Nobody answers the phone anymore. Not unless the call is from a member of that small, select group who qualify for as much in your life, and not unless call display tells you it’s them. And maybe not even then.
Do you remember when you would unhesitatingly pick up the phone, not knowing who was calling, but confident that you would then be able to talk with someone you cared to?
Not if you’re among the technologically ‘native’ generations you don’t. For anyone born from the late 80s on, texting rules. A phone call is intrusive, burdensome to manage, and difficult to exit. For my generation, on the other hand, texting seems like a throwback in technology, slow and cumbersome, like going back to the typewriter after enjoying the benefits of word processing.
Texting is all about control of course, carefully crafting, on your own time, a message that may appear casual but is in fact considered, strategic, probably revised. A phone call is unpredictable, volatile even, and calling for that skill so prized by the Victorians—conversation.
But texting also directly reflects the hermetic quality of digital technology, that quality which allows us, in Sherry Turkle’s words, to be “alone together.” Simply put, it’s more isolating. The contact you make with another human being via texting is removed, with very real—not virtual—time and space set between sender and receiver.
As I’ve said elsewhere in this blog, isolation can be a good thing, something that most of us don’t get enough of. Isolation where it leads to the opportunity for quiet contemplation, for thought, for listening to near silence; this sort of isolation is therapeutic, spiritual shoring up which should be a recurring part of our lives. I spent a couple of summers alone on a very isolated fire tower when I was young, watching for smoke rising from the wilderness forests surrounding me, but really just being with myself, being with myself until I had no choice but to accept myself, and then move on. The experience changed my life forever; it may be the single smartest thing I’ve ever done.
But that isolation, alone with the wondrous beauty of the Canadian wilds, also regularly made otherwise fully sane, well-grounded individuals slip off the edge of sanity. “Bushed” it was called then, and probably still is. There were scads of stories, but the best one I heard personally was from a forest ranger who, driving past a towerman’s hilltop station one evening, decided to pay a visit. As he drove the winding road up to the tower, he glimpsed the lighted windows of the cabin a few times, but, when he pulled into the yard, those lights were off. Surmising that the man had just gone to bed, he turned around, headed back down. But from the road now twisting down the hill, he saw that the lights were back on.
His suspicions aroused, he returned to the cabin, again found the lights off, but this time knocked on the door. With no response, he let himself in to find the man hiding timorously under his bed.
We are social animals who need regular human contact, and the more social contacts we have, the more likely it is that we are happy. A little time spent in the company of others was all that was needed by those afflicted like the towerman above, in order to return to a healthy mental state. Because here’s the thing; too much isolation leads to the isolated avoiding, not seeking out human contact. I can attest to as much. After enough days spent alone, you no longer wish to associate with other people. It’s too much effort, requiring skills that are too corroded.
Now there is obviously a vast, vast degree of difference between mountaintop and telephone isolation, but that’s my point; it is only a difference in degree. The direction of the impact is the same, toward insecurity and deteriorated social skills.
Like most digital technology, there’s no going back. Innovation has again created a need we didn’t even know we had. I won’t be picking up my phone any more often in future, but engagement is the price I’m paying, and engagement is precisely what makes us more alive.