“We expect more from technology and less from one another and seem increasingly drawn to technologies that provide the illusion of companionship without the demands of relationship.”
A couple of years ago, not long after I won the Willamette Angel Conference (a business plan competition), I got a text message from a successful local businessman who had agreed to become our CEO and probably had a lot to do with my winning the conference. He resigned over a text message, not even using the 160 characters allotted, “it isn’t going to work for me at this time” was all I got. It was devastating, almost a surreal moment where I had to go back and read the message again. Did this just end – like that – over a text message? I felt it physically, a hearty dose of adrenaline mixed with old, deep fears of worthlessness and abandonment. Although this break up was in the business realm, we all know at least one person who has who had their heart broken over text message.
We resort to text and email messages for our bad news increasingly frequently. Using technology to escape the heart and difficult communications of our lives is the embodiment of adding insult to injury. In part, we do this because text and email messages give us the illusion of control. We believe we can present the self we want to be by our edits and even by our deletes. In actuality what we communicate is that we are unwilling to give our time or attention to the complex and messy conversation that human relationships deserve.
Just this past week, I got an email cancellation from a very well known author with whom I had arranged a radio interview over a month prior. That message too, was brief with little explanation. The cursory apology that does not feel truly felt because it arrives within five characters…sorry. Whether deliberate or not, we are increasingly relying on technology as a retreat from the real and demanding work of showing up for one another. We erroneously believe that our technology can clean up our loose ends, our unexplained departures, our unwillingness to be accountable. The reverse is true, the technology can easily and almost invisibly turn your emotional life into an empty shell. The irony and the tragedy is that the more we rely on our technology to substitute for the real conversations in our lives, the more we shortchange ourselves. We learn to stop caring because we forget that there is a deep and profound difference.
Face to face conversations require us to attend to one another. The root of the word conversation is to associate with or turn around. Human conversation is how we perceive from another’s point of view and, what’s more, it is the way we initially learn to converse with ourselves. This is why kids who have people speaking to them in their infancy and early childhood have such a leg up on their counterparts who sit in front of a television. Conversation is how we learn who we are and how we learn to read the nuances of the people around us. The art of conversation is how self reflection is born and without it, the continuous social media query of what’s on your mind has less and less chance of being answered.
In Sherry Turkle’s eloquent description of “The Flight From Conversation,” she shares poignant stories of teenagers who aspire one day to learn to have a conversation, students who want dating advice from artificial intelligence or those who look forward to computer-based psychiatry. She comments that these stories demonstrate “how much we have confused conversation with connection and collectively seem to have embraced a new kind of delusion that accepts the simulation of compassion as sufficient unto the day. And why would we want to talk about love and loss with a machine that has no experience of the arc of human life? Have we so lost confidence that we will be there for one another?”
If anything deserves our human attention it is our departures in this brief interlude that we call life. Having the courage and compassion to leave someone with their dignity intact is worth every pound of effort we need to muster to do it. Technology was designed to make life easier to manage, not easier to avoid. Use it to set up a place and time to meet someone for a good bye. Don’t be fooled that the good bye is sent with a text.