The Loneliness of the Long Distance Dialer

Why can’t we communicate? Too much communication.

How do you feel while talking with someone who’s reading emails?

We’re in the Metropolitan Opera to hear Renée Fleming in La Traviata. As the lights dim and the crystal chandeliers are drawn up on their four-story cables towards the vaulted ceiling above the orchestra, I look over the balcony. A dozen or so Blackberries glow in the orchestra, their readers catching one last email before the curtain rises and they must suffer the pain of withdrawal that will follow when they turn off the devices, as the house manager has requested. When they do, the blue digital blither of the Blackberries — or “crackberries,” as detractors call them — is replaced by the red digital translation titles built into every seat.

Switch now to a business conference room in South Burlington. A dozen smart people sit around a large, hardwood conference table that cost more than most cars. A discreet black microphone is inlaid in the maple table surface in front of each seat at the table. A motorized camera follows the voice of each person at the table and captures the image for a table full of people at a similar table in Stamford, Connecticut. The discussion that ensues, about the fall media sales projections for a major cable TV programmer, is seemingly earnest, yet oddly distracted. How come?

Resting on the table in front of each participant is a blue Blackberry or a silver Treo. Eyes dart back and forth between the large screen at the head of the table, on which the speaker is presenting the fall programming projections, and the small PDA screens sitting on the table. Every now and then someone slyly picks up a device and slips it into his or her lap below the table’s edge. Both hands soon follow, and then the eyes, as thumbs generate an email response. Meanwhile, the person presenting goes on talking and taking questions, the answers to which have already been made clear earlier in the presentation.

The tradition of maintaining eye contact and focus during discourse is history. How do you feel while talking with someone who’s reading emails?

The question goes to the very root of human communication. Can one interact with another human being meaningfully while doing something else? Is it communication when Mom carries on a monologue about Junior’s problem at school while Dad reads the sports page and offers a litany of “uh-huhs?”

Sometimes human dialogue is urgent and mission-critical. Sometimes it’s simply an articulation of emotion or feeling. Real love, whether the love of a spouse, partner, child or friend, always deserves rapt attention. When does the obsession to receive emails, phone calls, pages all the time, in real time, become an evasion of life itself? Would you answer your cellphone while making love — coitus interruptus Nokia?

There is a lonely and narcissistic element to all this connectedness. It says, “People need to talk to me. Look at my devices. I am needed.”

In the early days of cellphones, before any etiquette was imposed, private conversations became public by virtue of proximity. My own favorite and familiar cellphone monologue was, “… I am boarding now, yeah, I have an aisle seat, 7C, just a minute while I stow my luggage, yeah, I am buckling in. Hope we leave on time. Oops, have to turn off cellphones.” I thought to myself, “Hey, this guy’s important, and someone equally important needed to know this.”

At around that same time, I remember riding the Metro North train out of New York to Greenwich. I overheard a number of proximate conversations, but the one being conducted by the person beside me didn’t sound normal — it lacked the rhythm and continuity of a two-way conversation. When the young woman hung up, I casually asked, “Checking in on the home front?”

She looked embarrassed, “I do that sometimes on the train,” she said. “There was really nobody there. Could you tell?”

I smiled. “Maybe a little.”

For the rest of the trip I tried to imagine the disconnectedness and loneliness that had motivated her charade. I thought of the times in my own life when I’d imagined conversations I would never have. The irony is that loneliness has a glass-half-full flip side — it’s called solitude.

Many people will tell you that the only time they can get anything creative done is at night, at either end of the diurnal cycle. Our relentless new technology and our pretense at productivity continue to make incursions on the sensual voids and silences that engender deep thought.

Human beings need silence and a place without insistent demands, a sort of hermitage, in order to think, to imagine, or even to absorb the impact of daily life. We need a place without distraction or network pursuit where we can listen intently to someone whose thoughts or affection mean something — or, even more critically, where we can plumb our own thoughts. The gifts of silence and time are getting rarer. But they’re gifts we give ourselves, and are easily afforded if we so choose.

Technology is not the enemy. The enemy is how we use it. Whether we suffer from the “Look at me” early-adopter syndrome or the “I can’t turn it off” addiction syndrome, the flaw isn’t in our technology. It’s within us.

If we are to be serious about life and love, we must make for ourselves what was the natural luxury of earlier cultures: time and space without noise or inputs. We are, after all, what we do and what we communicate. If our lives are to be something more than a series of inane text messages, we must make that quiet place and discover what we and those we love are actually thinking and feeling.

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