We Never Talk Anymore

Speedy CommunicationListening to This American Life on NPR yesterday, I heard a comment that triggered a sequence of thoughts about communication, or more to the point, the lack of it. This particular show was about unusual pen pals; specifically, Manual Noriega corresponding with a ten-year-old American girl. A great story, as usual. Anyhow, someone on the show commented that the ease and frequency of worldwide communication has generally resulted in brief, impersonal contact with others. It's so commonplace, and so easy, that we no longer put forth the effort that used to characterize mailed letters, and other forms of personal communication, before global electronic networks were ubiquitous. When people wrote letters that relied on a physical delivery system, weeks or months might go by before receiving a reply, so the content was richer, and more sustained. Phone calls, especially those with friends or relatives living far away, were of a similar character.

But maybe there's another reason, too. Maybe we spend so much time dealing with computers and phone calls—because our jobs require it—that there's little desire to type on keyboards or hold phones to our ears when we don't have to. If your inbox is flooded with hundreds of work related messages, the thought of going home to more e-mail probably isn't a huge thrill. And although cell phones are as common as rain in Seattle, they've become more of a leash to many people; you can't ever really escape, no matter where you go. By the time your daughter calls from college, you're too burned out from all those other calls to utter anything beyond primitive grunting sounds. Technology was supposed to set us free, but it seems to have mostly freed up more time for more work.

If my own experiences with e-mail are any indication, most of the time you're lucky to get a few hurried sentences; I haven't seen too many full-length letters in my inbox. Phone calls are generally better, but that may have more to do with the ability to accomplish something else at the same time—shopping, driving, eating, whatever. There's no easy solution to this problem; it would require a pervasive cultural shift. Personally, I'm not planning to give up my cell phone, much less my computer, any time soon. But every once in a while, I dream about pumping all my electronics full of lead, then taking a pen and some paper with me to a mountaintop somewhere.


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