Talk to Me

I have finally discovered the only pickup line that will ever work on me. "Have you thought about running Linux on that?" the appealing stranger sitting near me on the bus asked when I pulled out my laptop and turned it on. I must admit that my fine little machine runs the hideous excuse for an operating system known as Windows ME (the name even sounds faintly like some kind of 1970s self-help group). So it wasn't as if he didn't have just cause to interrogate me about my technological preferences.

Anyway, the point is that even though I'm usually not the sort of person who begins talking to random strangers on the bus, his question instantly put me at ease. I was plunged into geek space, a familiar social location where we could talk to our heart's content about drivers and free software and visualization programs for cell biologists. Had the stranger asked me practically any other question, we wouldn't have been in any kind of space at all. I would have ignored him. Instead, I gave him my phone number.

More and more, I'm realizing that communication--and, by extension, relationships--is entirely contextual. For example, there are people with whom I would correspond by e-mail but never, ever call on the phone or visit. It's not that I find these people's fleshly incarnations disturbing (indeed, some of them are people I've never seen). I just like them to talk to me in text. And while an e-mail relationship might feel more distant than a phone relationship, in some ways it's far more intimate. As any low-life AOL junkie can tell you, e-mail relationships inflame the imagination the same way a trashy novel does. You can project anything you want onto your e-mail correspondent: assign her virtues, beauty, even read her sentences in several different ways depending on your mood.

There's a dark side to all of this, too, of course. Recently I found myself swept away by a semi-mysterious stranger who began writing me some of the funniest and most eloquent e-mails I'd received in a while. He wrote like Hunter Thompson did before the drugs ate his brain, got all of my obscure techno-references, and even had good politics (unlike certain libertarian techno-dipshits who shall remain nameless). But when he called me, then asked me to get dinner with him, I got paranoid. He was interrupting the perfect flow of e-mail and thereby puncturing my fantasy. Since he was using an alias, I had no idea who he really was. As long as our relationship remained in the e-mail bubble, it didn't matter: he was just Mr. X, the guy with prose hot enough to kiss. I didn't have to worry about whether he would be a dink in person or turn out to be a friend of mine playing a joke.

Plus, once you know you're going to meet someone, there are all kinds of niggling little truthful details you want all of a sudden. For example, real names become important. So do little reassurances of stability, like whether the person has some kind of tenable room-and-board situation. In the world of e-mail, we can be free of those concerns and just talk.

Then there's an even weirder communication situation that I've found myself in several times. I met someone at a conference recently and was instantly intrigued. After one night of talking and drinking, we returned to our homes, separated by several hundreds of miles. And for some reason, we got into the habit of communicating via a chat program called ICQ. We go for days without talking, and then suddenly, if we're both online and in the mood, we'll send this intense flurry of chat messages, often overlapping, like over-eager and hyper-active kids passing notes in class. Why did we go from face-to-face communication to online chat? Who knows? It just felt like the right context for us to continue our conversation.

I actually hate the telephone. It reproduces all of the worst aspects of online communication and in-person meetings. You can't touch or see the person you're talking to (which is often maddening) and yet you can hear every nuance in their tone so that you can't use your imagination to interpret what they're saying. Every relationship needs some fantasy. Either that or it needs work. And frankly, I can only handle so much work.

Annalee Newitz (talk@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who lives in an ASCII text universe. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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