Distance No More

February 27, 2015

I don’t get to see my nephews enough.

While they reside in New Jersey, I am sitting down on my chair at home in Connecticut. A distance of one-hundred and sixty-eight miles, two hours and fifty-four minutes by car without traffic, separate us. Not great by any stretch of the imagination, but enough that it prevents me from visiting as much as I’d like.

Life gets in the way. Weekends get overscheduled with house projects, friends in the area, and other happenings that take me elsewhere. The Garden State is often ignored. Not out of spite, but merely circumstance. The end result is that I am not in the same room as my family members. That distance, limited as it is, creates an obstacle.

What I love most about modern technology is its ability to completely obliterate those distances. While the telephone has been doing that since 1876, the phone lacks an essential element that we deeply hunger for: the human face. Craving the human face is ingrained in us since the time we were babies. Before we can speak, we spend our days studying the contours of faces and the nuances of expressions. We not only desire them, but need them.

I need to see the faces of my nephews, the faces of my immediate family.

Sitting down to read the New York Times on New Years’ Day, a ping on my smartphone alerts me to a message. A silly video by my nephew Conor wishes me a Happy New Year. A few minutes later, a silly video by my nephew Richie arrives.

It’s my turn.

The joy of a smartphone video is that it without pretense. I am not worrying about lighting or any coherent storyline. In this capacity the smartphone is allowing me to fill a void of distance, of faces. It offers immediate gratification by streamlining the time it takes from impulse to completion. The idea in my head, or desire in my heart, is quickly satisfied.

Playing off a family parody of me, as all family members seem to build into caricatures over time, I record my “Happy New Year” with my nose stuffed in the newspaper. It’s one part meta, and two parts ironic, as is the case with any late Gen Xer who borders on Millennial values. My wife, Leslie, serves as director for this spontaneous foray into filmmaking.

I hit send.

It’s times like these that I realize the importance and personal value in modern technology.

It’s times like these that I realize the importance and personal value in modern technology. Though I am not sharing space with my family members, I am sharing in moments. The videos are in no way replacing the value of visiting my nephews, but they are providing an important source of connection for the gap in between those visits.

It’s easy to wax nostalgic about growing up. I was living in an age before smartphones. A common refrain from my grandparents and other assorted relatives was a variation of the classic line: “My god! Last time I saw you…” In other words, the gap in between our last visit was completely void of faces. While my parents were present to watch me grow into myself, other relatives were left relying on stories and static pictures. They didn’t experience my childhood in real-time.

Those silly smartphone videos shared between me and my nephews is a welcome change. The magic of watching them grow and develop a personality is something that I can now experience. Videos delivered to my smartphone now serve as a way to connect me to them in a deeper, more continuous fashion. The distance that used to get in the way has been shattered.

I love that.

Cover image courtesy of Flickr.

Written by

David Ryan Polgar

David Ryan Polgar is a pioneering tech ethicist, Responsible Tech advocate, and expert on ways to improve social media and our information ecosystem, along with increasing the ethical considerations regarding emerging technologies. He specializes in uniting a diverse range of stakeholders in order to tackle complex tech & society issues, cultivating conducive environments for forward progress.

David is the founder of All Tech Is Human, an organization committed to connecting and expanding the Responsible Tech ecosystem; making it more diverse, multidisciplinary, and aligned with the public interest. As the leader of All Tech Is Human, he has created a unique grassroots-meets-traditional-power-structure model that is uniting thousands of individuals across the globe to co-create a better tech future.

In March 2020, David became a member of TikTok’s Content Advisory Council, providing expertise around the delicate and difficult challenges facing social media platforms to expand expression while limiting harm. He appears in the upcoming documentary, TikTok, Boom. David is an expert advisor for the World Economic Forum's Global Coalition for Digital Safety.

An international speaker with rare insight into building a better tech future, David has been on stage at Harvard Business School, Princeton University, Notre Dame, The School of the New York Times, TechChill (Latvia), The Next Web (Netherlands), FutureNow (Slovakia), Infoshare (Poland), the Future Health Summit (Ireland), NATO, and many more. His commentary has appeared on CBS This Morning, TODAY show, BBC World News, MSNBC, Fast Company, The Guardian, SiriusXM, Associated Press, LA Times, USA Today, and more.

David is a monthly expert contributor to Built In (writing about the Responsible Tech movement), and an advisory board member for the Technology and Adolescent Mental Wellness (TAM) program, and a participant in multiple working groups focused on improving tech and aligning it with our values.The main throughline throughout David’s work is that we need a collaborative, multi-stakeholder, and multidisciplinary approach in order to build a tech future that is aligned with the public interest.