Pen Pals

I have a pen pal.

We’ve never met. Not in person, anyway. Well, not in the flesh, I mean. I find it hard to define what constitutes “in person” lately. It seems like a good bit of my person is having an out-of-body experience in a virtual world. And that’s where I met my pen pal.

We’re both Burners, of course. That’s how it started.

We met by the Internet’s water cooler, reading the same Burning Man posts and feeling giddy about summer coming on. Soon, we were sharing photos, little windows into each other’s days just 600 pixels wide.

That’s actually a pretty wide window into someone’s life, if it’s open and the blinds are drawn. Human beings are pretty vast, but we’re also vivid. A lot of light gets through even a tiny aperture, and our sensors are pretty sensitive.

Burners are not special in this way, but maybe we just tend to focus on the same scenes. It’s a startlingly immediate connection, a confluence of perspective, meeting a fellow Burner in the wild.

Not that I met my pen pal in the “default world” at all. I’m not ready to extend that burnerism to the Internet. That’s a little too @GreatDismal a vision of the future.

But wherever we are, screen names and avatars, we’re still living the principles, making normal moments into works of art and giving them to each other. Just because we can’t feel them doesn’t mean they aren’t there, and vice versa.

We can’t be all virtual, though. Our bodies have mass, and the enormous gravity of our eventual meeting at Burning Man exerts a powerful force.

“Will you be my pen pal?”, I asked in a direct message.

She said her heart skipped a beat when she read that. Strong stuff.

And now we make letters and send them to each other. It takes five days for them to traverse the west coast of the United States from south to north, and five again from north to south.

It’s incredible how, in 2011, this still-modern marvel feels like such a long wait.

Of course, when we met, all our communication was instantaneous. That’s much more like being “in person” than waiting a week for the answer to a question.

But then again, when we “DM,” — the deeply named “direct message” — we’re just touching the same old phone we touch with everyone else. The letters we touch are private. The only hands that hold them are the four that belong to us.

When we see each other’s face, though, it is the same face each time, the same hair, the same light, the same expression. And we’ve never heard each other’s voice. We could, but the bandwidth would be much narrower than in person. The tones would be all wrong.

None of it is meeting “in person,” now that I think about it. “In person” means “with the whole person at once.” There are still pieces missing here.

But this raises a challenging question: How often are we in person with anyone? It follows that, if our person is incomplete online, then parts of us can be on and off simultaneously. So, if we’re physically present with someone, but we’re thumbing our phones, are we in person?

What if we’re looking at the person, but the phone is in our hand? It’s just a matter of attention, isn’t it? So, if our phone is in our pocket, and we’re talking with someone, but we’re thinking about our pen pal, only a direct message away, what about then? Are we even in person with ourselves?

Good thing there’s Burning Man, huh? We’ve got a principle of Immediacy for that. I mean, some people bring their phones out there, but it’s awfully dusty.

I’m guessing that when I meet my pen pal, let’s say, at the Man base on Monday at sunset, there will be very little doubt.

Photo: Chance

About the author: Jon Mitchell

I'm the managing editor at Burning Man. I wrote this book and this record. I co-wrote a big story about spending 24 hours at the Temple of Juno in 2012, which lives at templestories.com. I've been a Burner since 2008.

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