We live half our lives in the virtual world, half in the real, so that many of our communications are wholly virtual, and that’s a human disaster.
The ongoing human emotional train wreck that is the digital era began, arguably, with email and the attempt to solve two particular problems with older forms of communication: time and money. Letters, memos, and other forms of written communication like memos, reports, and white papers, were full of what the Silicon Valley calls “friction” – meaning that they were hard to create and cost money. And face-to-face communications required that busy schedules be synchronized. Those engineers and scientists at MIT and in the defense industry wanted communication that was both frictionless and asynchronous.
In a parallel effort over a century ago, inventors and investors addressed the urge to communicate something quickly and easily when the recipient wasn’t standing right in front of you with the telegraph, in 1837 both in the UK and the US separately. But the telegraph required other people to help, as well as money, and so it was saved for moments of high importance. For example, the last message from the Titanic, sent April 15, 1912, was a telegram that apparently read: “SOS SOS CQD CQD Titanic. We are sinking fast. Passengers are being put into boats. Titanic.”
How to communicate more easily and naturally when your boat wasn’t sinking?
The first email proper was sent in 1971 over something called ARPANET, as a way for university researchers and defense contractors to share information that met the criteria. The two problems were solved and the digital era began. Communication became frictionless and asynchronous, and Pandora’s digital box opened.
How did the emotional train wreck begin? In solving the problems of time and money, two other problems were unintentionally created: we gradually became awash in email, and most of it was boring. But there lurked a deeper problem that only became apparent once we were firmly ensconced in the digital era (and the thrill of new technology had worn off): the emotional components of the letter (or even the telegraph) were stripped away. In exchange for asynchronous, frictionless communication we got information overload and the emotional banality of the always-on social media era.
But it gets worse. When you talk to someone face-to-face, your unconscious mind automatically absorbs the emotional state of the person in front of you. Especially if you know the person well, you know whether she is being serious when she says, “Your hair is on fire,” or just kidding. That knowledge enables you to decide how to hear and understand the communication you’re receiving. It’s based on the emotion-tagged memories you have of your previous interaction with that person, and a whole host of other interactions and memories.
You send and receive messages in email and suddenly you and your recipients lack those immediate cues, and your emotional memory-decision systems aren’t triggered. You either find the messages simply boring, or you may make a wrong evaluation of their meaning. Either way, you’re wrong.
Add to that a huge increase in the number of messages coming at you, because email is so easy to send, and suddenly your whole decision-making process is registering overload. You can’t keep up, you can’t decide the relative importance of all the stuff coming at you, so triage is hard to do, and most of it is deeply uninteresting anyway. When you do react strongly to something, it may as likely be a misreading as correct.
And so email is frictionless and asynchronous. But it’s also boring, overwhelming, and difficult to deal with.
That’s the real condition of the digital era.
The engineers and scientists who launched the digital era perhaps weren’t particularly aware of and thus weren’t thinking about the virtues of face-to-face communications. As a result, they didn’t optimize the various kinds of digital communications for what humans need: data-rich, emotionally complex, fast unconscious exchanges of intent and meaning, largely through the unconscious mind.
Like most of us, they were only aware of their conscious minds. By definition, the unconscious mind remains just that, hidden away from the ego-saturated, confident, logical-seeming conscious mind. It thinks it’s in charge, like the Western child that thinks that milk comes in a carton, meat in a plastic-wrapped package, and entertainment everywhere on devices you can pinch and swipe to your heart’s content.
The engineers gave us, as a result, email, telephones and voice mail, video calls, and various other combinations of these digital sounds and images – almost all of which had the emotional component unintentionally engineered out of them.
This post is adapted from my new book, Can You Hear Me?, due out from Harvard in October. You can pre-order it here.