Distributed concern

When the earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in 2011 I was in Austin for my first in-person company meeting. I remember being in the hotel lobby with my teammates an many other coworkers that had just arrived for SXSW. As we learned the news, many of them contacted some of our colleagues living in Japan and made sure they were fine. I had never felt worried about something so distant before.

One of the overlooked aspects of working for a distributed company like Automattic is that your circle of friends and acquaintances suddenly explodes geographically.

Since then, every time there’s a tragedy in the news I have to ask myself if I know someone there, and sometimes I do. I knew someone at a mass shooting in a school in Colorado, and several coworkers living in Paris during the 2015 attacks. A colleague’s parents lived in Cairo during the 2011 revolution. I’ve received Facebook notifications about friends being OK after a flooding in South Asia without even knowing they were there. And so many other times when I had to wonder again, do I know someone there?.

You see tragedies in the news every day. It’s so common that it’s sometimes hard to feel connected. It’s hard, I think, because if we cared as deeply about the remote tragedies as we do about the local ones, we would be in pain all the time.

I’m glad to know all those people around the world because that question has been very powerful. Most of the time I don’t know someone there, or if I know they’re fine. But then it’s easy to ask myself what if I did?. This isn’t just another segment in the news, this is real life, and real tragedy for many people.

A series of interiors

I’ve been reading Wanderlust: A History of Walking, and this paragraph made me pause:

Many people nowadays live in a series of interiors — home, car, gym, office, shops — disconnected from each other. On foot everything stays connected, for while walking one occupies the spaces between those interiors in the same way one occupies those interiors. One lives in the whole world rather than in interiors built up against it.

I’ve had a similar reflection before when traveling: that you could leave home and go from taxi to train to airport to the other side of the world and emerge on a subway exit in New York or Tokyo twenty-some hours later, without having set foot on an open space.

And a similar feeling is portrayed early on in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance about riding a motorcycle instead of walking:

You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.

On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.