ALL E-MAIL, ALL THE TIME
Technology HAS finally done to me what years of seedy bars and doting cads never could: It's made me a raging slut. Make that a cyber-slut. When it comes to social lubricants, I'll take a plasma monitor over hard liquor any day--though I never realized the havoc my playful banter could wreak until a recent IM conversation with my friend Phil:
PHILISAMANWHORE: I'M TURNING 31, AND I'M DEPRESSED
KRISTINAINPAJAMAS: WE CAN CHANGE THAT, SEXY. DINNER TUES?
PHILISAMANWHORE: CAN'T. DOC'S ORDERS: I'M NOT ALLOWED TO IM (NEVERMIND *SEE*) YOU. BAD FOR MY PROSTATE. YOUR WORDS GIVE ME BLUE BALLS
For the three years I've known Phil, harmless IM flirtation has buoyed our relationship. Online, we coin tawdry acronyms and joke about running off to St. Bart's. But in person, we never cross the line between buddies and bedmates -- we respect each other's relationships and don't have half the chemistry we do on Planet AOL.
Yet as I read his IM, I'm forced to question my naughty, nimble fingers. To be clear, I'm a devoted girlfriend who is careful to never send mixed messages in face-to-face dialogue. I'm also a professional wordsmith who spends at least 10 out of every 24 hours behind a glowing screen. So how did I create the kind of alter-ego that requires an M.D.'s restraining order? Until Apple commissions a chemist to transmit pheromones via computer (I'm sure they're working on it), I blame my split personality on a wild imagination and the need for instant gratification. After all, I thrive in a world where tech-driven contact is a must -- and I know I'm not alone.
On any given day, I shoot off more than 80 e-mails, 28 texts, and 20 IMs (yes, I counted). I screen social calls and often return them via e-mail; I'd rather send an e-card than lick a stamp; and I've been known to track exes via MySpace and IMDB. But what would happen if one were to forgo human contact and live solely by the buzzing, beeping, and glowing variety of communication? For one week, I would pursue my work, relationships, and mundane errands of life strictly via electronic means. Since acquiring an item as simple as a sandwich will now require just a click of the mouse rather than painful small talk with the chatty butcher who slices my prosciutto, I figure this might be a great way to streamline my life.
Day one of the experiment: I'm initially thrilled with the organic options from FreshDirect.com, a website that delivers groceries to your door after you click your way down their virtual aisles. When my boxes arrive, I have happy flashbacks to receiving my first care package from Mom as a coed. Unfortunately, in order to reach the $40 minimum, I buy more than I need and half goes bad before I can eat it. When I order lunch from Delivery.com later that week, I'm offered 43 alphabetized restaurant menus in my area (which don't include my two favorite spots, just one block away). I'm tempted to eat a pie from Albitino's Pizza, simply because it's the first name on the list. But I resort to side dishes from a barbecue joint, because for some reason it's one of the few places that delivers on Wednesdays-- so much for a healthy midday meal. Later I search for a tapas spot to throw a party, but when I plug in my request at OpenTable.com, I'm directed to an upscale Chinese restaurant instead. Even if I wanted to be a fat sociopath, I apparently couldn't be a fussy one.
As the week flies by, my in-box floods with confirmations, coupons, and spam. I order books on Amazon.com, train tickets from Amtrak.com, movie tickets on Fandango.com, and clothes from JCrew.com, all with smooth success. But while I'd expected my online shopping sprees to allow more time for work, I end up browsing, reading, and buying on each site more than my free time (and cash flow) allows. Online, I can't touch fabric or hold a garment against my body to predict how it will fit, so I'm forced to search categories and read long descriptions until I find what I need, buy multiple sizes to overcompensate, or give up. I huff each time I'm asked to register for a new site; the process is monotonous and time-consuming.
Before my experiment, I thought tech was about the speed of getting, but I quickly learn that tech is more about the speed of giving. Electronic missives are cyber-winks, flashes of info, and a game of one-upmanship in the quick-wit department. Whereas I used to delay my response to personal missives during work hours, I'm now quick to answer by e-mail -- and I find the send-and-respond cycle to be self-perpetuating. Soon, I am putting out more fires than my pity reserve and interest level can handle. When asked, I give advice about nagging moms, wedding plans, and dog adoption. I even IM about baked beans. I've set a pattern of behavior that indicates 24/7 availability. My phone rings less, but my world seems louder.
When my boyfriend, Scott, asks if I would like to meet him for a leisurely walk, I YELL AT HIM via text message about how little time I have. My tech-driven life is becoming a schedule gobbler -- I'm punchy as hell. When I tell Havi Wolfson, a Brentwood, CA-- based psychotherapist who specializes in e-relationships, about my attitude, she's not surprised. "Your frustration tolerance is decreasing, because your needs and others' are being met more instantly," she says. "The smallest frustrations are harder to deal with."
By day six, I could use a megabytesize hug. I break down and have lunch with a friend -- then the subway stalls on my way home. I sob harder than I should, yet back at my computer I'm calm and in control. My mouse brings me solace -- and that freaks me out. Also freaking me out: my new vernacular. I tell Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, that I'm now writing with "2" instead of "too" and "R" instead of "are" -- does this make me a new breed of idiot? "I don't feel that IM, e-mail, or text semantics compromise our language," she says calmly. "We have different versions of words in different contexts. We always have. That's how language evolves." So Tech English is to Modern English as Modern English is to Middle English -- which might just make Craigslist the Canterbury Tales of our time. Wow. Tannen's research also insists that technology brings people closer and improves community -- yet at this point, even a silent retreat would feel more intimate than my latest interactions. What gives? Tannen says that electronic communication amplifies our reactions to it -- both positive and negative. So though I usually love tech perks, I now feel alienated from a tangible community. Unnatural Web immersion has made my life too myopic. I crave balance.
Feeling isolated and lonely, I finally reach out the only way my tech-savvy persona knows how. I tap my inner cyber-slut to initiate IM kink -- this time, with Scott. But after a week of Net inundation, the words "Do it to me, baby!" have no effect on my libido. Our interface feels distant, so I insist that he hop a cab to my apartment. I shut off my computer and turn him on, offline. Dots on a matrix are convenient -- and can be hot -- but too many have pushed KristinaInPajamas to get busy the old fashioned way.
A FULL-CONTACT WORLD
In Tess of The d'Urbervilles, the heroine slips a note under her fiance's door just days before they are to be married. The note tells of her loss of virtue and illegitimate baby, now dead. But her fiance never sees the note: It disappears under the carpet behind the door -- a communication failure that ultimately results in abandonment, adultery, and murder.
It's hard to imagine this occurrence in the modern era: With e-mail, cell phones, and voice mail, such an important message couldn't go unreceived for long. But there are many merits to old fashioned communication: the romance of a handwritten note, the giddiness that comes with awaiting a reply, what one's choice of stationery reveals--particularly if it's scented.
Being an epistolary snob, I assume that I'll have no problem swearing off technology for one week: no e-mail, no voice mail, no ATMs -- in short, no communication via a recent invention whose purpose is to reduce human contact. (Although I can still receive messages this way, I can only respond by old-fashioned means.)
This challenge comes at an odd time in my life. After a big blow-up a month ago, my husband marched out the door. Since then, he has been sleeping on the sofa of his friend's eternal bachelor pad. Our communication has been reduced to juvenile e-mails and voicemail messages (I can't get him on the phone; he screens me out).
So, in my determinedly low-tech mode, one of the first things I do is write my husband a two-page letter of apology, in longhand, with my beloved Montblanc fountain pen. I tape it to the inside of the front door of our apartment, hoping he will see it when he comes by to get his mail. I pour my soul into the letter; when I show it to my sister, she says sincerely, "That's really sad." I start over a few times -- something you can bypass with a computer -- which gives me time to really weigh my emotions. I write things like, "You have been an ideal husband, and I wish I could have been a better wife"; things that I would never send in an e-mail, for fear it would be forwarded around the world.
I notice that ceasing the frequent e-mails and voice mails has had a magically calming effect on me. Writing a letter allows me to avoid the jumpiness that often sets in seconds after transmitting a controversial or drunken e-mail -- i.e., clicking the "refresh" button on my Outlook Express every 30 seconds to see if he has replied yet. It also keeps me from firing off a succession of angry one-liners (which, in the past, has led to a flaming war of 30 e-mails exchanged in the space of half an hour).
To go without e-mail cold turkey, I severely limit my overall computer use. I exclusively use my laptop, which has no Internet access, and find that I am actually able to write for more than 10 minutes without interruption. The deafening silence quickly gets to me, though. Whom can I call?
Initially, I assume that if I'm limited to personal visits and speaking with someone on the phone (as opposed to leaving a message), my social life will hearken back to simpler, more intimate times. But what I learn instead is somewhat distressing: I have hardly any friends.
I discover that making live telephone calls requires deep knowledge of people's personal habits. Do they observe the Sabbath? Do their children require an early bedtime? Do they even have children at all? There are very few people about whom I can answer these questions. Consequently, I shut down communication with almost everyone except those with whom I am very comfortable. All three of them.
My separation from my husband has made me withdraw even more. I am embarrassed by people continually calling to check up on me, and prior to this week, I had stopped answering my phone, relying on e-mail to pretend I was OK. Now, this is not an option. I watch a lot of television.
Taking solace in the idea that I would help my local small businesses by shopping in the neighborhood rather than online, I head out to spend some cash. Unfortunately, I realize rather quickly that there are no small businesses in my town. The only nearby bookstores are superchains; most of their staff don't know anything about books, and whenever I need help finding something, they look it up on the computer anyway, so there is no advantage over my turning to Amazon.com. And the idea of the friendly baker giving me a free torte is a fiction. I know because I went there, too.
I return from my disappointing outing still in search of satisfying human interaction. I flip the switch to my computer, promising myself I will simply read my e-mail and refrain from hitting the "reply" button. I receive an E-vite to a friend's baby shower, sent out by relatives of the parents-to-be. I hate, hate, hate E-vite: I particularly despise the feature that displays the entire list of invitees, which should be no one's business but the hostess's. Those who can't make it always give unnecessarily elaborate excuses; no one ever responds with the delightfully vague "With regret, I must decline." This week's experiment, however, gives me an excuse to avoid "e-RSVPing." But the hostesses have not posted their contact information, so I end up calling the mother-to-be herself, praying that the shower isn't meant to be a surprise. It isn't, but I can tell she thinks I am weird.
Buying a gift also presents a problem: The parents are registered at BabiesRUs.com. The nearest physical store is in another state, and I can't drive--a long-standing phobia I have dealt with by Internet shopping. But even if I could drive, I wouldn't want to go to Babies "R" Us. Childless people who are fighting with their husbands are usually not in the mood to be surrounded by baby stuff. I switch gears and set my emotions aside for now. I concentrate on other matters, such as withdrawing the money to buy said baby-shower gift. It's time for live bank-teller contact.
While waiting in line at my bank, I suddenly notice how ugly the interior of the place is, with its filthy carpeting and tatty furniture. Banks were once grand places, like churches. This one, however, is a bit of a sacrilege. Furthermore, the plastic between the teller and me requires us to shout at each other: "HOW'S SEVEN 20s AND ONE 10? DID YOU KNOW YOU'RE NOW ELIGIBLE FOR A CREDIT CARD WITH A $1500 LIMIT?!" Am I going to get held up at gunpoint the minute I leave? I clutch my purse and walk briskly out of the building and eventually to a branch in a, uh, better neighborhood. Even mild bigotry is a problem in this full-contact world. My husband finally calls to inform me that he saw the letter I taped to our door. He says he found it "moving" -- but apparently not moving enough to move himself back home.
Even worse, by the week's end, I'm feeling less quaintly Victorian than isolated, much like the Unabomber. I am all too happy to go back to my tech crutches, which allow me to get credit for staying in touch while actually being a really bad friend, and to communicate with male acquaintances without agitating their wives. I can inquire into the status of someone's father's health without having to hear the lengthy, gruesome details or feel bad about cutting the conversation short because I want to watch Lost. It lets me send yet another e-mail to my husband and feel like we are actually in some semblance of a relationship. Hurrah for electronic communication, and the false sense of intimacy that it provides. "Good fences make good neighbors," wrote Robert Frost--even electronic ones.