Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Facets of Depersonalization

Technology affects culture. An explosion of communication technologies is driving not just the form, but also the content of messaging between people today. A communication is only as deep and genuine, and as treasured, as the time, thought and effort put into it.

Ease can also lead to callousness.

Writing a letter on paper used to take at least half an hour, and many days or weeks to reach. Coupled with the physical touch of the chosen paper, the watermark, the smell and texture of the ink, the handwriting, the writing in the margins, the post-script (which is meaningless in an electronic medium), the address on the envelope, the hazy postmark, the choice of the stamp, the way the envelope was glued... Even without considering the content, there was so much that was unique to a paper letter that it was a thing to treasure, to look up after many years when the paper had yellowed and smelled different, to read again and again and recognize an affirmation of oneself as a human being who was thought of. And as the letter was an infrequent thing, it also contained tidbits of events spanning a longer time-frame: the health of the family, the evolution of one's thought, the planning of a celebration...

My aim is not to romanticize the past, but to see in which way we are blindly driven by technology to change the nature of human interactions.

Greeting cards was the next step. Eloquent messages about the particular relationship ("The best mother on earth", "Happy Birthday Dear Brother", "Friendship") made the other feel better than any hand-written letter could make them. This was the first "outsourcing" of message-content. One could just write "Dear Mom", and "Affectionately, your son xxx" and the rest of the message could be taken care of (along with sweet pictures of flowers and scenery). Yes, we could choose between say, twenty different greeting cards, but does that make it any different, or any less depersonalized?

The strange thing is, sometimes it takes more time to shop for a greeting card than to write a letter. But there is a reason why people still shop for them. The greeting cards lie romantically. Most of us have neither the skill to be poetically romantic nor to express hyperbolic sentiments about the relationship.

Also, the verbalizing of emotion makes the emotion superficial, and that is why we find it hard to write a letter of our love to our parents or to our siblings. The card is not authentic, and therefore its over-the-top exclamations are also curiously acceptable. The love or affection between people doesn't need to be put into descriptive words, comparing (for example) our mother to other mothers or describing the value-addition they have meant for us. Hence, writing letters is also inherently a tougher task. What creative and original words can one write, after all, since the whole "keeping in touch" is a ritual to stroke each other's egos and keep the emotional bonds tugged tight?

But the messaging in greeting cards is a great study in inter-human expectations, and to see why they appeal so much (despite them being formulaic) can be an instructive exercise.

When greeting cards were still a new thing, people were teary eyed at getting them, the colored envelope and the oh-so-heartfelt (but professionally written) message inside, without perhaps realizing that that card was printed in thousands with very careful attention to what people would like to say to (or hear from) each other.


The proliferation of computer and mobile telephone networks breaks altogether new ground. Let's briefly review the situation at present:

- We are in touch. We have hundreds of email addresses of people: our childhood friends, our classmates, our extended family, our past colleagues.

- Mobile phones flaunt their 1000-entry address books.

- It is considered a feature to be able to send a mass message via one's phone to hundreds of recipients.

- We are part of faceless online communities: multiple social networks, mailing lists, forums and newsgroups.

- We have almost unlimited storage space for our old emails, but little time to ever review them at leisure.

- Through twitter, facebook, and other such contraptions, we know exactly which song our friend is listening at present, where he hiked to last week, which news stories she finds interesting, which are his favorite films, which books he recently read, ...

- We have automated reminders of others' birthdays and anniversaries (whereas the whole purpose of wishing somebody on their birthday is to express that we care enough for them to remember it).

- We receive probably dozens of personal emails (and many times more work-related emails) every day. For the personal emails, the interesting question to ask is: how many of them are worthy of being treasured? How much time is spent on writing them, reading them, thinking about them and in replying to them?

- We are addicted to the "latest". But since it is too time consuming to keep up with the latest happenings in hundreds of online places, "Feeds" comes to the rescue. Now one can be up to date without much manual effort. (I recently came across a news article describing a feed-junkie: that person had more than 600 site feeds in his RSS reader.)

- Greeting cards have a new avatar: E-greeting cards. Choose from a dozen or so animated pictures, put in the recipient email address and off it goes. Probably it can be automatically linked with our calendars (where we store others' anniversaries etc.). On the recipient side, probably an automated email filter will file the "Happy Birthday" wishes into a special folder, to be read and replied en masse.

- Emails allow responses in which the original text can be preserved, the replies merely being in the form of an annotation to the original text. Hence messages can be sent which are almost entirely responsive in nature.

- Hyper-linked content encourage attention deficit disorder. Due to the "unknown" nature of what lies behind a link, the mind has a tendency to de-focus on the present page and click and open (perhaps in a different tab in the browser) the various links in an article.

- One can have multiple open conversations in an instant messenger, without the other realizing it.

I think there ought to be a term: "information greed". Only recently in human history has it become possible for a human being to know about the entire world, have an unlimited vista (to an astonishing level of detail) of the workings, thoughts and activities of billions of people, all the films and books ever written, all the TV shows, all the software ever made, all the philosophies, religions, cults, sects available to one at the touch of a button.

With this storm, deluge and maelstrom of information, where does one stop? Being on the internet is like being in Manhattan or Tokyo or Bombay. There is SO much to see, absorb, so many people going around, so many billboards, things crying for one's attention, and so little time.

It is not possible to be empathetic in a big metro because empathy is possible only towards a limited set of people. How many will you empathize with when driving on the Ring Road in New Delhi? Just as relentless physical crowding takes away one's capability for genuine empathy, similarly, trying to keep in touch with too many people online (just because it is possible) takes away the depth in one's communication.

Most of the personal communication that I see happening around is not original. They are second-hand, facile and in a word: consumptive. Forwarded emails, feel-good powerpoint slides about the Dalai Lama, the Ten Rules of friendship, difference between a woman and a bottle of beer, chicken-soup-for-the-soul stories about conquering the odds, the pronunciation mistakes of Bush (and not his disastrous foriegn policy), urban legends and spurious health warnings, epidemiological and post-hoc "research", dieting tips, celebrity gossip, ...

One might find the way Donald Knuth deals with his email interesting.

On the mobile phones, SMS witticisms and jokes present a laugh in ten seconds and in two lines. Some claim that the messages are coined by specialists in mobile phone companies and are then sent out into the world, to rake in millions from clueless customers who have a chuckle, and then blindly forward them to all they know. Personal SMS messages, since they are so difficult to type, are short and abbreviated. Since the day is so tight, one of the prime uses of SMS is to touch base, to agree on an eatery or on the time to meet up or that one is getting late.

One can understand the abbreviation and the lack of pronunciation in an SMS, but this is now spreading to email and instant messaging, stressing that this a symptom of one's restlessness rather than a restriction of the medium. Dis instead of This, 2gud instead of "too good", "tc" (short for "take care") as the final remark in an online conversation, and of course the opening line in online dating: a/s/l (Age/Sex/Location)...

At any moment during the day, there are hundreds of known people online, holding a mobile phone in their hands or having a computer in front of them. Communication is so inexpensive so as to be almost free. In this milieu, "keeping in touch" becomes a tiresome and ultimately undo-able exercise, unless one starts using canonical mass forwarded messages. But then, what does that "keeping in touch" mean if one is only forwarding depersonalized information?

And if one does not keep in touch, is one therefore guilty of disloyalty to one's friends and relatives?

This is a very recent and real phenomenon, and one which is going to get more pronounced as time goes on. One will feel less and less at leisure, the days and months and years will pass as if in a flurry and yet nothing will be there to talk about.

One will be up-to-date at the time of one's death, knowing the stock prices and the discount telephone calling plans and the availability of a torrent of the latest chart busters, having thousands of emoticon laden unread messages in one's inbox, and hundreds of unread feeds. Up-to-date, in touch, and ... fondly remembered for the nice forwards and SMSes.


burton mackenzie said...

Great post! I found it interesting enough to discuss on my own blog (your post is first discussed about halfway down):

Reconstruction of Social Ties in the 21st Century


Mike said...

I don't agree with your view that technology is ruining our human relationships.

Two simple examples:-

Do you imagine giving an e-card to your fiance, brother or any close relative? I don't and I believe that most people agree with me otherwise most cardshops would have closed by now. People are still doing "real" things they did before (sending cards, going out for coffee, drinking beer in the put, going out on saturday night etc.). The internet now gives us the facility to send an e-card to those people whom most probably we wouldn't have sent a card in real life.

When the telephone was invented people probably said the same as they're saying today about computers. Computers and the internet is going to relieve the need to communicate face to face, but in fact it is not. We still need human contact and human interaction (we wouldn't procreate virtually anyway) - the internet and technology is just another tool. But yes like other tools it can be used wrongly too. You can cut a tree with a chainsaw and you can cut a body with a chainsaw but that doesn't make the chainsaw bad.

Harmanjit Singh said...

An interesting aspect to this issue: