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    Yrs. faithfully

    Tim Cavanaugh at Reason.com has been really, really, really big on sliding in the gay jokes these last few months. Not that I mind; he’s exceptionally handsome, and it’s an odd fact of life that, while gay jokes told by unattractive straight men are lame, offensive, retrograde manifestations of deep-seated sexual insecurity, gay jokes told by exceptionally handsome straight men are witty, bravely edgy, and charming. It’s interesting, though, that when the subject is Barney Frank—which is to say, when there’s a gigantic “INSERT MOST OBNOXIOUS POSSIBLE GAY JOKE HERE” sign flashing—Cavanaugh lets the opportunity pass right by, the PC coward!

    What was I saying?

    Oh. Right.

    Cavanaugh posts, not for the first time, about an article in the genre I love to hate: Technology is ruining our human relationships in ways only your humble, soulful Cassandra of a correspondent is aware of. The specimen in question, by Rachel Marsden, ends the way they all do:

    When I set up a meeting with someone, they’re the only person in the room. My friends are few and dear. I refuse to sign anything “xoxo” or “love” unless I mean it.

    Too many people seem to be grasping for ways to connect with others while rarely actually connecting in a way that has true value or significance. What so many people end up with is something that looks like a connection from the outside as they text each other a million times a day, or sign notes with “much love.” Sadly, that’s the new standard of personal value in this technological era.

    You can imagine what came before: Cell phones? Bad. Facebook? Bad. Twitter? Bad. True Intimacy with Rachel Marsden? Good.

    Singing: “Dialed about a thousand numbers lately / Almost rang the phone off the wall….”

    Besides the smugness of tone, what drives me berserk about these diatribes is the way they put the moral agency on the gadgets themselves. One of Marsden’s first sentences is “Does anyone care that technology is destroying social graces and turning people into rude jerks?” I am, I believe, of a somewhat older vintage than the lady, so maybe she doesn’t know this from first-hand experience, but there were a lot of rude jerks before cell phones and the Internet. Indeed, you can argue that technology has made it easier to escape from them. In the pre-cellular era, if some bore chatted you up in the airport departure lounge about the results of his latest colonoscopy, it was nearly impossible to shake him off without moving. You could not, after all, pretend that your magazine had suddenly started vibrating with what might be an important call from Mom.

    As for meetings, has there ever been an era in which at least half of those parked around the table in any conference room on the planet weren’t desperately angling for ways to get the hell out of there? I’m not willing to defend the constant diverting of attention away from people in the room, who have first claim on it, toward taking any and every stray call that comes in. That’s rude. It should Not be Done. However, the not-nice part of me can’t help wondering whether Marsden is the sort who loves the sound of her own voice over clicking PowerPoint slides and insists on convening a meeting when a phone call, hallway discussion, or e-mail exchange would do. Arriving late and not paying attention are ill-bred behaviors, but they long predate the gizmos in question, and sometimes there’s a useful message beneath the rudeness: there’s not enough content here to be worth my time. There are few tactful ways of saying, “This gathering is pointless—can we wrap up so everyone can go back to getting some real work done?”

    I wish that, just once, these people who bitch about how technology is wrecking everything would pin the blame squarely where it belongs: on the users. There are obligations connected to work and family that have changed in texture with the introduction of some communications technologies, sure; but otherwise, no one is forced to accept Facebook friend requests, respond to every text in three nanoseconds, or keep his cell ringer on even while asleep. The kind of person who badgers casual acquaintances on Facebook for attention is the kind of person who would have badgered casual acquaintances at a dinner party for attention in eras past, and at least now his victims can use the expedient of making his updates invisible, rather than switching to double shots of whiskey and trying desperately to look interested. Human interaction is a wonderful thing, but it’s hardly the unalloyed good Marsden and others want it to be.

    Besides, would we really want to go back to a time when you couldn’t be at the supermarket, press a button, and say, “Hi, darling. I know you’re still at the office, but can you please just remind me which brand of marinara sauce you wanted me to get before you kill me for grabbing the wrong one again?” Properly used, the communications technology we now enjoy makes a whole lot of things easier and less time-consuming so that we can actually spend more time and energy on what’s really important.

    What to do when people don’t use it properly? If they’re clearly irredeemable, shun them. If they might listen to hints, say gently that you’ll be happy to resume the conversation when they’re not so tied up with other things. If they’re irredeemable but you can’t avoid them anyway, be frostily polite to them to take the edge off your irritation and maximize the probability that they’ll pick up on the fact that something’s wrong. In my experience, these things generally work. And even when they don’t, they have to be better than working yourself into a reductive, sanctimonious froth about what a nasty, vulgarizing force Technology is.

    Added on 5 January: Thanks to Eric and to Donna B., who I believe comments at his place frequently, for linking back. Eric sticks with the do-cute-guys-say-more-interesting-things? topic, and Donna sticks with the doesn’t-technology-enable-valuable-new-types-of-communication part of the topic. Or maybe they’re talking about two entirely different topics, and this post is just incoherent. In any case, thanks to them for the links.

    6 Responses to “Yrs. faithfully”

    1. Leslie says:

      What a terrific essay, Sean! I hear a bit of harmony between it and my response to people who moan and groan about the Internet, claiming that it’s destroyed “genuine” human interaction: the problem is always the people, never the tool.

    2. Sean says:

      Thanks as always, Leslie. One thing I will say in Marsden’s defense is that she doesn’t, at least, bleat about how she herself is helpless to stop tweeting/texting/talking so much, as some commentators do, as if they were helpless to control their own behavior.

    3. Eric Scheie says:

      Thank you, Sean, for a very funny post!

    4. Sean says:

      We aim to please, Eric. :)

    5. […] post – Yrs. faithfully – reminded me of the occasional odd electionic conversation I used to have with my youngest daughter […]

    6. Eric Scheie says:

      There is nothing incoherent about it! I just didn’t have time to discuss (much less seamlessly integrate) my thoughts on Facebook into the do-cute-guys-say-more-interesting-things discussion. Thanks for the link back!

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