A funny thing happened on the way to the communications revolution: We stopped talking to each other.
I was walking in the park with a friend recently and his cell phone rang, interrupting our conversation. There we were, walking and talking on a beautiful sunny day and - poof! - I became invisible, absent from the conversation.
The park was filled with people talking on their cell phones. They were passing other people without looking at them, saying hello, noticing their babies, or stopping to pet their puppies. The untethered electronic voice is evidently preferable to human contact.
The phone used to connect you to the absent. Now it makes people sitting next to you feel absent. Recently I was in a car with three friends. The driver turned the radio down and shushed the rest of us because he couldn't hear the person on the other end of his cell phone. There we were, four friends zooming down the highway, unable to talk to each other because of a gadget designed to make communication easier.
Why is it that the more connected we get, the more disconnected I feel? Every advance in communications technology is a setback to the intimacy of human interaction. With voice-mail, for example, you can conduct entire conversations without ever reaching anyone. If my mom has a question, I just leave the answer on her machine.
As almost every conceivable contact between human beings gets automated, the alienation index goes up. You can't even call a human being to get the phone number of another human being anymore. Directory assistance is fully automated. (Speak loudly so the computer can help you.)
Pumping gas at the station? Why bother smiling and saying good morning to the attendant when you can swipe your credit card at the pump and save yourself the bother of human contact?
Making a deposit at the bank? Why talk to a clerk who might live in the neighborhood when you can just insert your card into the ATM?
The communications industry prevents us from communicating. Every new product sets us further apart. With e-mail and instant messaging over the Internet, we can now communicate without seeing, touching, or talking to each other.
Pretty soon you won't have the burden of making eye contact at the grocery store. Major grocery chains are testing a self-scanner so you can check yourself out of the store, avoiding all those annoying clerks who look at you and ask how you're doing.
Clearly, what we have here is a failure to communicate.
I am no Luddite. I own a cell phone, an ATM card, a voice-mail system, an e-mail account, even a Palm Pilot. Giving them up isn't an option - they're great for what they're intended to do. It's their unintended consequences that make me cringe. More and more, I find myself hiding behind e-mail to do a job meant for conversation. Or being relieved that voice-mail picked up because I didn't really have time to talk.
I'm having fewer face-to-face conversations these days. The industry devoted to helping me keep in touch is making me lonelier. Or at least facilitating my antisocial instincts.
So I've put myself on technology restriction: No instant messaging with people who live near me, no cell phoning in the presence of friends, no letting the voice-mail pick up when I'm home.
What good is all this gee-whiz technology if there's no one in the room to hear you exclaim "gee whiz?"
*Michael Alvear is a freelance writer living in Atlanta.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society