Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Rise and Fall of Communication; When Words Overwhelm

I have heard much lately in the media decrying the negative effect technology has had on our ability to communicate. "How times have changed!" said the woman about to turn 50. I can vaguely remember the days of party lines--when several families shared a single phone line distinguished by unique rings; a hey-day for eavesdropping, a continual test in patience as you waited for the line to be free. Once homes got their own individual lines, people could call anyone in town. Long distance (from Ashby to far-far-away Fergus Falls) was a luxury that was rarely indulged because of the cost and poor quality of connections.

My grandmother died sixteen years ago thinking the greatest thing to happen in the communication arena in her golden years was the popularization of CB radios. I remember the unit she had set up in her dining room and the rough-and-tumble handle she gave herself; Misty. She was thrilled to have a static-filled conversation with amiable truckers who passed by on I-94. Now, when we want to talk to someone who's out and about, we have cell phones. Gram and all her friends eagerly awaited the delivery of the local newspaper each week so they could read the social column and find out who ate supper with whom, and who motored to where to visit which relatives. Now, when we need to have all those intimate details in the lives of others, we have Facebook. Ahhh....communication on the rise!

My own children can barely remember a time before laptops on every lap, Blackberries in every backpack, Facebook, Skype, and Twitter. Kids don't pass notes anymore--they text. And each invention gives us faster access to others than the one before. Few children have written a letter by hand, attached a stamp, mailed it, then waited two weeks for a response. "Isn't that what the Pony Express was for?"

I vividly recall the excitement I felt the first time I sent an email from our old Gateway and, seconds later, heard the thrilling words, "You've got mail!" Magically, something launched out into the air from Philadephia to California and came back to me: My own words!! I'm sure Alexander Graham Bell could not have been any more delighted.

Little more than a decade later, good old email is bleeding at the wayside of the information highway. We have launched into much faster connections that require far less effort. Email didn't demand proper greetings or closings. Texting doesn't require capitalization, punctuation, or even spell-check. In fact, it has its own abbreviated language, LOL!

Instant technology has impacted our society in countless ways. Who knows how many lives are saved because anyone--anywhere--can access 911 in an emergency! What a blessing for families of missionaries and servicemen to be able to see their loved ones and talk over Skype? What grandparent isn't thrilled to get a photo text of their grandchild's new tooth the minute it bursts through his baby gums?

And yet, could it is a gift with strings attached? People of all ages are now expected to be on-call 24/7. A 12 year-old can't walk down the street or sit down to a meal without texting friends. A working mom isn't allowed a day blissfully shopping or lunch with a friend without answering her phone 25 times to settle sibling disputes. Anyone who wants you for any reason (or just happens to be bored) can contact you at the far reaches of the earth in the blink of an eye. And heaven help you if you don't respond in a timely manner. (Which, under no circumstances, should ever exceed an hour.) If you don't return calls you are inconsiderate and rude. If you don't update your Facebook status for two days, people worry that you are dead. Apparently people can't exist without knowing what you ate for dinner or how you will spend your Saturday afternoon.

We are smothering each other with closeness.

Don't get me wrong: I am a huge fan of technology and social networking. I love to see my 2 year-old granddaughter who lives three hours away when she first gets up in the morning sitting in her jammies eating cereal. (Which is the exact same reason I don't Skype many people myself. I don't wish to be seen first thing in the morning as I sit in my jammies drinking coffee.) I also love Facebook. I love how it lets me stay in daily/weekly contact with friends on both coasts and updated on the lives of many families I work with in the community--connections I would not otherwise have. I'm happy to get frequent news on my own children and grandchildren on the days I'm too busy to call them. But I wish there were rules of etiquette that came along with new advances in technology. I fear we are getting tech-savvy faster than Miss Manners can keep up. I don't wish to accept friendship from someone I have never met. Neither do I want peripheral "friends" stalking me and never writing on my wall. Facebook says I have over 200 friends, but do I really? How many of them would I call if I had a crisis in my life?

And don't even get me started about my cell phone. Since birth I have disdained carrying a purse or baggage of any kind. Yet, because not every garment I own contains a pocket sufficient for carrying a concealed phone, I am constantly looking for it. I have lost my phone in the yard, in the car, in public bathrooms, in the ditch under piles of leaves. I spend hours each week looking for it and/or wishing I had remembered to charge it. What to do? I have considered having it surgically attached to my body. Then, it could be wired to receive electricity from my heart so it would always have battery. In fact, if I had a bluetooth attached under my hairline, I could walk around talking to people all day long and never even have to think a thought to/by myself!

Which brings me to The Fall: Not only can we speak our minds in an instant, we are expected to respond just as quickly. Sadly, because we can communicate every thought that flashes through our little heads in a blink, I fear we have lost something important: The ability to think before we speak. Or the privilege of "disconnecting" for any part of any day just to decompress from all the closeness. What began as a blessing of connection becomes a prison of obligation.

In our current abundance of words and unlimited access to others, we must pay special attention to what we communicate to them. Solomon said of excessive verbiage, "...there[in] is much opportunity for sin." Or, in more current vernacular: "The more talk, the less truth; the wise measure their words." Prov 10:19

Since to stop talking altogether is unthinkable, we would do well to heed the ancient (strangely appropriate) instructions of Paul to the people of Colossae: "Everything you say should be kind and well thought out so that you know how to answer everyone." Col.4:6

And remember the wise words of our elders: If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all.

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