I am in an empty classroom at my kids’ school in Vancouver, where I’ve commandeered a desk and set up my computer. I can hear the music class underway next door, and if I listen carefully, I can pick out the sweet voice of my 13-year-old daughter.
I am in a boardroom in Denver, Colorado, where I’m meeting with a half-dozen fellow board members, discussing the next stage of growth for a burgeoning non-profit.
I am in a swimming pool in Palm Springs, talking with a group of friends about the future of artificial intelligence.
I am in a clothing store in Manhattan, browsing the racks for professional-looking dresses in my size.
Actually, I’m in all these places at once—and usually a few more besides. Thanks to the miracle of contemporary connectivity, I can be in one place physically, another place or two mentally, still others visually or financially. (At least, that’s what my Visa card suggests, as it rings in charges from all across the internet while I sit quite still in Vancouver.) I’m everywhere I want to be — but here barely not on the list .
R.I.P., “here”, that quaint concept of being exclusively present in a single location. These days it’s far more common to be in at least a couple of places at once: at the dinner table, but also back at the office via Slack; in bed, but also visiting with your best friend on Facebook; at the gym, but also at a TEDx conference you’re watching on YouTube; in a tedious meeting, but also (thankfully!) at Nordstrom Rack.
Indeed, the only point of actually being here in a physical sense is to transmit the details on here to somebody else who’s there: checking in on Facebook or Foursquare so that you can pee your little virtual circle around the coffee shop you’ve just occupied, or Instagramming a picture of the awesome concert you’re at so that everybody who’s there wishes they were here—just as those of us who are here can peruse Instagram and wish we were somewhere else.
Not only can we exist in multiple locations, but we’re frequently required to. For about five minutes, back in the early nineties, it seemed super awesome that the combination of high-speed internet access and mobile phones could liberate us from the torture of being there—there being the corporate landscape of fluorescent lighting and shabbily upholstered cubicles. But as Noonan and Glass observe in their article, “The Hard Truth About Telecommuting, “the ability of employees to work at home may actually allow employers to raise expectations for work availability during evenings and weekends and foster longer workdays and workweeks.” No sooner did we get here than we discovered that the price of being here is to also, always, be at least partially there.
But let’s not blame the death of here entirely on the office. Your horrible friends are to blame, too. Remember when your friends used to apologize for looking at their phones while you were out at lunch? People under 35, I know the answer is “no”—but believe me, people used to apologize for that.
They don’t anymore, because we’ve so completely abandoned the notion of being in just one physical place that it is now a matter of course that you’re, at most, only about 72% here. In his article on the nature of attention, David Roy quotes Catie Getches’ observation that
it’s easier than ever to be two places at once but nearly impossible to, as my mom says, just “be here now.” Yet being in two places at once has become strangely familiar: You don’t just go out to lunch with a friend anymore. You go out to lunch with the friend and the friend’s cell phone book.
Before you start donning black crepe and getting out your best sobbing hankie, however, it’s worth pausing to ask whether “here” was really all that and a bag of chips. I know “here” has had a great P.R. push from all these mindful Buddhist types—you know, the same folks who brought us “now.” Ralph L. Wahlstrom sums it up: “The Zen Buddhist concept of ‘Be Here Now’ tells us to live fully and consciously in the moment. As profound as it is, it often seems trite (Life is now; This is the first day of the rest of your life; etc.)” But when someone with a Ph.D. in rhetoric can yada yada the Buddhist notion of presence, maybe it’s time to ask whether here has jumped the shark.
After all, here is defined largely by where it isn’t. Philosopher Richard M. Gale must have given himself an enormous headache with his 1969 effort at distinguishing between here and now, observing that
An obvious difference between ‘here’ and ‘now’ is connected with the conceptual truth that an object cannot at the same time be both here and there but can at the same place be both now and then. This surface disanalogy is rebutted by the claim that at a given time an object can be both here and there, provided it fills here and there as well as the space between, just as analogously it can at a given place exist both now and then provided it exists both now and then as well as at the time between.
While Gale concluded that “space and time are radically different,” the internet has revealed that maybe they aren’t so different after all. By speeding up the pace of communication, the internet has made it possible for information to be in many places at once, and if our attention can’t travel at quite those speeds, well, we’re nonetheless giving it the good old college try.
We avail ourselves of live Twitter streams and high-speed internet connections and 3G and 4G and then however many Gs they’re willing to give us next. It’s all in the hope that we can stay up-to-the minute on whatever is happening there, even if we have the misfortune of being physically here.
As we cram all these places and experiences into our screens and brains as densely as possible, we’re uncovering a longstanding truth: here was never there to begin with. We like to romanticize the idea of pure presence—moments when we have our friends’ full attention, or when we bring our full attention to whatever experience we are currently in—but a lot of the time, checking out of here is a semi-deliberate choice.
I seem to remember a pre-internet, pre-smartphone world in which here was often tedious—so tedious that we sometimes went to great lengths to avoid it. We carried paperbacks that could transport us to foreign lands or alternate lives (even if we didn’t yet have a Kindle). We spent hours dragging a long, curly telephone cord around the house while we talked with our best friends, racking up long-distance phone charges (remember those?) rather than settling for yet another dull conversation with our spouse. Yes, we actually sat through boring meetings (so many meetings, back in the pre-Slack, pre-Google Docs days!) without benefit of distraction—but I still remember the joy of figuring out that I could fake a startled response to an imaginary vibrating phone call whenever I needed an excuse to leave the room.
It’s easy to resent the internet for killing here; to blame our friends, our colleagues and our cell phones for the loss of pure presence. But unless you’re one of those mindful creatures who has succeeded in achieving an advanced state of enlightenment, there are plenty of situations in which pure presence is less than appealing. I, for one, will always opt out of being fully and perfectly present in a long airport security lineup, if the alternative is to be imperfectly present in a Facebook thread. So let’s just admit that a lot of the time, there really is better than here.
And the internet is as successful at delivering there as it is in eliminating here. Thanks to web conferencing, you can be at the there of your corporate meeting while still sitting at home in your pajamas. Thanks to YouTube, you can be at a performance or a lecture even if obstacles like money or distance would otherwise keep you away. Thanks to Facebook and SMS, you and your best friend can be in constant, daily (even hourly!) contact, even if you live in different cities or countries. Thanks to the internet, and thanks to smartphones, you are never stuck being here just because you can’t come up with a better option.
The internet didn’t invent the phenomena of having your head in the clouds or a faraway look on your face: it just made those idioms literally true. By speeding up the flow of information, the internet hasn’t just blurred now and then—it’s collapsed here and there. We can still choose to be fully present—but that presence is no longer limited to whatever room or place we happen to be in at the time.
Finally, delightfully, authentically, we can be here, there, and everywhere.