Sunday, April 29, 2012

That's a Human with an Issue on the Other End

In one of my recent writing classes, by a nine to one margin—a landslide in any election—participants  agreed that the e-world has made communication more challenging than ever. The majority cited these reasons for their beliefs:
  • They are deluged by more than a hundred emails a day with hardly the time to respond to them properly.
  • They are required to be available 24/7 to clients and managers through their smartphones.
  • They now struggle over the best means of communication to reach their reader.
  • They become less rigorous in assessing the validity and reliability of information they instantaneously access online.
To deepen the problem, representing the 10 percent of dissenters, a young financial analyst in the class said, "Are you all kidding? Communication is easier than ever! I would never read a newspaper or magazine if it weren't for the Internet, and I could instant message my boss or my wife in New York from forty thousand feet over Beijing."

Both sides have great points. Some of the people in that class were not even born in the interoffice envelope days, when a writer had to photocopy, fold, and stuff a copy of a memo for each person on the distribution list. In those days, I sometimes had to perform this tedious task for up to a hundred staff. Writing would take 10 minutes and distribution would take 60 minutes. I'm also reminded of a young person who recently asked me, "What's carbon paper?" For sure, the minority has a good argument about the convenience of instant and paperless communication. No doubt, we will not be giving up our handheld devices anytime soon.

But what about our humanity? Have we sacrificed our own social needs and our empathy for others as we text, chat, and flame away? And what of our ability to focus on the task at hand? Does the endless tide of messages flooding our many inboxes diminish our capacity to understand the impact of a given problem, its underlying causes, and the options for remedying it?

Two articles in The Atlantic have clear opinions about these issues. In "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" (July/August 2008), Nicholas G. Carr argues that indeed our amazing online searching capabilities has eroded our attention span. In an interesting sequel to that article, "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?" (May 2012), Stephen Marche writes that social networking is far from social and, in fact, a contributor to our isolation unto illness and death. Judge for yourself. Both articles are reading for our communication times.