illich harps on, is the duty to our neighbor. And this neighborliness demands our bodies, particularly our faces. I think about my four years in New York City, where the street smarts dictated that one averts the gaze away from the peddlers. Why? Because the gaze communicates recognition of the other, and on the streets, this can be dangerous because it admits an awareness that most individuals simply “don’t have the time for.” I also remember when my oldest brother shared his experience as a new father and the marvels of childhood development. He shared how remarkable it was that his then-infant daughter naturally searched for his face, and not just his nose or ears or chin, but his eyes. “I didn’t have to teach her that,” he remarked. This search for the eyes, both from the peddler and infant, is indicative of the inherent need for eye-contact with the other.
Mediated face-to-face interaction suffers the same problem that Illich describes of our digitally saturated world. And the suffering runs both ways. On the one hand, our social ties are at risk. As Illich put it, “the loss of reality… is ultimately not simply a loss of a personal skill or personal satisfaction that we might otherwise enjoy. But it is a definitive obstacle to friendship.” And second, atrophy of the eyes, outsourcing our physical sensibility and sensitivity to the other, leads to the eyes becoming “inadequate to find joy in the only mirror in which I can discover myself—the pupil of the other.” In other words, not only does mediation starve our social needs, it also stunts our self-knowledge. For indeed,
the discovery of the gift, that is the self we received from the other, occurs uniquely in the context of the face-to-face encounter. When two people are present to themselves in the fullness of their embodied reality as the Samaritan who encountered the Jew by the side of the road was.
Mediating face-to-face interactions does not just run a risk, it comes at a cost, every time. And the costs are high. Exceptions may be acceptable, but the exceptions have of late become the rule, and both our neighbor and ourselves suffer for it. Oh, for the courage to offer our gaze to the other and look ahead for better, more humane paths forward.
Savannah Anne Carman is an early-rising bread baker, rain-or-shine runner, and aspires to be a birth doula and writer about women’s health.