When I was a kid, the phone was the thing attached to the wall in the kitchen. If someone called, you had to answer it to find out who it was, because there was no caller ID, no voice mail, no answering machines. If you called someone else and they didn’t answer, it wasn’t because they were screening calls, intentionally ignoring you, or lying on the floor due to a medical emergency and/or serial killer attack; they just weren’t home. As there was no way to leave a message, you just tried again later, or maybe walked over to their house.
How I long for the good old days.
Technology is a wonderful thing. I can stay in touch with friends and relatives scattered across the United States. I can do freelance work with a client in Europe. In case of emergency, I can dial 911 from the device in my pocket, then text people to know that I’m okay or that I’m going to be late. I can even take pictures and video of the emergency in progress and be a citizen journalist, sharing with everyone in the world.
Yet it comes with a price, and the price seems to be the expectation that we will have a device with us and turned on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We are expected to be available at all times. It seems as if we’re expected to share everything, with everyone, at all times, via social media. It used to be a breach of etiquette to intrude upon someone’s privacy, to burst in on family time, or private quiet time, or personal moments. Now, it’s apparently a breach of etiquette to exclude people from such moments by not constantly live blogging them for all to see.
Communication across a variety of media has become so easy and inexpensive that we seem compelled to broadcast constantly from the time we wake up until the time we go to sleep — and if you have the right programs to automate things, not even sleep can stop you. What it’s really done is turn communication into a highly devalued currency.
Listen, I do want to know that you got a good grade on that exam, that you sold that short story, that you’ve gotten engaged, that you’re having a baby. Those are significant life events, and God bless the internet for allowing us to share that stuff quickly and easily. It’s a hell of a time saver, not having to write personalized notes or making individual phone calls to let people know. It certainly saves time when all you need to do is click “like” on such an announcement, rather than writing a personal note or picking up a phone.
It’s also impersonal and, I’m going to say it, pretty dehumanizing.
To make things worse, though, we’re not just posting our major life events. They’re mixed in with reports on what we had for breakfast, what our current location is, and not just the weather but news, sports, and human interest stories to boot. More than once, I’ve missed a major event in someone’s life because it was buried in their news feed. I’m sorry that your dog died and your favorite aunt has cancer; it must have missed those updates among the rants about the election and your opinions on movies and TV shows.
Because we can get all of this stuff on portable devices, we’re expected to have them with us at all times. If we’re out of touch, we’re assumed to either be intentionally ignoring someone or in grave danger. The concept of turning these things off or leaving them in the other room is alien, and a breach of the new ettiquette. Having nothing to say is no excuse for not providing a status update. Heaven forfend if you’re actually talking to a person sitting in physical proximity. It’s also somehow assumed that we’re reading the entirity of every friend’s social media feed, so if we miss a major life event, posted at 3 a.m. on a weeknight, it’s our fault.
I remember when communication was intentional. When I wanted someone to know something, I sought them out, rather than screaming out the window or putting a sign in my front yard and hoping they saw it. I followed up to make sure they got the message, and had a conversation with them about it. It was… personal. It was meaningful. It was warm, and intimate, and felt like a relationship and not a reality show.
Did I mention that I miss the good old days?