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11 June 2007

Keeping in touch

Disconnection exists everywhere - whether you live in a big city or on a remote island

By Malachy Tallack

Being on an island can induce, in some people, a feeling of disconnectedness – disconnection from friends and family elsewhere, from the comforts and trappings of commerce, and from the news and events of the ‘real’ world.

For some, that is exactly what they are looking for. People come to visit places like Fair Isle in order to ‘get away from it all’ – to escape the confinement of modern society and to experience the freedom of another way of life.

But for others, the feeling can be uncomfortable and alienating. Freedom and constraint both coexist here, as they do everywhere. And islands are, by their very nature, separate.

But connection is a strange thing.

These days people are connected, for the most part, through the media. We read about each other in the newspaper and we watch each other on the television. On the internet we can do both.

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Although I don’t have a television (through choice rather than necessity), I do get a newspaper, though only once a week (through necessity rather than choice). My Saturday Guardian arrives, if the weather is fine, on a Tuesday. By which time the world has moved on without me.

It can be easy to feel as though that world is a long way away. I have, more than once, failed to notice a major news story. It is a shock to turn on the radio and find out that you are the last person in the country to be aware of some major event, days after it happened.

I trust though that, were something really important or dreadful to happen (like nuclear war, say, or the Conservatives winning an election), someone would mention it to me before it was too late.

But I rarely miss the newspapers. And I certainly never miss the television. And, as I said, connection is a strange thing.

The mediation which now permeates every aspect of most people’s lives disguises itself as connection. We can, if we wish, find out much about our colleagues and neighbours by looking them up on Google. We can learn everything we want to know about politicians and celebrities in our newspapers and magazines. We feel somehow close to these people, no matter that they are strangers.

But it is all, of course, an illusion. We are separated from the world, not connected, by the media. And by focusing all of our attention on that which is far away, we become yet more distant from the things which should be close to us.

People sometimes ask whether it is difficult to live in a place with just 70 people. Is it not claustrophobic? Are we not all fed up of each other? But think about it: how many people do you really connect with in a normal day? Half a dozen, perhaps? One or two even?

What about the man who sells you your milk in the corner shop? Or the woman sitting beside you on the train? Your colleagues in the office? Or the waiter in the restaurant? What kinds of connections are those?

Here, every connection is a real one. Though there are only 70 of us, we are all connected through a mutual reliance and a shared sense of… well, of what exactly? To be honest, I am not sure. A shared sense of being on an island, perhaps.

I have lived most of my life in a small town. But I have also lived, at various times, in three different cities in three different countries. Disconnection exists everywhere. And connection is a strange thing.

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