The democratisation of intimacy

Workplace, school, battlefield, foreign country, were until recently all settings in which people were removed for short or long periods of time from their closest ties, family or friends.   Clocking in, meant leaving behind the family and its concerns, emigrating meant saying goodbye maybe for years to children or parents, going on a mission meant limiting contacts to a few letters…  We have thousand of pages of heartwrenching accounts of separations by people sent off to work, fight or study in more or less distant lands.

The geographical distance was not the only reason for this isolation, the social expectations were just as binding. A worker, student, soldier, migrant, must leave behind the personal world and embrace his professional one, focusing uniquely on the tasks to be accomplished and the companions at hand.  The strict separation between home and workplace, meant that when entering the work arena the “personal” self must be shed.. While at work, at school or on a mission, the individual was expected to concentrate uniquely on the professional environment and all distractions coming from the private sphere of life could  hinder or jeopardize the job to be accomplished. Dedication and commitment guaranteed not only the positive outcome of the job but also the safety of the other team members and the atmosphere of the group. Links with home could be more or less sporadic according to the distance and the rules of the institution. Individuals that could not handle separation, focused attention, and team solidarity, were sanctioned as unreliable, slackers, bad team members or even traitors..

Separation from family and close friends  and commitment to the people surrounding you,  is still largely seen as an essential part of succeeding in any serious activity : a precondition for becoming a reliable worker, a good student, a trusted colleague. Children are thus  schooled since early age to separate themselves from parents and family for long hours and are taught for years how to focus their attention, avoid distractions, avoid chattering with friends while  still creating strong and enduring ties with their classmates. The school therefore represents the first institution in which an oppositional model of private/professional, is enacted.  The main techniques to ensure a successful cleavage between the environments will subsequently be repeated in the workplace :  physical separation of the center of activity from the homes of the participants, rituals of entry in the environment, separation from other communities by markers (uniforms, badges, Ids), control of entry and exit, schedules, rituals for group bonding (assemblies, house system, teams, competitions, hierarchies,  punishment for lack of participation) control of attention.

Suddenly, very few years ago a small bridge was built between these worlds, first email, then the mobile, then IM, then SNS.  Multiple personal digital communication channels have emerged and are being used by people of all classes, origins, professional positions to communicate with loved ones from places and situations that were unthinkable until recently. Street cleaners, builders, office and sales clerks, bus drivers can all be seen engrossed in personal calls during the day, clerical workers behind computers all admit to engaging in personal email every day. People have embraced the possibility of intensifying their contacts with loved ones, with such speed and enthusiasm, are ready to spend such a significant portion of their income, that it is fair to say that a very fundamental need has been identified.I would like to call this a need for intimacy and constant companionship, the sense that a person you care for is at immediate reach. If a good thing or a bad thing happens in your day, it can be shared and support can come nearly immediately. This sense of continuous connection with a few important people is particularly strong because it is happening in environments where individuals are isolated even temporarily from their core social group.

All the new communication channels and devices that have been developed in the last 20 years seem to contribute to narrowing the divide between the private and the professional (in the largest sense of this term).

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