By Oliver Burkeman/New York
We live, according to the cliche, in an age of “instant communication”. Only we don’t. The truth is we live in an age when instant communication is possible – when your e-mail, text or direct message might receive a reply in moments – but when that’s often not what actually happens. E-mails, and increasingly texts and DMs, too, wait days or even weeks for a response. “The result,” as Julie Beck put it recently in the Atlantic, “is the sense that everyone could get back to you immediately, if they wanted to – and the anxiety that follows when they don’t.” In the old days, instant replies were either obligatory (as in face-to-face conversation) or impossible (as in snail mail). Now, though, we’ve hopelessly confused the two. So when no reply is forthcoming, we’ve no idea what to think.
This explains the peculiarly modern phenomenon of being involved, at any given time, in a half-dozen emotionally awkward situations that may in fact not exist beyond the confines of one’s own head. Right now, for example, I’m convinced a dear friend is angry or distressed that I still haven’t responded to his newsy message sent in December; meanwhile, a professional contact who suggested lunch has gone silent since my enthusiastic reply, perhaps having realised she’d confused me with someone more noteworthy and being too embarrassed to admit it. Yet of course I have zero evidence for either belief: I suspect my friend hasn’t given the matter any thought, while the contact is furiously busy and will eventually reply. There’s a special, lonely kind of craziness in experiencing ongoing tensions with people who almost certainly aren’t experiencing them back.
Yet this anxiety, Beck notes, is the price we’re willing to pay for the sense of control we get from not feeling obliged to reply immediately: “What the age of instant communication has enabled is the ability to deal with conversation on our own terms.” If more and more people consider phone calls a form of ambush – because you have to respond there and then – perhaps that’s because, in other domains, a sense of control is so hard to come by these days. If there’s no reason to feel secure about your job, your tenancy agreement, your retirement or the future of the planet, at least you get to retreat inside your mind and decide exactly who gets to intrude, and when you’ll engage, if at all.
The problem is that the disadvantages of this kind of control can end up outweighing the benefits. A world in which we’re obliged to nobody is one in which nobody’s obliged to us. I may think I prefer being able to choose when I reply to that message from my friend. But what happens in reality is that work gets in the way, my response is indefinitely delayed, and one more thread of our friendship is frayed. If he’d picked up the phone – and I’d answered, despite my annoyance at the intrusion – we’d have prevented that.
Plus I’d have been spared several weeks feeling guilty about offending him, even though I probably never did. – Guardian News and Media
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