I was watching Downton Abbey the other night, and there’s a scene where the Dowager Countess, played by the wonderful Maggie Smith, is trying to work her wiles on a bureaucrat via telephone, and at one point looks at the receiver and says something* like, “Is this a a communication device or a torture device?”
This is a perfect line in the show, because the Dowager Countess has already expressed her distrust of new things, shielding her eyes from the imagined rays of electricity emitting from the chandelier in season one. But it also made me think of how communication has changed in my own memory.
Without wanting to sound ancient, mumbling “In my day, things were different” in a querelous voice, still … things have changed. When I was born, the Beatles were still together, and I’ve always been rather pleased that my first summer here on earth is known as the Summer of Love. (I mean, how flattering!) We had color television and polyester clothing. Telephones, but the long distance charges were a killer. If you wanted to contact someone, you had basically three choices: see them in person, call them on the phone, or write them a letter.
Fast forward several decades, and oh, have things changed–with a speed that would leave the Dowager Countess reeling. Now, there might be telephones in every room in the house … or there might be none at all, because people choose to use the one in their pocket instead. Everybody has a cell phone, and long-distance charges might as well be non-existant, but that doesn’t matter because you can always get around them by using Skype to video chat with your friends, a la Jane Jetson.
Everybody has email and text messages available with a flick of the finger. You can ask questions of your social network and get answers, virtual hugs, moral support within seconds of a plea for help. You can watch television being broadcast half a world away and then discuss it with friends scattered around the globe, all while sitting in your footie-pajamas on your couch. All the world’s information is available with a quick query to Google.
It’s EASY to keep in touch, make contact, make friends.
But … is it necessarily better?
How many times have you posted something on a forum and had it misunderstood because your audience didn’t know your wry sense of humor? Is a quick text message exchange of “R U feeling better?” “Yes, lots” really as satisfying as a friend stopping by when you’re sick, or sending flowers to brighten your day?
The old-school methods of communication took EFFORT. You had to devote the time to picking up the phone and then standing there for the entire conversation because the cord kept you within 6 feet of the wall the whole time. Handwritten letters involved nice stationery, a pen, and legible handwriting. (Remember that?) Getting together for drinks or coffee might not be an enormous amount of effort, but it does show you’re committed to the conversation.
So many of our modern, convenient, effortless methods, on the other hand, are almost too easy, too diffuse. Why write to one person when you can post a blog entry for dozens to read at once? Why ask one friend for advice, when you can ask hundreds of your Twitter followers with just 140 characters? We no longer connect with each other on a one-to-one basis. It’s all multiples. We tell ALL our friends that we’ve had a bad day. We ask ALL our friends for advice.
The very essence of communication is being diluted.
People have always had group, interpersonal activities. Politicians have always given speeches. Friends have always hosted parties. Groups have gotten together to sew a quilt or raise a barn since time began. Well, okay, maybe not exactly sewing quilts, but you know what I mean–groups gathering to do tasks too big for one person, and throwing in some socializing for good measure. As Elizabeth said to Mr. Darcy, “No one can get acquainted on a dance floor.”
But group activities aren’t really about communication so much as socializing.
I just wonder if, by having so much of our socializing–especially the virtual kinds of forums, emails, text messages, and so on–combined with the communication needs of sharing ideas, asking for advice, spreading news … I wonder if we’ve lost something.
Sometimes when things are too easy, you take them for granted.
But when they’re so easy, you forget that, sometimes, easier isn’t the same as better. (Is a frozen dinner out of the microwave better than a home-cooked meal?