I’m not the biggest science fiction fan you know – but I like quite a few of the trappings, and I’ve read a shitload of the canonical books and seen a bunch of the canonical movies.
One of the themes that runs through a lot of those books and movies is that advances in technology – in particular communications technology – will misshape and distort the way we human beings interact with each other and the world “outside” whatever room we keep our computers in.
I call bullshit.
At least as far as I’m concerned, the advances I’ve seen in the last 25 years or so of my own life have certainly CHANGED the way I interact with friends and family – but not in a bad way. Only good. All good.
When I was a kid, my parents only had one telephone – a rotary phone with a cord, which sat on my dad’s desk in a dark, hot corner of the house. We had a party line, and long distance cost a whole lotta money (Mom and Dad fought about the phone bill a lot). I rarely talked to anyone on the phone because it was so prohibitively hot and sweaty and inconvenient. Also, they had no answering machine – so if we weren’t there to get the call, we didn’t get the call.
To correspond with friends and family who lived far away – and by far away I mean even 20 miles – I had to write letters. I wasn’t allowed to make long distance phone calls (neither was Mom, really, but she did it anyway). Letters seemed like a good idea back then, even with their time delay of several days, but now that I have e-mail….
If I wanted to talk to friends who lived some distance away, I had to actually go to them – which got easier once I was able to drive. But until then, living in the boondocks as we did, my friends seemed very, very far away.
Flash forward a few years to when I’m in college. NOW, Mom and Dad get a cordless, and I have one in my room at college as well. We all have answering machines. Communication gets a little easier, but it’s still pretty primitive. We still write letters. We still don’t do the long distance thing. We still actually have to connect to a land line to call anyone.
Then, move forward just a few more years, to the mid 90s. Now, I have access to computers and I have an e-mail address. Not everyone I’d like to talk to has e-mail of their own, but they will soon. I have a cell phone – looks like a walkie-talkie and it costs more than it should, but now I’m connected most hours of the day (I skipped the whole pager thing myself, BTW, but I’d like to remind you how prevalent they were for a few years there).
No more letter writing. No more long distance charges (although roaming charges will fuck you up the butt). No more need to have to sit DOWN anywhere to call someone. No need to find the right change to use a pay phone. If you have an urge to speak with someone in the U.S., you pretty much can do it RIGHT THEN. And if you can wait just a few hours, you can converse with someone via e-mail no matter where in the world he or she is.
Now look at us today. Cell phone technology and competition have put us at a point where practically everyone in developed countries has one. In a single day, I can talk to my friends in New York, Las Vegas, North Carolina, Beirut, Chicago, and Israel – at little or no cost. Chat rooms and instant messenger programs put me in constant touch with countless others. I get 100+ e-mails a day and usually send up to 20. (Not counting spam. Yeah – spam is a drawback, but whatever). With Facebook and LinkedIn I have gotten in touch with people that I’d lost track of years ago. With Twitter, I can let my followers know when I’m posting a new post on this blog, or when I’m taking a piss.
My parents and their parents and THEIR parents could NEVER have had the sweeping range of relationships and correspondence and communication and intimacy that I have with so many people. I’m certainly pleased with the level that I have. Think about – without technology being where it is right now, it’s unlikely that I could share these thoughts with you about it so immediately, so thoroughly, and so inexpensively – inexpensively in terms of time as well as money.
The point got driven home to me a couple of weeks ago when I was at Dragon*Con. While at Dragon*Con, I realized that a significant portion of the friends I had there, I’d become good friends with via the telephone and the Internet. Sure, most of them I’d met face to face (although some I had not!), but we became friends – good friends – by correspondence.
I know there are accounts of people corresponding via letter ages ago, and establishing deep, lasting relationships with the person on the receiving end. I don’t doubt that’s possible – but technology amps that possibility up a significant amount.
Simply put, there’s something to be said about being able to call a person up at most hours of the day and pretty much expecting that he’ll answer the phone so you can talk. There’s something to be said about being able to negotiate business or set up meetings (whether professional, amorous, or just friendly) quickly and conveniently. There’s something to be said about the dynamic nature of long distance friendships today.
And while I value the relationships I have with people whom I do see physically everyday, just as my parents and their parents before them did, I’ve discovered similar, more immediate and often just as intimate value in the relationships I have with people whom I DON’T see everyday.
People, that is, like you.