Had I been the copy chief of a general-circulation newspaper or magazine, the ruling would have been implemented without fanfare and it's likely that few, if any, readers would have noticed or cared. But because this decision was being made on behalf of Wired News, which has more than once planted its modest flag in the oddball world of tech culture, I felt compelled to offer a lengthy (and, in retrospect, rather pompous) justification for the decision.
The e-mail generated by that essay was overwhelming. It split about 50-50 for and against, and the tone swung dramatically, too, from adulatory to just plain snarky. I remember one in particular: "Why is it," wondered the writer, "that copy editors are always the most long-winded sons of bitches in any organization?" My reply to him (and I replied to as many as I could) was direct: "Because we're paid to be. That's why."
The following morning there was an apologetic response from him waiting in my mail queue. He was chastened, not because I wasn't a long-winded SOB on this occasion, but because I had answered him, one human being to another. He hadn't expected that. He thought he was writing into the ether. By answering him, I was no longer a faceless wall of sound. For him, at least, I now lived and breathed.
We enjoyed some clever banter until each of us gradually wearied of it and drifted off to other things, but it hammered home a lesson I've never forgotten: In a world where technology theoretically binds us closer together, it's more important than ever to really talk with the other person.
Although technically, e-mail (with or without a hyphen) and its even faster cousins, IM and text messaging, make communicating across time and distance a breeze, it's still the quality of the communication that counts. In the case of my irritable reader, our e-mail hookup worked because both of us were willing to make it work.
Generally, though, I don't think it is working. It's a paradox of the technology that even as the world shrinks, our actual communication skills are eroding. Instant communication encourages superficiality in the way we talk to each other. That's because we really aren't talking to each other. You have to look a person in the eye and speak in order to be doing that.
If I've been slighted, I'd prefer a face-to-face apology, or even waiting a few days to receive a handwritten, heartfelt note sent by traditional post, rather than a glib, "My bad, dude," e-mailed as a knee-jerk reaction by someone whose three-second attention span has already absolved him, in his mind, of any further responsibility by the time he hits Send. It's too convenient. It trivializes the act of contrition.
Of course, our increasing dependence upon technology has trivialized the art of living, and that's the real problem. A recent study, conducted by Yahoo and OMD, a media firm, found that seriously tech-connected families are multitasking themselves to death.
I wasn't a math major, but it doesn't take one to figure out that cramming 43 hours of tech-enabled activity into a typical 24-hour day is not healthy. And that was only the average. In some countries, specifically Mexico (46 hours), India (45) and China (45), it's worse. France, perhaps not surprisingly, fared better (34). The United States is average, if something this seriously out of whack can be said to be "average."
(Incidentally, the average tech-connected family, christened Family 2.0 in this worldwide survey, owns 11 electronic devices.)
The study also found that while e-mail and text messaging make interpersonal communication easier, they do so at the expense of face-to-face interaction. So we increasingly diddle our cell phones and BlackBerries to converse with someone, someone who may even be in the same room. Perversely, a lot of younger people are growing more comfortable with texting than actually speaking to a living person.
"A lot of moms said they had surly teenagers who won't talk to them in person," said a Yahoo executive involved in the study. "But over IM they have much more dialogue than they ever would face to face." She said it almost like this is a good thing. It isn't.