Life Before Email and Social Media

Was there life before email and Facebook? Yes, there was. My first summer in California was the summer of 1988. I had just started graduate school, and I had a long reading list that included Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. At nearly a million words, it's one of the world's longest novels. That is what I did that summer. I read. I taught dance and aerobics and did odd jobs to keep my rent paid, but mostly I read. We all had something we did before email, texting and social media. Some of us cooked, some drank, some read, some of us made quilts, some of us played soccer.

I read books and went dancing in my 20s. I read books and raised kids in my early 30s, but that was before email really had me by the short hairs, before it was coming at me day and night. Until we all had iPhones, you could still walk away from your email. You could check it in the evening, and during the day you could leave it alone. Not having email streaming at you all the time gave you time to think.

We can barely complete a task without checking our email. Anything we do is interrupted by email. We are constantly being interrupted, so we don't finish anything. We don't have whole thoughts, whole ideas. We check email while we drive, when we wake, before we sleep. Email and social media interrupt the life of the imagination, to say nothing of our love life. We check it while we eat and while we wait for people to join us to eat. Everywhere you go, you see people staring at small screens. In restaurants you see couples or mothers with their children, families and lovers all staring at their screens. On airplanes as soon as the plane hits the tarmac, out come the screens and now on planes you can log in and work on your email. There is no rest from it.

And what do we accomplish with all this emailing? Are we getting more work done? Are we more effective? Individually perhaps yes, but collectively I would argue that America has hardly experienced a rise in the GNP as a result of all this emailing. In fact, one of my problems with our all getting work done is that too much of my staff's time is simply swallowed by emailing and some of that email is a waste of time.

What do we accomplish individually by email and social media? You'd think with all of this connection that we would be closer to our family, our friends, but that's not the case. In the 19th century, family members used to write letters to each other. Those letters were read, re-read, cherished. I remember writing long letters to my grandparents when I was in college in which I told them all the good things about my life at Arizona State University strategically leaving out the bad parts. They loved my letters.

Email causes more misunderstandings than almost any kind of communication. When you send email as a form of business communication, it can be effective if you keep it simple and formal but as soon as email becomes chatty, you're in trouble because tone is missing from email and it is therefore inferred by the reader even if it is not implied by the writer. Social media is just as bad partly because people engage in social media in very different ways. I check in with it every few days, so if someone tells me I've been ignoring them on Facebook, I think, well, get in line, I'm pretty much ignoring everybody on Facebook. People become hurt and angry for being un-friended, but what does that mean? It's just a computer, and you can walk away from a computer.

Real relationships with family and friends involve presence. Being present with someone. Even talking on the phone creates more connective tissue than the impersonal nature of either email or social media. You hear someone's voice. A voice has something that email and Facebook do not have: Tone that tells you something about what the other person is feeling, and feelings are what make up our emotional life. If we don't have a feeling emotional life, then we have lost the most important thing about being human, and we are robots.

What have we gained? Speed of communication. And for this generation, speed is everything. What have we lost? Closeness, voice contact, the intimate communication of actually knowing what a person is feeling, and that can only come from presence. I don't know any families that are actually closer as a result of email or social media. Ours certainly isn't. My husband is very close with his oldest son and I am very tight with my two kids, but that's not due to social media. My close friends are close because we spend time together.

That commercial for the phone company used to say, "Reach out and touch someone." Closeness comes just like that. You reach out. Sometimes there are problems. Because we are human, sometimes there are misunderstandings but you keep reaching out, you keep talking, you keep visiting and above all you keep listening.

We're wasting time. We're wasting our one precious life on too much email and too much social media, we need a cup of wine, a loaf of bread and you.