Recent events have me thinking about connections versus “connectivity.” What’s the difference, and is one more intrinsically valuable than the other? I can read any one of millions of books via Kindle, when I have connectivity. That is, I can download the book to my computer or other device and view the words electronically. If I lose connectivity, my screen is empty. Do I have as much connection with the digital version of a book as I do with a copy I can hold in my hands, turning pages? As a person of a certain age, I will always, always prefer to grasp the paper and cardboard of a hard copy, not only because of the cover illustrations and the ability to easily flip back to one section or another, but because of the tangible feel that means I HAVE this book, no batteries or electrical cords necessary. I can set the book down on a table, come back an hour or a day later, and simply pick it up and start reading instantly, without booting up.
But here we are, in March of 2020, and the country is in the grip of coronavirus fears. The ghosts of the influenza pandemic of a century ago are haunting the airwaves. In Cleveland, both the International Film Festival and the St. Patrick’s Day parade have been cancelled. Both are iconic in the life and culture of the area, but officials are erring on the side of caution, which would seem to be the responsible choice. Both assemblages offer myriad connections, some more boisterous than others, some more intellectual and esthetic, but all emotional, appealing to the senses. All invoking, if only briefly, feelings of togetherness. Whether the celebration involves leprechaun hats and green beer or lavish programs and film rankings, people gather in the same places for the same reasons, and visceral connections are made for the duration. Those connections are due, yes, to similar interests, but also to sheer physical nearness. Two people can neither clink glasses electronically, nor can they look at each other when the lights come up and appreciate the power of a film.
It would seem, then, that there’s an overwhelmingly strong case for connections over mere connectivity. But a second look at March 2020 tells another story. In 1918, there was obviously no such thing as ordering groceries and complete meals via computer and having them delivered to the door. Entertainment was a matter of going out to a venue. Long-distance phone calls were possible, but sketchy. Information updates depended solely on newspaper delivery. Work couldn’t be done remotely. Face-to-face connections at stores and businesses were a necessity for virtually all urban dwellers, making the spread of influenza inevitable. In the 21st century, we’re looking at the potential for another pandemic, but connectivity may mitigate it. People can stay home and have the world brought to them with a few keystrokes. In the rare instances when connections are a bad thing, connectivity turns out to be an invaluable alternative. Who’d have thought it?