Thursday, January 04, 2007

New Year's Resolution: Less Cyber-Life

In the first two working days of this year, I have spoken to exactly one client, no friends, and no family (except Kelly who occasionally wanders out of her office and nods at me).

Yet, I feel as if I have been "in contact."

How could it be? The answer was found in my e-mail box. I counted incoming and outgoing e-mails over the last 48 hours and find 200+ "cybermessages" flying back and forth like a never ending tennis rally -- memos, thoughts, proposals, advice, replies, replies to replies, New Year's greetings, including several e-mails to and from Kelly who works exactly 7 steps from my desk.

Get it?

Two people who could almost reach out and touch each other from e-mail instead of talk.


There are all manners of justifications -- the hassle of interruption, the lack of efficiency, the absence of a record that can be saved in the computer calendar/to-do list/address book, etc. And then there is the truth -- face-to-face contact is more difficult. You may have to address issues which are not on your "agenda." You may have to listen.

And I feel hollow from the experience.

I feel cheated even though I am complicit in the problem.

This morning the following article written by Charles Swindoll (which I have edited slightly) came to me from a friend and it speaks to the problem.

A few winters ago in Stockholm, Sweden, an eighty-four-year-old woman sat for two months on her balcony before a neighbor discovered she was dead. The woman was found sitting in a chair, dressed in a coat and hat, her forehead leaning against the railing.

A neighbor realized something was wrong when she saw the woman sitting on her balcony around the clock, despite freezing temperatures. "I accused myself for not having seen her earlier," she said later. "I hope this dreadful story makes us better at keeping in touch with our old neighbors."

Isolationism is not a Scandinavian phenomenon; it is a human tragedy. For fear of poking our nose in someone else's business or getting involved in something that could backfire on us, we have trained ourselves not to stop, look, or listen.

But in a fast-paced world where only the fit survive, it sure is easy to feel dehumanized. Our technological age has made us more aware of our insignificance. Our suspicion that we are not loved for who we are is confirmed daily by the impersonal nature of twentieth-century living. We make a phone call and "voice mail" takes over. If folks are not home, we can talk to an answering machine. If we need money at 2:00 A.M., we can drop by the local ATM machine.

Machines write for us, answer phones for us, get money for us, shop for us, think for us, rent cars for us. They can even sign our letters. And the result is scary. A subtle erosion of individuality, followed by a no-touch, don't-bother-me-I'm-too-busy coldness, leading to a total absence of eyeball-to-eyeball interaction, resulting in the ultimate: more loss of human dignity. This is excused because it saves time and keeps us from getting hung up on knotty things like relationships. They say that's healthier?

What's so healthy about becoming completely untouchable?

Machines can't hug you when you're grieving. Machines don't care when you need a sounding board. Machines never affirm when you are low or confront you when you are wrong. When you need reassurance and hope and strength to go on, you cannot replace the essential presence of another human being.

There's no substitute for the personal touch.

Whether it is one's neighbor or family, friend, or client, Swindoll's message rings true. We should talk more, but mostly listen more. And I am. Indeed, one of my resolutions for this New Year is not to "default to e-mail," but rather, to default to personal contact, if not face-to-face, at least by telephone.

In the end, there are results more important than efficiency.


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