Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Information Age Blessings

I was scrolling through Google Plus, a favorite pastime where I can be entertained, informed, and caught up with friends all at once, where I found a very well-written article about the pros and cons of communication tech in our information age. Shashi Tharoor, India's Minister of State for Human Resource Development, talks of how the ease of email, originally a useful novelty, has quickly grown into a pandora's inbox of chaos that requires 2-3 hours of his time to comb through, leading him to develop strategies for avoiding what he calls "information fatigue."

With so much available and sendable so quickly, the quality of what is received has gone down, and sometimes one wishes for the days when information was not so intrusive.
It made me feel once again how very lucky to be surrounded by friends and family who like to chat and not just text, hang out and not just call, write real honest-to-goodness letters and not just email. Like Tharoor, I wholeheartedly believe that fast and easy communication is a blessing; I am still grateful for having texting for the last couple years and being able to keep up with three old housemates on a daily basis even though we haven't lived together in years.

But sometimes I just want to slow down and catch up with people. I am refreshed by the friends who don't have facebook; the friends who text me to say, "Hey, I'm free--wanna go for a walk?"; and those who are so bad at texting that I am forced, happily, to call and talk to them in person. I live within easy walking distance of at least four good friends, and love being able to drop by on my daily walk.

Despite the information age and the increasing distance--now measured by cyberspace more than physical space--between individuals, the doomsday reports of increased isolation are not without a cultural backlash. Yes, there is increasing loneliness in an already lonely America. But I know many people deliberately putting face-to-face time on their calendars in the form of coffee dates, book clubs, and lunch dates.

Though I've been known to be a Luddite at times, I've come more and more to appreciate technology's place in my life and realize that, annoying as it may be to spend an hour checking email, instantaneous and easy communication saves me a lot of time. I still write letters (you can't pick pretty picture cards or put wildlife stickers on an email), but I also email with family, friends in foreign countries, and for business, and I've made sure to pick and choose my interlocuters. I don't subscribe to blogs of people who, much as I love, I wouldn't really read; I keep subscriptions with all and only those networks I want to keep up with (at the moment, Alibris book coupons and a weekly Youtube newsletter featuring people I'm subscribed to); and I let emails lie in my inbox sometimes even for weeks knowing that the sender would probably prefer a heartfelt response rather than a hurried one.

I text constantly to relay small silly things to distant family, ask if my hubby needs anything at the store, and find out if people are available to meet. I don't keep a calendar; instead, texting provides me with spontaneity in a world which is increasingly more scheduled, as it allows me to catch those little free moments in people's lives and make the most of our time. I don't share things unless I think they're worth knowing, and expect others to do the same.

There are some things I've refused, as well, in order to keep a balanced lifestyle. I am conflicted about the usefulness of smartphones, but for now am happy not to have one and thus have an excuse not to be always on email, chat, and facebook. I don't check my facebook more than a few times a week, and if people have anything urgent, they know to contact me via phone. Sometimes I turn my phone off, like evenings with my husband or when taking walks with God. The break, far from being a hardship on friends and family, gives me a break when I wouldn't want to talk anyway, and hopefully offers them the grace to do the same.

In short, the information age may afford easy misuse; but all that means for those who subscribe to it is that we be carefully responsible and remember the "inverse relationship between the difficulty and expense of communication, on one hand, and the quality of what is communicated, on the other" (Tharoor). We may not pay by the word any more, but but we do pay by the minute--with time that is increasingly worth more. It does us and others a favor to scale back and make sure we are "crisp, succinct, and to the point" and omit the irrelevant and trivial. In a world with a thousand complications every second, simplicity is significance.