One winter night a while back, my wife and I had come home to find our young daughter wasn’t feeling well. We’d had plans to go see Miranda July be interviewed on stage, something we’d paid $50 for the privilege of seeing. We had an hour to unload the tickets, so I got on Craigslist.
Someone answered my ad immediately. His name was Joe, and he seemed like a nice guy – happy to have scored tickets to this event, appreciative that I’d phoned Will Call to make sure they’d release them to him. Time was tight. Should we figure out a PayPal arrangement? Joe asked me. No time, I told him, he could just mail me the check in the morning. It was hardly reckless. I knew his name, number and employer from his email, and more important, we had a nice, if brief, rapport. I was sort of excited to be testing out good old-fashioned trust in an era of ubiquitous online verification measures and the like.
The check never came. I politely needled the guy over a period of months – emails, texts, a phone call – but no dice. I wrote about this a while back for The New York Times. The money wasn’t the thing. The breach of trust was the thing.
Anyway, at the time Joe was just a name I’d Googled a bunch. Like so many of us do with so many others of us, I knew a great deal about the guy without ever having laid eyes on him – aside from his Facebook and Twitter photos. He was strictly digital – until the other day, when on a neighborhood stroll with my family, he suddenly walked right past us.
I froze. A hundred options scrolled. I could chase him down, dispense the perfect nugget of rebuke. I could let my wife tear him a new one, as she was clamoring to do. I could go, I dunno, pour a glass of milk on him. Instead I watched him walk away. It’s not that he was scary or something. If anything, I felt bad for the poor guy. No, something else stopped me, but I wasn’t sure what.
Only later did I see. In an instant my bifurcated realities – virtual and actual – had merged, and a kind of vertigo opened up.
We’ve all been there, the collision of offline and online worlds. You recognize someone as a friend of a friend from Facebook, you recognize someone’s face from Twitter – and you freeze, right? The compass needle just sort of spins? I have no solutions, just a vague sense that we’ll one day look back on this as an interesting evolutionary moment. We’ve built a second universe for ourselves, come to know our way around a bit. But when it collides with our first universe, it become instantly clear we haven’t really mastered either yet.
Chris Colin is the award-winning author of “Blindsight,” published by the Atavist and named one of Amazon’s Best Books of 2011. Read his work at www.chriscolin.com.