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Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

Technology reshapes the landscape of our emotional lives, but is it offering us the lives we want to lead?

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The phrase comes back to me months later as I interview management consultants who seem to have lost touch with their best instincts for what makes them competitive. They complain about the BlackBerry revolution, yet accept it as inevitable while decrying it as corrosive. They say they used to talk to each other as they waited to give presentations or took taxis to the airport; now they spend that time doing email. Some tell me they are making better use of their “downtime,” but they argue without conviction. The time that they once used to talk as they waited for appointments or drove to the airport was never downtime. It was the time when far-flung global teams solidified relationships and refined ideas.

In corporations, among friends, and within academic departments, people readily admit that they would rather leave a voicemail or send an email than talk face-to-face. Some who say “I live my life on my BlackBerry” are forthright about avoiding the “real-time” commitment of a phone call. The new technologies allow us to “dial down” human contact, to titrate its nature and extent. I recently overheard a conversation in a restaurant between two women. “No one answers the phone in our house anymore,” the first woman proclaimed with some consternation. “It used to be that the kids would race to pick up the phone.  Now they are up in their rooms, knowing no one is going to call them, and texting and going on Facebook or whatever instead.” Parents with teenage children will be nodding at this very familiar story in recognition and perhaps a sense of wonderment that this has happened, and so quickly. And teenagers will simply be saying, “Well, what’s your point?”

A thirteen-year-old tells me she “hates the phone and never listens to voicemail.” Texting offers just the right amount of access, just the right amount of control. She is a modern Goldilocks: for her, texting puts people not too close, not too far, but at just the right distance. The world is now full of modern Goldilockses, people who take comfort in being in touch with a lot of people whom they also keep at bay. A twenty-one-year-old college student reflects on the new balance: “I don’t use my phone for calls any more. I don’t have the time to just go on and on. I like texting, Twitter, looking at someone’s Facebook wall.  I learn what I need to know.”

Randy, twenty-seven, has a younger sister—a Goldilocks who got her distances wrong. Randy is an American lawyer now working in California. His family lives in New York, and he flies to the East Coast to see them three or four times a year. When I meet Randy, his sister Nora, twenty-four, had just announced her engagement and wedding date via email to a list of friends and family. “That,” Randy says to me bitterly, “is how I got the news.” He doesn’t know if he is more angry or hurt. “It doesn’t feel right that she didn’t call,” he says. “I was getting ready for a trip home. Couldn’t she have told me then? She’s my sister, but I didn’t have a private moment when she told me in person. Or at least a call, just the two of us. When I told her I was upset, she sort of understood, but laughed and said that she and her fiancé just wanted to do things simply, as simply as possible. I feel very far away from her.”

Nora did not mean to offend her brother. She saw email as efficient and did not see beyond. We have long turned to technology to make us more efficient in work; now Nora illustrates how we want it to make us more efficient in our private lives. But when technology engineers intimacy, relationships can be reduced to mere connections. And then, easy connection becomes redefined as intimacy. Put otherwise, cyber-intimacies slide into cyber-solitudes.

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