Modern communication methods are made to be inconspicuous. On the slopes of mountains covered in trees, broadcast poles are cloaked in fake pine branches, suspiciously symmetrical and unrealistically green, to camouflage their existences from the passing glance. In many neighborhoods, telephone and communication wires are nestled underground, shielding their electrical hazards from the natural elements, unsuspecting animals, and the eyes of those who find the black, writhing wires distasteful. Bulky, handheld telephones have given way to headsets, whose tiny speakers can be nestled into ear canals behind locks of hair, and whose slim microphones can slip under folds of clothing. In some ways, it is as if these modern day messengers are meant to be hidden from view.
Perhaps as a consequence of this surreptitiousness, the workings of current methods of communication are a mystery to most. I have no idea how a number dialed on my phone finds the right recipient in a sea of handheld mobile devices, connecting me with a friend rather than a stranger. I haven’t the faintest clue as to what a router actually does to allow me to access the internet, or even how to conceptualize what a network looks like. Of course, some of this perplexity derives from ignorance, as I can’t claim to have asked a hardware engineer about routers, or a physics expert about the principles of electricity. A large part of my bafflement stems from a complete lack of understanding about the complexities and developments in physics and engineering. But every day, I flip open my laptop or swipe my finger across the screen on my cellphone, and I know that the world and its host of information and inhabitants are accessible. I simply expect it to happen, without considering where this is all coming from, or why it works the way it does. The messenger carrying my texts and emails could be a product of electromagnetism, or a prancing gnome wearing a hat—I wouldn’t be any wiser. And would I care?
In the relatively short history of long-distance human communication, the invisibility of message delivery is a recent phenomenon. Think back to a couple of centuries ago: Letters were carried by weary messengers on horseback, sprightly errand boys (or maids, or any youngster, really) on foot, or pigeons sailing through the skies. The sender handed over a physical object, the recipient accepted it, and there was always someone in the middle. A reasonable person would understand that the messenger had a name, required food and drink for sustenance, and deserved to be acknowledged. Then came the invention of the telegraph, quickly followed by the telephone. People and animals with two legs and two arms (or two wings) were replaced by towering poles, boasting powerful, stick-like arms that could support pounds and pounds of cable without faltering, but rooted firmly into the ground. In long, winding lines, processions of telephone poles and wires extended onward and outward, looming overhead. At some point, these contraptions must have stopped looking like emblems of technological progress and began looking like ugly eyesores, because the wires began to make their way underground. Today, you can stand on a suburban street for hours on end, gazing at the neat rows of houses perched on their curbs, and never know that people were communicating a-message-a-second behind those ninety-degree walls and perfectly angled roofs. A person no longer needs to emerge from their house to hear the latest news; simply turn on the television or open your preferred internet browser or tune in to your favorite podcast. You certainly don’t have to be face-to-face to hold a conversation: hello, Skype. You don’t even have to see or hear the person you chat with. If you dislike the furrow between his brows and the sound of his clicking teeth and somehow still find it necessary to get in touch, all you have to do is type, and you might even get a pleasant looking (and silent) emoji in return. With the inauguration of the wireless era, the limits of a visible medium of communication have all but vaporized. A separation of kilometers or miles has little meaning in the scope of conversation.
All of this seems to suggest that we are all better connected today than we were yesterday. But just because we have more people and places accessibly placed at our fingertips does not guarantee that we are actually connected. Here is a relevant example: A politician watches a one-minute video of someone thousands of miles away, and takes one minute to announce an opinion. Someone else hears a ten-second recap of the video and a five-second hash of the opinion, and writes a seven-thousand word rebuttal. Are these three people connected? If so, by what? Ask any of them, “do you know this person?” and you might get the answer, “I know of them.” Try and determine when and where these three people actually communicated with one another, and you might be reduced to comparing IP addresses and internet histories. There is no physical object connecting them to one another. Perhaps because of this, there is a feeling of isolation and otherness, and a lack of responsibility towards the person one is addressing.
There is a story in Asian folklore about the red string of fate. The string is supernatural, not observable by the humans on earth, and is connected to a person from the moment he or she is born. In some interpretations, the string is tied around the wrist or ankle, while in others, the string is knotted around the little pinky finger. The other end of your string is attached to another person. You might or might not know this person, and you might encounter him or her tomorrow or twenty years from now. However, as you make your way through life and past the tangle of strings connecting all of the other people around you, you gradually follow your own string until you find the person on the other side. The string physically ties you to your soulmate, and while you may encounter snags and tangles, its presence ensures that you will always find your way to the person you are destined to meet.
This concept of a physical connection, tying together two people, is one that has arguably been forgotten in many of our modern relationships in the digital era. This is not to say that digital relationships cannot be strong—the success of social media in rallying groups of people around common causes, and the growing number of relationships initiated through online dating are prevalent examples of this. But in an age when it is so easy to contact another person when you need him or her, and then bid farewell as soon as you’ve asked your question or made your request, the lack of a physical connection can lead to a sense of brevity and temporariness.
There is still at least one reminder today that we are connected to the people with whom we communicate. Look up next time you step up to a building, and you might notice a network of communication cables stretched above. With your eyes, trace where they go. Perhaps they swing from the side of a brick wall and up to a wooden pole, joining a dozen other wires in a knot. Then, they might jump from pole to pole, heading down the street, intertwining with wires from other buildings. Imagine the conversations emerging from each office or room, traveling together in the distance before splitting off to reach the person at the other end. In some ways, these cables are the physical conductors of our communication, and for a brief moment, they are the lines that connect us to one another.