Welcome to 2006, where you make plans by text, friends on MySpace, and love via IM. Technically speaking, R we better off? We challenged 2 writers 2 take opposite approaches for a week: 1 living strictly thru monitors, the other thru cyber-free human interaction. Who ends up :) ? Who's :( ?
By Y. Euny Hong
Photo Credit: Jeff Harris
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.