"I tried to reach you but I got your voice mail."
"Didn't you get my message?"
"Why don't you ever answer your phone?"
Ah, the complaints of Phone People! I hear them all the time, including from my own family. As in, "Mom forgot her cell phone again." Sometimes it's said accusingly, as if I am deliberately trying to avoid being notified about an overflowing toilet. Or it's whispered worriedly: another sign mother has completely succumbed to Maternal Attention Deficit Disorder (MADD).*--see below
But the truth is, I'm done with phones. I hate phones. Not least because of the onset of MADD means I can't remember any new phone numbers--not a single one--not even those just recited to me by directory assistance (I'm the fool always paying the extra 30-cents for direct connection). I'm done with phones because, compared to email, blackberries, and IM, they are an archaic and time-wasting form of communication. They are the electronic equivalent of a toddler, pulling at your skirt while you are in the middle of something, saying, "mommymommymommymommyNOWmommywant mommyNOW." Whereas eCommunication is like a highly trained personal assistant, neatly arranging and prioritizing messages, giving you the choice to respond immediately ("toilet clggd!! wen r u comin home???!!") or at your leisure ("hey we were in grade 9 together, just thought I'd say hi!").
Phone People wring their hands over the supposed loss of intimacy with the ascendancy of eCommunication. Some complain there is no equivalent to hearing a beloved one's voice. Others--even ePeople like myself--feel overwhelmed by the relentless volume of their in-baskets. While I agree that too many hours can be wasted deleting spam and unearthing important messages, the bottom line is that these are hours wasted on one's own time. You can waste them at 4 in the morning. But you can't deal with this at 4 in the morning:
SCENE--MORNING: A mother sits down at her desk with a cup of coffee for a few quiet hours of work. The phone rings.
MOTHER: Hello? Hi mom. No it's fine. Just got the kids off to school. Sure, let me write that down. Gotta find a pen. [beep] Can you hold a sec? The other line is going. [click] No I don't have time to participate in a survey. [click] Sorry mom. It was a stupid solicitor. Wait, what was I doing? Oh yes, I'll get a pen. [beep] There it goes again. It may be one of the kids. Be right back! [click] Oh yes, thank you for getting back to me. It's one of our upstairs toilets. It's clogged and overflowing. It may need to be snaked. I see. Well, do you think you can get someone out today? It's pretty bad. Ok, let me know. [click] Hi Mom. Usual crisis around here. Toilet again. Okay I have a pen. Go ahead. [beep] I'm so sorry, Ma--let me get that. It could be the plumber calling back. [click] Sarah! How are you?! My goodness, we haven't spoken for so long! Uh huh. Uh huh. Uh huh. Um, Sarah-- Uh huh. Thanks for asking--everyone's great. Busy, busy! I've just got my-- Uh huh. Uh huh. Next Thursday? Let me check. Can I call you back? Oh okay. I'll look right now. Can you hold for a moment? [click] Mom? I just have to look up something quickly on my datebook. Be right back. [click] Sarah? Next Thursday is fine. Uh huh. Uh huh. Look--I've got my mother... Right. 7:30. That's perfect. Uh huh. Really? Well give him our congratulations. Uh huh. See you Thursday. [click] Mom? Okay so what 's the number again? Wait, is that the area code? [bleep] Sorry I missed that. Say it again. [bleep] Yes it's call waiting. I'm going to ignore it. Go on. [bleep] Everything but the first two digits. 5-0. Got it! All right, talk to you later. Thanks, Mom. Bye.
Mother dials voice mail.
MESSAGE: This is Janet from Exorbitant Plumbing. I was going to dispatch someone to your house, but since you're not home we'll have to reschedule it for tomorrow. Please call me back at 1-800-YOU-LOSE.
Yes, I know: A pop-up IM message can seem just as intrusive as call-waiting. But you can put on your "Away" message--and anything urgent will come by email, which you can read instantly and deal with accordingly. Meanwhile, the phone number you scribbled on a sheet of paper will get misplaced; you may forget to write down or notify your husband of the dinner plans you just made (there's no "forward" function!); your friend thinks you were dismissive about her news that her son got into his first-choice school--now she's going to be cool towards you until you figure this out; and as for the plumber, well, that's going to entail another round of calls. At least your mother understands--she's been suffering MADD for years. But your quiet morning is shattered.
Also, I don't buy the idea that email is less intimate than a phone call. Or maybe, it IS less intimate, and thus enables people to reach out to each other in ways that are less forward and intrusive. But the result is intimacy with a vaster network of friends and family than would be possible with the phone. Thanks to email, I've reconnected with many old friends and cousins I'd lost contact with; I keep up with every member of my family. We swap photos and items of interest; we have long back-and-forth email discussions about everything; planning get-togethers is much more easily accomplished with the "cc" button. Those friends and relative of mine who prefer the phone over email, or don't use email, are the one's who've become distant. And not physically distant: I'm closer to some people in Australia than I am to those who live a few blocks away.
Email and texting allows, too, for more subtle interaction than the phone. I sometimes think that eCommunicating has revived a literary culture similar to that which existed before Alexander Bell's invention, when correspondents would dash off several notes a day to each other. While eCommunicating seems less literate than those eloquent letters of yore (many messages including my own, lack even basic punctuation and rely on abbreviations such as "BTW" or "gr8"), it offers the same benefits that writing offers over speaking. You can delay replying to think something over; you choose your words more carefully; you can make gentle inquiries; you can ignore rudeness; you can tactfully raise issues or subjects you wouldn't trust yourself to do verbally--or when you can't be sure of another's reaction. There are well-known hazards to electronic immediacy, of course: all of us have sent out messages we wish we could have recalled (or didn't intend to send); and certainly there is the email equivalent of the drunken phone call. But eCommunicating's benefits so outweigh its risks and negatives, I'm almost inclined to disconnect my phone completely.
Once it's possible to order a pizza online, I probably will.
*An under-diagnosed condition affecting millions of mothers, usually in their early to mid- forties. Symptoms include a lag in response time to direct questions; forgetfulness of events, including birthday parties, violin lessons, and doctor's appointments; a heavy reliance on GPS devices even when driving to familiar locations; loss of vocabulary and name recognition (e.g. "Where did put the--the--uh--uh--you know what I mean, what's-your-face?"). There is no known cure or treatment for MADD at this time. However symptoms can be alleviated with regular massages and cruise holidays without children.
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