An Anthropologist in Textland

Please forgive any repetition, but I elaborated on my rant on texting in this blog post I did for Beyond Chron, the wonderful alternative blog that Randy Shaw publishes in San Francisco.  Hope readers don’t mind some recapping, but I think I have advanced the argument a bit.  Hope you like it.

An Anthropologist in Textland
by Suzanne Gordon‚ Jun. 26‚ 2013
For the past few weeks, I feel like I’ve been an anthropologist traveling to a far away land to observe the culture of a primitive tribe whose strange language and bizarre customs I can barely fathom. Only in this case, the land is the United States and the tribe is made up of friends, colleagues, and members of the thirty something crowd. The language I have trouble understanding and behaviors I observe with increasing dismays is text, Tweet (sometimes email) and other techno communications. The culture is one in which people – even dear friends – increasingly disconnect from face- to- face or voice- to -voice human connection and communication with the individuals they insist that they love, respect, and value while they simultaneously claim to be connected to… well, nearly everyone.

First Example

I’m in New York, trying to make arrangements to see a good friend whom I haven’t seen in a while. We make date number one. It involves going to dinner with my husband. My friend texts about the arrangements. But things have changed since our original exchange (via text, of course) and I now have to give a lecture before dinner and may invite some participants to go with us. I want to know if that will be okay and explain these rather complicated details. All of this has to be gotten into a text, executed with one finger, because my friend rarely uses her phone for phoning. I have to beg – via terse text of course — to talk to her on the phone, because I simply am not good enough at the succinct art of texting to collapse all of the explanations into the sufficient number of words. Grudgingly, she accedes and we chat. It’s actually nice, warm, cozy, voice- to- voice, you know like it used to be.

Then something happens and the plan changes — family problems. Another text. Another attempt at arrangements, all delivered in mini-sound bites. We make a plan. She cancels again, this time because of a meeting. Texts me. Wants to know can I do it another time. She offers some ideas for a meeting place which are not convenient. I want to explain why. She’s my friend after all. Silly me.

Then she texts, explaining in cryptic prose more family problems. I would like to commiserate but because I have never broken up with someone via text, I am stymied. A brusque text of, “So sorry!” seems not enough. But how can I find out what’s going with her on via these Tweet like exchanges?

Back to the texting. I want inquire further about her situation, want to explain why I find it difficult to meet in the place she suggested. But actual conversation seems impossible. How do you carry on a human friendship, I wonder, with increasing frustration, via texts that have now gone way beyond shorthand.

I think of excuses to explain her behavior. She’s very busy (so am I). She has kids, (so have I, except granted her’s are younger). But all I can come up with is that this damn technology, for all its helpfulness, has become a curse. It adds more time and certainly more carpel tunnel. You can’t get into an actual exchange. You have no audio or visual cues to guide you to tell you if someone is kidding, in distress, nasty, playful, sarcastic. And you are out there, alone, with messages to which you cannot respond in an exchange with people who no longer seem to want to interact in real time at the same time.

Second Example

Returning from the same trip I fly from New York to Denver for a meeting. The plane is, however, diverted from Denver to Colorado Springs. In the chaos of getting back to Denver in the middle of the night, I “connect” to a thirty-one year old lawyer who offers to share a hotel room with me and give me a ride back to Denver in the morning. We collapse into our respective beds at what is for us 4AM and go to sleep. In the morning, the first thing she does is reach for her cell-phone and begins texting. For the next four hours, her phone does not leave her hands except when she showers. As we are eating breakfast, I try to chat and draw her out. It is difficult, if not impossible, since she is glued to the screen, thumb tap, tap, tapping. We talk and she texts. We stop talking and she texts. She eats and texts, drinks coffee and texts. She is like a toddler, who lacks the cognitive capacity to engage with another human being with whom she might perhaps relate unmediated by a device. When her colleagues arrives to drive us back to Denver, she continues to text and respond to texts. As he drives, (yes on the interstate!!) he occasionally picks up his cell phone to read a text. Thankfully he does not respond. I wonder if she and her fiancé (she has one with whom she texts incessantly) text while they have sex. This is not a foolish question. My husband and I were recently listening to jazz in a Berkeley café and a young Asian couple came in and began to listen and text. Then they began to kiss in a way that, pre-texting, one would have described as passionate, except that he was looking at his cell phone while otherwise engaged. (And I thought men were obsessed with sex).

Third Example

I am in a conference at a major medical center. There are 800 people in the audience –grown ups who are supposedly listening to important information which they are supposed to reflect upon and digest. Speakers are lecturing at the podium or engaged in panel discussions in comfortable chairs on stage. Two flat screen TVs flank the stage. They are not for broadcasting pictures of the conference to the large audience. They are for Tweeting, while speakers speak. Rather than telling people to turn off their damn IPhones and IPads, and other assorted devices and actually listen, the conference planners encouraged participants to be downright rude. The screens were set up to project Tweets from audience members about what they have just heard, thought, felt into cyberspace. And Tweet they do. Endlessly. R than giving the speakers their undivided attention, participants (even those who aren’t Tweeting) are reading the Tweets while their colleagues are presenting. It’s the triumph of marketing over genuine communication. I want to Tweet about the Tweeting, but just how many bridges can you burn?

Fourth Example

One of the worst cases I’ve encountered.

A friend who lives in Boston discovered she had cancer. She needed surgery, was going to get chemo. It was very bad news. She had to share it with her two adult children — one of whom lived in Washington State, one in Paris. Her plan, she told me, was to email them at about 9 p.m. her time. I was horrified. Email your children to tell them you have cancer? That would mean that her daughter would get the news in the afternoon, at work, and would probably want to call her but refrain because her mother might be asleep. She would have to deal with this news all by herself because she couldn’t call her brother who would be asleep in Europe. Her son would get the email (or a frantic call from his sister) in what was his morning, and again not want to wake his mother in the middle of the night with questions. I asked my friend why she would even think of doing such a thing. She said she found it easier. If she emailed, and then let them think about it, she didn’t have to deal with the difficulty of their emotional responses.

In the June 24 New York Times Sunday Review, Tom Standage, in an essay entitled “Social Networking in the 1600s,”
argues that social media is not draining people of creativity nor distracting them from productive work. He insists that people have always been worried about new modes of communication and social connection. The same complaints we hear today about the Internet were ones expressed about the coffeehouses that sprang up in England in the 17th century – what he dubs the social media of an earlier era.

I beg to differ. There is absolutely no relationship between a coffeehouse where people may actually sit and pay attention to each other and the kind of “connection” that gives priority to a flat screen and a series of seductive, superficial exchanges.

It’s fine to Tweet, and text, and email when it’s about simple, instrumental instructions, or the conveyance of simple facts – like “having my chemo at noon, can you pick me up at 2?” But is emailing – or God forbid texting –the equivalent of, “bad news, have cancer, getting surgery, plus chemo, will text later” really connecting? Or is it all about individual convenience and the avoidance of having to deal with the messiness and negotiations involved in human relationships – from the simplest “no I can’t meet there, let’s figure out something else,” to “I’m sick and mortal and maybe even going to die sometime.” Is it about an individual’s attempts to control an out of control world where too many messages, from too many different media, are coming at us all the time? Does the technology meant to give us control actually steal it from us? (As in, you never have an excuse not to be working because you can always FedEx, email, Tweet, text, Pinterest etc.)

In spite of my curmudgeonly complaints about the new media, I did have one refreshing experience lately. Another colleague and I were trying to make arrangements to meet. The emails went back and forth but each time there was an additional detail or glitch. Finally, he emailed me and said, ‘It sounds like we have reached the limitation of email and need to go old school for a phone call.
I am in my office.”

And we had an actual conversation. And actually met.

  • Zelda Bronstein

    Read your “rant” on texting. Thanks! I couldn’t agree more.

    Do you know Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less from Each Other? Highly recommended.

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