Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Death of Sweet Intercourse

NOTE: Since posting this comment last night I've come across an interesting and provocative piece in the New York Times. Written by Sherry Turkle, and entitled "The Documented Life", it reinforces the intended message of the blog piece below, that we are sacrificing our sacred gift of conversation on the altar of rapidly and incessantly changing technologies.

I haven’t gotten connected to social media, don’t own a smart phone, watch little T.V., and talk to fewer people on a daily basis than I used to. Perhaps that is the definition of retirement, or old age, especially old age for people of my generation, born before the beginning of WWII.

In my case it is largely a matter of choice.

In 1980 I bought my first personal computer, a Radio Shack Model III with a whopping 4 k of internal memory which I promptly upgraded to its maximum of 16 k. Before I quit using it I bought a third-party add-on board (actually two or three boards) that increased its memory to around 50 mb. For the most part, if you wanted any programming, you did it yourself in Basic Language. From there I moved to a Tandy 2000 IBM compatible machine, and then through a long progression of upgrades, some self-assembled, some put together by local computer shops, and finally ending up – at present – with three Dell computers in the house, one desk type tower and two laptops.

I tell all of this to say that I’m not averse to technology. I’m still looking forward to improved equipment and software that will meet my needs better than what I currently have. Particularly I would love to get rid of the “wires” that hang from every desk (my Radio Shack Model III had one wire, the power cord), all necessary to connect and power the computers, modems, routers, speakers, monitors, keyboards, mouses (or is that mice?), scanners, printers, and much else.

But I’ve outgrown the need to have the latest, greatest gadget just because it has become popular or comes in a newer neater color or shape. I’m at the stage in life that I want the things I spend my money for to provide a needed service.

And so I come to the subject of this blog entry: the Internet, and particularly e-mail. Anyone reading my Blog – at the present moment, or on a regular basis – has a clear example of the content of my e-mail messages. When I converted from letters written for distribution through “snail mail” to communication via e-mail, I brought over the same habits of layout and sentence structure I was taught were appropriate for personal or business communication. More importantly, for personal letters, I bought over the concept of conversation.

It was a bit disconcerting when I began to get “letters” from friends that did not follow those conventions; notes dashed off in all caps or with no caps, poor grammar, and spelling worse than mine. It was easy to rationalize that even in the era of “snail mail” there had been poorly written letters, so the phenomenon I was witnessing was nothing new.

Perhaps so. But now I’m receiving dozens of e-mail “communications” per week that consist only of a link to some Internet site, introduced by a few words from some anonymous person touting the link to be of great interest to me, or tremendously funny, deeply patriotic, or revelatory of some scheme by the current President to take away our freedoms. Invariably I’m encouraged to pass these messages on to all my friends so the laughter, or beauty, or patriotic ardor, religious sentiment, or news of conspiracy, can be shared by the millions.

What is invariably missing from those e-mails is conversation, discourse, or what an older generation called intercourse before that word came only to denote sexual intimacy. Never is there a word in these e-mails of personal greeting, a statement about the state of mind or health or well-being of the person sending the e-mail to me. Never is there a question about my state of mind, or health, or well-being.

Sometimes the list of recipients of the e-mail is visible. Squinting to scan the list and locate my name, I realize that the chance of the sender having thought of me for even a second of time was about one in thirty-five. This is neither conversation, discourse, nor intercourse. I am hard pressed to know exactly what it is. I know that it neither reflects well upon the sender or his opinion of those to whom he sends such trivia.

And now I’m being urged to move on up a little higher to the worlds of Facebook and Twitter; to converse in acronyms, photos, and brief statements bearing little context in which to judge their full meaning. It is an invitation to disaster for friendships. The correspondents must either restrict their communications to trivia or risk misunderstandings that are hard to remedy.

I have friends who say they never read their e-mail. A few have Facebook accounts, mainly for the purpose of seeing what others are saying about themselves. One has to wonder where conversations occur now. Those fortunate enough to meet with friends and relatives often may be able to converse if the TV, smart phones, and gaming devices are turned off long enough to allow that to happen. But those separated by the miles are often as isolated from each other as were their ancestors in the day when postal service was slow and uncertain.

Our forefathers used to speak of “sweet intercourse”, meaning the precious time spent exchanging joys and sorrows, successes and failures, ideas great and small, either face to face or in long and detailed letters. We cherish those collections of letters, from Harry Truman to his “Dear Bess”, from Jefferson to John Adams and vice versa, from C.S. Lewis to an American lady he never met but with whom he faithfully corresponded, carefully responding to all her questions regarding life and theology, the letters of Paul, and Peter, and John, and Jude to the early Christian churches. Are we leaving anything of comparable value to those who follow us? I fear we are merely re-Tweeting trivia and trash, Forwarding foolishness and malicious factoids.

I am no Luddite. I value the technological innovations that made my life and work more interesting and productive, from that Radio Shack Model III computer to the marvelous Kindle that allows me to carry a thousand books in my hand at one time, more easily than I once carried one. I may someday own a smart phone if I see that it meets needs that current technologies do not. I may someday open a Facebook account if I sense that it enhances the sweet intercourse I cherish with those I know and love. I may even learn to Tweet someday.

All of these, and more to come, are an inevitable consequence of our free market system. We cannot stop them from coming. But we can decide when and how they should impact our lives. And we can determine that they will not interrupt the indispensable flow of serious discourse between us and others we know and value.

Speech, later enhanced by writing, is arguably the greatest gift possessed by humankind. Speech allows us to communicate in the present; writing allows us to learn from the past and communicate with the future. But in the here and now – which is really all we finite creatures have – writing gives us the opportunity for sweet intercourse with all those people in our e-mail address books. Let’s not waste that valuable opportunity by sending on meaningless Forwards, re-Tweets, and trivial Facebook entries.

Talk to someone on that smart phone, making their day; sit down and write someone a long and interesting letter that they will save and cherish for years to come.

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