Friday, February 27, 2009

Is Email Communication?

SUSAN SCHWARTZ in her weekly column in the Montreal Gazette on 23 February writes a lament entitled "Can we talk? First, you'll have to put your BlackBerry away," about how electronic communications have ostensibly superceded real interactions between people.

I enjoyed reading the column, and it got me thinking about a couple of issues. One, I challenged the affirmation that electronic communications cannot have the same depth and resonance as the immediacy of the spoken word. I think that the argument confuses the medium with the content. I know that Marshall McLuhan famously argued that the medium is the message, and Schwartz's examples of txt msgs and so-called Facebook "friends" clearly demonstrate this, but the written word, and by this I mean email, can have far more depth, honesty, and intimacy than the spoken word. Once something is written down, it becomes a record; and we become answerable and can be held accountable for what we have written. The written word has weight to it precisely because of its permanence, whereas the spoken word is ephemeral and unreliable because it cannot be captured in the same way. People will say anything, but they think twice before putting their words into writing.

In my own experience, I have depended on the written word for human contact. I went to live in a country where I didn't speak the language, and my lifeline was the letters going back and forth to Montreal. I felt like a throwback to some Victorian time. Letters would take weeks to arrive; some of them were lost at sea and never arrived at all. The letters contained an explorer's perceptions of the wonders a new land, the comfort of news of family and home, and a love affair built and lost. Twenty years ago long distance phone calls were prohibitively expensive, so I wrote, and I read, and I wrote.

And then came computers and the Internet and my life was changed. Suddenly I was writing multiple drafts, editing and correcting. The quick note dashed off by hand, or more often painstakingly pieced together in manuscript, became a series of much more comprehensive reflections, compiling together the little bits of paper that were stuffed into my pockets, jotted on the back of receipts, flyers handed out in the streets, and theatre and concert programs, to capture the immediacy of moment and then bring it into context.

Maybe I defend the written word because it is integral to who I am. Maybe I appreciate the medium because I suffer from chronic esprit d'escalier. I do have other means of communication nowadays. I talk frequently to my mother using skype. I asked a friend of mine if he used that program. He declined the offer. His reply was: I still love letters so I, for one, do not want "chat" to "delete" "letter".

Internet dating also reinforced for me the notion that men who are not interested or able to write coherently are probably not men with whom I would want to start a relationship. But the very fact that I signed up for an Internet dating website belies the notion of the self-sufficiency of the written word. The whole point to that exercise was to actually meet someone made of flesh and blood. I don't know if my experience was a success or a failure. After a year of going on a series of dates, the end result is that I have one good male friend to whom I write often, although we seldom see each other, even though we live in the same city.

The other aspect of the column that I question is related to the observation that many people on the metro were wearing ipods, as if this were responsible for a breakdown in communications…. As if there had ever been much human interaction between random strangers on public transport. It is a lament for the loss of something that never existed in the first place. As to interaction with the man slinging lattes or the newspaper vender, some people will engage with them and others will not. Each person builds their community differently, and even before the rise of earbuds some people were much more inclined to interact than others; the difference is that now there is a manifest indicator that says, I'm not available to you.

Having said all of this, I believe that Schwartz touches on something essential in her defense of conversation . The written word is static and unchanging, and I agree and nuance and tone are lost (I have sometimes resorted to inserting stage directions, for fear that something said as a light hearted jibe might be mistaken for a mortal insult). Conversation is a fluid, living organism that moves and changes as each person takes in the other's words, incorporates and possesses them, imbues them with additional feeling and meaning, and then gives them back again. That is true communication.

I have to say that I enjoyed reading the column, but I would really have liked to sit down and talk about it!
Addendum: I sent a copy of this to Susan Schwartz, and I got the nicest letter back from her.


At school Matt and William's classes are having carnival celebration. Matt wanted to make a Venetian-style mask in black, white and gold. We spend Wednesday doing the papier maché and Thursday we sketched and painted a bunch of rough drafts of how the mask would be decorated. It is a reversible design: the mask that can be worn right side up, the happy face, or upside down, the serious face.


Anonymous said...

I was wondering if Susan offered you a job as a freelance writer at the Gazette. Your response would have made a great editorial...just a thought.

I love the masks and the fact that they are reversible. So symbolic as we can all be two faced in our daily lives. I mean that in a positive sense.

Sharon : )
: (

Lori said...

Some time ago, I would have been an indignant supporter of the "decline of Western civilization" school of thought on internet and virtual communications, if only because of the spelling errors and grammatical horrors that abound. But now, a few years later, text chat and email have become an extension of my communication with friends,not a replacement for it, and I have become much more tolerant of less than perfect grammar and syntax, especially when communication emanates from non-English speakers and teenagers (who one might argue speak their own dialect). I could even argue that those little smiley icons inserted in a text chat give it a dimension that communicates my intention to make a joke or be shocked about some bit of news faster than my facial expression. Like you, I manage long distance relationships for long periods of time and I think that although there are times you need to hear a person's voice on the phone other end of the line, sometimes a text chat is the perfect telegraphic way to "talk" about something difficult, and spoken words might have ended up being a sputtering and inadequate tool. I agree with your point that quick emails and text chats are ephemeral and not always elegant, but speaking as a soon-to-be divorced woman, verbal conversations can also be "poor, nasty, brutish and short". (LOL...and note the advantage of internet that allowed me to double-check the Hobbes quote by googling it)
A final word - I am one of those who has my iPod as a constant companion and it serves the same purpose that used to be filled by the book I carried as a permanent fixture,reading on buses, while walking down the street, etc.: entertainment for an otherwise humdrum existence and a wall to block off conversation from annoying strangers. The one difference is that I can actually see where I am going when I am connected to music.