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One Way to Protect Your Soul in a Wired Age

blurred-computer-terminal_pshrink35.JPGBeware EAT …

Earlier this year, a student sent me an e-mail message asking for help with his research.

“I’ve searched all over the Web,” he wrote, “but I can’t find what I’m looking for.”

Replying promptly and politely, I asked him to call to discuss his work (in my e-mail message, I refrained from adding that I couldn’t afford to begin an inefficient, time-consuming e-mail “conversation” about how to solve his problem, nor spend hours writing an instructional essay describing how to accomplish his research).

He never called.

Iboy_speaking_with_megaphone.jpg wasn’t surprised.

Five years ago, when I first started teaching at the university level, I was amazed at this kind of behavior. Now, it’s so commonplace I’ve given it a name: EAT (Encounter Avoidance Tendency). EAT is the predilection to avoid face-to face—even telephone—conversations, and instead communicate exclusively by e-mail.

At first, I thought it was just me (now that I have a son of my own, I well understand why some people find me annoying). But even deficiencies in my bedside manner couldn’t explain EAT. Other teachers were experiencing the same thing. So I remained puzzled.

Now the riddle is solved. Being naturally slow, it took me a few years to figure this out, but it finally occurred to me that students aged 25 and under have never known a world without the Internet. My students computed as children, e-mailed as adolescents, texted as teenagers (is that really a word?). Now, they are all-digital adults. But at what price? Writes Sven Birkerts:

At earlier stages of history, before the advent of the sense-extending technologies, human interactions were necessarily carried out face to face, presence to presence. Before the telephone and the megaphone, the farthest a voice could carry was the distance of a shout. We could say, then, that all human communication is founded in presence. There was originally no severance between the person and the communication.

All that changed with the telephone, of course, but at least people still enjoyed temporal, if not spatial, simultaneity, when talking with each other. But the Internet changed that forever. Again, Birkerts:

We are experiencing the gradual but steady erosion of human presence, both of the authority of the individual and, in ways impossible to prove, of the species itself. The same processes that are bringing this depletion about are also making inevitable a most peculiar compensation: It is getting easier and easier to accept the idea of electronic tribalism—hive life.

Here’s how I picture communication devolving—how ours souls are fighting a losing battle with technology:


Are we regressing from community, to communication, to mere “messages”?

“E-mail is so facile that it flatters us into thinking we can conduct more relationships—social, vocational, random—than anyone can competently handle,” Robert Kuttner writes.

I feel another Clark’s Rule coming on … I think I’ll call this one Clark’s Recommendation on Encountercommunity.jpg Avoidance Tendency Eradication (CREATE): Shut off that damned computer, and walk over to your friend’s house for a chat—or at least pick up the phone.

You may also enjoy:

Want to Achieve Your Goal? Avoid E-Mail!

Fixing a Broken Work Model

Three Books on the Perils of the Internet

Opting Out of the Deferred Life Plan

Happiness is Turning Off the Computer

7 Comments to One Way to Protect Your Soul in a Wired Age

On Nov 6, 2008, anonymous commented:

Interesting. I’m old enough to have grown up with no Internet, when even the telephone was much less ever-present. It used to cost money to call anybody more than a few miles away from home – that was the ancient time long before cell phones, when you rented your phone (singular) from the phone company and in small town America where I lived) party lines were the norm. Still, I’m very fond of EAT in some cases. I used to refer to it as the desire to keep some people at modem’s length. For me, it comes down to the desire to define my personal space. LD Brandeis once said: “The most comprehensive of rights, and the right most valued by civilized men – The right to be alone.” Maybe I’m just in the wrong circle of people, but I find much of what passes for meaningful social interaction to be noise.

On Nov 6, 2008, Dave Witwicki commented:

I find that I hate using the phone too and I would likely have not called in the above situation despite being old enough to have grown up without the internet. Personally, I just find the phone to be an ineffective means of communication. I believe I can communicate better either via email or, when temporal simultaneity is required, face-to-face.

Now, having said that, I agree that there is a problem with people today refusing to have some sort of simultaneity model for communication. There are times when you need the instant feedback to communicate effectively.

On Nov 6, 2008, John commented:

I think there is and has always been a tendency for people outside of a movement to condemn it and be unwilling to acknowledge the benefits. While I am more in between, having only had computers around for about half of my life, I still see this change as not only necessary but also beneficial.

We are not losing the fact that we are social creatures. Now we are just adapting the way we interact. Since the average person is exposed to more information in a year than some people were exposed in their entire lifetime 100 years ago, we need a way to process it and move through it quickly. We accomplish this by cutting out the fat. Instead of having long conversations with people who enjoy the sound of their voice more than passing value to others, we ask for a short response containing the information we need so that we can move on to the next task. Is that wrong?

While it may sound nice to approach everything with a lackadaisical effort and move at whatever pace you want, the world is moving at its own pace. I am young enough to have the energy to move with it and help shape the direction. While I still have that chance, I am going to embrace it. The only way to do this is to leverage the benefits of technology, not forsake them in order to cling to old ideals.

On Nov 6, 2008, ThatGuy commented:

A lot of what you wrote about email can be said about mail. Letter writing has been around for a very long time and in many cases contributed greatly to the world.

In general, most people are meek, timid, and at times fearful of being called out. When one reads about his character flaws via written communication, it is easier to not be offended and take the advice to heart. The beauty of writing is that I can read it, think then respond. Sadly for me and for many others it just does not work like that when we communicate face to face.


On Nov 6, 2008, by Tim commented:

@ All: Thanks for the terrific pushback. Sometimes I wonder whether I just “don’t get” new media (my wife would say so when she sees me struggling with certain newer computer applications).

But having worked in the Internet professional services field from 1994 through a good part of 2003, I know that I actually do get it (at least most of it). I just find it dehumanizing. And, as you rightly note, empowering for some people—maybe even most. And certainly inevitable … Tim

On Nov 8, 2008, David Masters commented:


I was thinking the same thing whilst I was reading this – what about letters? Haven’t they been around for hundreds if not thousands of years?

However, I also think that letters convey a sense of presence. You are holding something that was held in the other person’s had. The physicality of handwriting, of engaging with the other person’s creativity, is impossible to avoid.

Beautifully creative acts shared online do allow us to fully engage with other people.

It is wonderful that so many people have a voice online. But it also means that anyone can type anything without having to wonder if they are really being creative.

On Jan 26, 2010, Anonymous commented:

There is time for everything. Time to hand write, time to meet face-to-face, time to talk via phone, and time to text message or email. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages but a problem arises when we prefer one or two means of communication 99% of the time. This article actually hit home for me. My husband thinks I am weird and rude when someone left a voicemail then I would reply via email or text message. I prefer to interact with strangers I meet in a discussion board or a thread than to talk on the phone. I know..I am weird and I had always wondered why until now…Soulshelter has solved the riddle. Thank you for insightful perspectives.

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