My Puerto Rican island of Vieques wears a dark cloak of invisibility. No electricity. No water service. No air flights to and from the island. No ferries run. No Internet or phone communications. No press coverage. No way of knowing if friends and families there are safe. No idea if my house still stands.
Here on Cape Cod, meanwhile, I’ve received a cascade of queries this week about the status of Vieques. I reply in the only way I can: Vieques remains incommunicado.
The impossibility of connecting with friends and neighbors there brings home to me what it must have been like to live before the era of widespread telecommunications.
Read the Sherlock Holmes stories, for example, and witness people constantly sending written notes and letters to one another. Plots pivot on non-delivery of a message or delivery to the wrong person.
Or imagine the chronic unease of a Gloucester wife while her husband is on a years-long whaling mission with no means of communication between them.
I come away from all this with a new awareness of what a social species humanity is. We are engineered for both verbal communication and the nuanced messaging of body language—from fondling an infant to holding the hand of a dying parent.
The global digital technology that ties us together is now denied Vieques, an island of nine thousand souls. During the days since Hurricane Maria did her dirty work, Facebook has magnified our anxiety over the unknown condition of residents trapped on the island.
For days, people off-island have posted plaintive pleas for information about loved ones. Here are a few, with last names deleted for privacy:
- My mother and my daughter. My daughter's mom, my daughter's brother. I need to know if they are ok.
- Deb is my cousin. Has anyone heard that she and Dennis are OK?
- We are looking for Marie. She is the one wearing the hat in this photo. Her entire family is anxiously awaiting to hear from her.
Meanwhile, ex-Hurricane Jose has tormented Cape Cod with high winds off the Atlantic Ocean for days. We are battered by heavy downpours as I write this.
I don’t feel alone, isolated or cut off, however, because I am connected to the world electronically.
We users might kvetch about social media technology, but we’ve grown accustomed to its near magic in bringing people together. It has extended our personal reach, enabling us to touch others without regard for time or distance.
When digital connection is lost, as it is in Vieques right now, our feeling of isolation is heightened—making us even more aware of how truly alone we are and how small.
It’s precisely at moments like these that we must remember, as author Josh Stern notes, “Friends might lose touch but never lose feelings.”
(Image: Using a touch screen, courtesy of Freepik)