Saturday, November 29, 2008

A Tale of Connectivity

We live in an incredibly connected age. This was driven home to me during this past week's arocities in Mumbai. As the world learned of much of the early story from Twitter users (see post below), the news media slowly geared up their coverage, much of which amounted to the usual video loops coupled with news anchors mouthing the same script over and over again. This tended to reduce a series of tragic events that effected tens of millions of people in a very deep and intense way to a collection of banal sound bites and video clips.

Occasionally, something new would be added to the mix. A broadcast telephone interview with a foreigner trapped in one of the beseiged hotels piqued my interest, so I "Googled" (I know, it's a trademark not a verb) the man, who happened to be an attorney, and up popped his law firm profile page. I did this partly out of curiousity, but partly because I was thinking of sending him an email.

This was someone I had never met. We shared both a profession and an interest in intellectual property law, but that was about it. Why would I send him an email, and just as important from my perspective, why would he want to receive it?

I tried to put myself in his shoes. If I were barricaded in a hotel room, trapped in a hotel that had been overtaken by terrorists, thousands of miles from home or family, would I appreciate receiving words of encouragement from strangers? That sealed it. I composed a short email introducing myself that I thought conveyed some encouraging wishes, and hit "send."

Ten minutes later, a reply. Short, but polite, thanking me for my note and "kind thoughts." From the Blackberry of a man barricaded in a beseiged hotel in Mumbai, to my laptop in a tourist hotel in Sarasota, Florida, a connection. We exchanged several messages over the next two days, my last to him a note of congratulations on his release and wishes for a safe trip home, and his again-polite response of thanks.

What I found even more heartening was to learn that I was far from the only person who felt compelled to reach out to this man. In a post-release interview, he said that he had received thousands of messages from around the world during the days he was barricaded in his room. The interview gave me the distinct impression that those emails provided him with, if not peace of mind, at least a welcome distraction during his days of captivity.

I often hear people complain that the Internet helps to create islands of individuals who communicate with each other via texts, tweets, emails, and blog posts, and that this is diminishing the capacity for real "human" connection. I agree that it can become easy to use electronic communication as a way of avoiding more personal forms of interaction. On the other hand, it can also provide a new avenue for communicating with people in helpful and meaningful ways. It is our responsibility to be open to those opportunities and make the most of them.

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