I’ve been corresponding with a woman who has been in prison since the early 1990’s. We had been remarking on how the things we’d associated with our childhoods, such as penmanship classes and schoolbooks, are no longer evident. Instead of schoolbooks, young students now have eBooks, and cursive writing is not taught in many schools. This of course is due to the massive advances in technology that have taken place over the years. Who needs to lug around ‘War and Peace’ when you can have it on your mobile or Kindle? No one needs to know how to write anymore—it’s all done on computer.
She was lamenting that her prison in Texas (unlike prisons in other states), didn’t allow even limited, supervised access to the Internet, and even things like Skype and Google Plus (which provide video communication) were banned. Inmates are allowed iPods and MP3 players, but no access to music banks on the internet. With services like Skype, families who live too far away to travel to the prison would still be able to visit ‘in person’ with the inmate. She said she looked forward to her release, in part to throw herself into the scrum of communications advances.
Later, I thought about that conversation, and wondered if perhaps she were really missing anything. It’s probably been going on longer than I think, but I’ve noticed with the introduction of the answering machine that technology has made it possible, not only to communicate more easily with people, but to avoid other people with greater efficiency as well. Caller ID allows us to pick and choose whom we ignore. The mobile telephone is a wonderful invention, but it’s primarily use seems to be for texting, not talking. The same is true of wireless devices; go to any Starbucks and see how many consumers are talking to the person in the next seat. It distresses me to go to my favourite restaurant and watch people ignoring each other because of these damned devices while at the same time disturbing other patrons.
On the train, I used to enjoy engaging other passengers in conversation, even if it were idle banter. I met a lot of very interesting people in the old days, and even dated a lady I’d met on the commuter line.
Now, riders are glued to their device of choice, and the only conversation one is likely to hear is the one the loudmouth four seats forward is holding on his telephone. In consequence, I know more than I want to about the affair woman behind me is having with another woman’s husband, and I recently heard a man rattling off a string of numbers to someone, with the injunction to keep the information private. (For the latter, I should be grateful I suppose. It occasioned some conversation with a couple of other riders, one of whom wondered if he should be writing this down. The other said he expected to hear the launch codes for the next NATO sea trials. Fun stuff!)
Technological advance allows for greater indiscretion.
People are emailing co-workers whose desks are a mere three feet away. When I was a kid, one parent or another would bellow up the stairs, ‘Come to supper!’ Now, it’s a text message (not even a telephone call!) When you call a company, you can conduct your business without speaking to a living person—computers handle that. Unfortunately, they can’t answer your questions, but what does that matter to the company?
I wonder if my friend in prison is missing much.
This advance in personal communication devices is a wonderful thing, enabling people to conduct business and maintain personal contact over great distances. It has its drawbacks too. I was talking on the telephone with someone in Hong Kong, but we had to abruptly terminate the call because the bus on which she was riding had reached her stop. (I thought she was at home!)
However, these advances give rise to people being more and more self-absorbed, more isolated, and less social. People are so busy focusing on these little machines that they miss the rich opportunities that are right in front of them. They perhaps should think of the effect they’re having on the people around them. Isolating yourself isolates me too.
It isn’t that the old ways are best, but that we shouldn’t allow them to disappear. The time and effort it takes to sit down and write a letter says a lot to the recipient; the email is not so persuasive or thoughtful. An honest to goodness conversation can be more uplifting and healing than any number of text messages (spelt of course in ‘textspeak’—u no wht I mean?) We should not allow ourselves to be seduced by convenience at the expense of our friendships and associations. What will it do to future generations? Is it likely to lead to a renaissance of self-discovery down the road? Who is it in prison?
If you know (sorry–if U no), dial 3.
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And even when too many folks do take to writing, it is often cluttered with misspellings, poor grammar and weak sentence structure.
One of my favorite gripes is when an announcer on television says “they said to you and I”. What happened to knowing the object of a verb, or a preposition?