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The world’s sense of physical closeness

By David Swartzentruber
AseanAffairs 18 June 2010

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This article was prompted by a Skype conference call this morning between the Asean Affairs staff and a colleague in Bangalore, India, and it brought to my mind: Is the human race closer or farther apart in the 21st century? Different cultures have a different sense of how close people should be to each other and this sense varies from country to country and region to region and person to person.

The aftermath of the 9/11 attack in the United States seemed to point out several contrasts in this century’s version of closeness.

Although military attacks on North America had occurred in the early 19th century (the War of 1812) Fortress America had not been touched since that time. Suddenly, U.S. citizens, especially those living in densely populated New York City, felt they were perhaps too close to the rest of the world.

Soon after the attack, the opposite effect fell into place. Air travel declined throughout the world as new security measures were put in place and it became longer and more difficult to get visas and security clearances. Depending on where a person lived and where a person wanted to travel, this was a rude shock and made most people farther from each other.

Of course, the Internet has become the intervening variable in the communications world, as this morning’s conference clearly established, but does it bring us closer?

Many parents bemoan the fact that their children spend too much time online developing virtual relationships without actually developing personal skills in the actual world to make in-person friends. The prototypical computer “nerd” fits this model.

It was great to meet and talk with our colleague and I know what he looks like, how he talks and to some degree, how he thinks but can it be substituted for as Lyndon Johnson once coined, “pressing the flesh.”

Even though Web 2.0 and broadband Internet are practically universal, some Silicon Valley venture capitalists have a rule that they should not be more than 20 minutes away from the offices of the companies in which they invest.

So while it would appear that the world is more connected, perhaps as individuals we can still experience distance and even isolation in a world with an increasing population.

Asia accounts for more than 60 percent of the world population with almost 3.8 billion people. Perhaps, someone not living in Asia might feel that we who live here have a proverbial “stuffed in a sardine can” existence.

Unless, you take into account a Bangkok traffic jam or the morning rush hour, however, there seems to be little difference between modern-day Asia and the West, although western tourists sometimes display physical affection in public, where most Thai people refrain from such public gestures.

Nonetheless, air travel seems to be picking up and Thailand still expects to greet 13 million tourists this year. Most of those traveling here, of course, use the Internet to make their travel plans.

Although the Internet serves as a great communication tool, the jury is still out on whether it has drawn us closer together as a human race. Wars and other conflicts still persist as well political and social conflicts, even in Thailand.


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