Another View

Charles Gordon

The joys of keeping in touch, virtually

December 15 1997
Another View

Charles Gordon

The joys of keeping in touch, virtually

December 15 1997

Charles Gordon

The joys of keeping in touch, virtually

Another View

Already the backlash has begun. Call it a virtual backlash. A New Yorker writer tells a chilling true story of a romance carried on by e-mail, a relationship that cannot survive face-to-face contact. The writer of an opinion piece in The Toronto Star talks disparagingly of the old friends who have contacted him by e-mail. “Virtual friends,” he calls them, and “annoying social relics.” He doesn’t want to have anything to do with them, and how he wishes the technology that brought them together would go away.

There are other negative reports from the field. A newspaper executive has an e-mail address and makes a point of never looking in his e-mailbox. He figures anybody who has anything important to say to him will speak to him personally, telephone or write a real letter. A university administrator refuses to have anything to do with e-mail, thinks it debases correspondence and increases the already excessive capacity of people to deal impersonally with each other.

Meanwhile, people all over the globe are happily e-mailing each other—exchanging gossip, passing along the latest joke that someone has passed along to them, telling everybody in the office that the big scissors are missing again from the reception desk or that someone is selling candy bars again to send his daughter’s recorder trio to the national finals. Most of these people think of email as one of technology’s better gifts of late.

True, the odd dark cloud is appearing on the horizon—they are tired of having their labors interrupted by the latest word about the scissors, and they are beginning to see commercial intruders and political obsessives in their mailboxes, attempting to sell this and that. But a lot of e-mailers are willing to forgive all that for the feeling of being instantly in touch.

True, being instantly in touch means that people are instantly in touch with you, but they are in touch in a way that is far less invasive than the telephone solicitation at supper time. The e-mail intruder can usually be ignored and is at least quiet.

Plus, there is something to be said for having the ability, even if you don’t use it, to reconnect with your past. Those who moved often in their childhood or who now live far from their home towns are happy to find and be found by friends and even acquaintances they had thought were long lost. As a result of e-mail and the Internet, we will be seeing an increase in things like high-school reunions and, more important, an increase in post-reunion contact among friends. Some may find this frivolous, some may find it even intrusive, but there is nothing intrinsically wrong and a lot intrinsically right in being able to reconnect with your past, and your childhood. To do so takes you out of yourself, takes you away from the job and the TV out into a world where people you used

to know are thinking about different things in different places.

It’s true that one can be overpowered by this new toy. You can spend all your time in the past, huddled in front of the screen. Worse still, you can live your whole emotional life by e-mail, mistaking the pixels on the screen for the living molecules of a genuine relationship. When the people on the screen become more important than the people around you, you, and those close to you, have lost your battle with technology.

E-mail takes you away from the job and the TV into a world where people you used to know are thinking about different things

Still, it is only technology. And e-mail is only a form of communication. What is communicated is up to you, not it. There is debate, even this early in the game, about the quality of communication. Everyone concedes that e-mail facilitates correspondence. Some go so far as to say that e-mail has resurrected the art of letter writing. Others note the casual haste with which today’s e-mail correspondence is carried on and contrast it negatively with the elegant and thoughtful letters that are assumed to have been the norm in the days of pen-and-ink.

And so on and so on. Still, it is only a means of communication. You could even argue that the breezy, instantaneous mood of e-mail correspondence is, in at least some cases, an improvement over the slow, ponderous and pretentious voice of yesterday’s formal correspondence.

One point over which there can be no dispute at all is that tomorrow’s historians will face a mountainous and largely unrewarding task sifting through the e-mails of their subjects. Given the electronic pack rat-ism that afflicts today’s generation, only the failure of computer hard drives holds out any hope of relief from massive information overload. There are other, less negative, reports from the field. A parent of children who attend overseas schools reports on their newfound ability to stay in touch by e-mail with friends who have moved to other continents. It is likely that the widening of the wired world and the ease of correspondence by e-mail will mean that friendships have a better chance of being forever. The once-ina-lifetime bittersweetness of the high-school reunion will give way to the small daily pleasures of the electronic update. This may not be all for the better—how many friends is too many and how many virtual commercials will we have to wade through to contact them when the world of commerce learns to seize the technological opportunity? But who can know yet in these caveman days?

Concerning this stuff and the larger world of the Internet, the questions are so many and the answers so few that it is impossible even to discuss the growing gap between the technological haves and have-nots in the world. The gap is there, both within and between nations; that much is obvious. The people with computers and good phone lines can do things that the people without can’t. What we don’t know yet is which side of the gap is the worse off.