As readers of Culture Briefing will know, we hold a standing interest in the ways modern communication technologies deepen, alter, and reconfigure relationships. This week we highlight two recent pieces from the Atlantic. The first is a survey of the improbable and complicated “triumph of email” as the dominant form of communication in our current moment, and the second is a short personal essay from Alan Jacobs on his decision to replace his smartphone with a “dumb phone.”
These two pieces are an extension to the line of argument pursued in Volume 17. There we highlighted the recent work of Sherry Turkle and Matthew Crawford. Though their concerns differ slightly, both Turkle and Crawford highlight the disruptive and potentially corrosive qualities of modern communication technologies. In Turkle’s view, handheld devices interrupt the kind of sustained conversation that can lead us to recognize the full humanity of others; in short, they can diminish our capacity for empathy. (For a visual representation of this, see a series of photographs by Charlotte-based artist Eric Pickersgill, simply titled “Removed.”)
For Crawford, the essential problem with modern communication technologies is the fact that they saturate every aspect of our daily lives, distracting and encroaching upon us whether we like it or not. While this could be innocuous, Crawford identifies a kind of bland sameness within modern communication technologies that leads to a lack of true individuality. Without unobstructed attention, we are incapable of sitting (or standing or walking or driving) with our thoughts; and without our thoughts, we run the real risk of becoming functional automatons.
For many, this is precisely what we’ve become in an age of email. Whatever we are paid (or not) to do, what most of us in fact do is process a great deal of email. This was not inevitable, and in “The Triumph of Email,” Adrienne LaFrance tells a story of just how this came to pass. She begins by noticing that our email inboxes are places “of convergence.” As she puts it:
In the mobile Internet age, checking email is simultaneously a nervous tic and, for many workers, a tether to the office. A person’s email inbox is where forgotten passwords are revived; where mass-mailings are collected; and where pumpkin-pie recipes, toddler photos, and absurd one-liners are shared. The inbox, then, is a place of convergence: for junk, for work, for advertising, and still sometimes for informal, intimate correspondence. Email works just the way it’s supposed to, and better than it used to, but people seem to hate it more than ever.
Crucially, email came into prominence before the mobile phone. At that time, if you wanted to communicate with someone at some distance from you, you were faced with the very real possibility that they may be unavailable or unwilling to take your call. In either instance, the recipient retained a high degree of agency over the terms. Email came into being as a way to solve this problem by reconfiguring this basic relationship, and, surprisingly, its basic value proposition has remained constant since: you can communicate a message to someone on your own terms, with no assurance that the other is in any way currently “present,” but with confidence that they will be at some point soon.
The result of this reconfiguration for many is what LaFrance calls “notification hell.” As she points out, as soon as email became the preferred means of communication, a whole bevy of coping strategies emerged to deal with the “avalanche” of “unruly” inboxes. Email quickly shifted from a communication tool to a problem to be managed or solved. (At the risk of subjecting himself to public shame, let it be known that the author currently has 3,352 unread email messages in his Gmail inbox.) Furthermore, as LaFrance has it, “if email represents one kind of ‘notification hell,’ push notifications are the next circle of it.”
Alan Jacobs recognized this, and is seeking to find his way out of our self-inflicted handheld hell. His brief testimonial begins with the “creeping feeling” that “social media were stalking me from my pocket.” The decision to return to a “much dumber phone” was premised on the insight that “the iOS app ecosystem was constructed so that this one device could be the instrument through which most of my encounters in the world are mediated and broadcast.”
This insight led Jacobs to the Punkt MP 01, a $300 cell phone with only two functions: calls and text messaging. As Jacobs points out, though the MP 01 is remarkably unremarkable, what is interesting about it is the marketing scheme its makers employ. “Both on their website and their Twitter account they relentlessly press the message that to use a Punkt is to ‘disconnect,’ to ‘detox,’ to be ‘offline.’” And yet, they are marketing the Punkt MP 01 primarily as a second phone for the chronically connected—the perfect complement to a tablet or a work-mandated smartphone.
The story Jacobs tells feels neither idiosyncratic nor fully representative. For those working outside of the knowledge economy, or those unwilling or unable to cover the costs associated with sophisticated smartphones, the phenomenon of equating “myself” with “my phone” may seem odd—and, I’d bet, off-putting. And yet, for many of us, the prevalence of disruption leaves us in a chronic state of what Thomas Friedman calls “continuous partial attention”: having both the capacity to attend to multiple things at once and the inability to attend to any of them fully.