Though rigorously formal, machine communication is characterized by a lack of courtesy. When computers converse, they dispense with pleasantries, with digressions about family and weather, with all manner of roundaboutness. They stick, with a singlemindedness that, in a traditional human context, would almost seem a form of violence, to the protocol. Realtime messaging allows no time for fussy niceties. Anything that reduces efficiency threatens the network. One must get on with it. One must stay on point.
I say traditional human context because there is a real question as to the continued viability of that context as more human conversation moves onto the universal realtime bus. As we tune ourselves to the rhythms of the machine, can we afford the inefficiencies of courtesy? Nick Bilton, in a recent New York Times piece, argues that “social norms just don’t make sense to people drowning in digital communication.” We owe it to each other, he suggests, to optimize the efficiency of our interpersonal communications, to switch from the conversational mode of old to the machine mode of now. What defined politeness in the past—the use of “hello” and “goodbye,” of “dear” and “yours,” even of first and last names—now defines impoliteness, as such customary niceties “waste” the time of the recipient of the message. More than that, though, the demand for optimal efficiency needs to set the tone, writes Bilton, for all conversation. We shouldn’t ask a person about tomorrow’s weather forecast, since that information is readily available online. We shouldn’t ask a stranger for directions, since directions are readily available through Google Maps. We shouldn’t use a voice call when an email will do, and we shouldn’t use an email when a text will do. Bilton quotes Baratunde Thurston: “I have decreasing amounts of tolerance for unnecessary communication because it is a burden and a cost.”
Fuddy-duddys reacted with horror to Bilton’s column. One reader, calling Bilton a “sociopath,” wrote, “While I applaud The Times’s apparent effort to reach out to children, you go too far when you give them a platform on your pages to express their opinions, which have all the hallmarks of immaturity and gracelessness of their age group.” But Bilton has a point. I think most of us have experienced the annoyance that attends an email or text that contains the single word “Thanks!” It does feel like an unnecessary interruption, a little extra time-suck in a world of time-suckiness.
But there’s a blind spot in Bilton’s view. The big question isn’t, “Are conversational pleasantries becoming unnecessary and even annoying?” The answer to that is, “Yeah.” The big question is, “What does it say about us that we’re coming to see conversational pleasantries as unnecessary and even annoying?” What does it mean to be intolerant of “unnecessary communication,” even when it involves those closest to you? In a response to Bilton, Evan Selinger pointed out that it’s a mistake to judge “etiquette norms” by standards of efficiency: “They’re actually about building thoughtful and pro-social character.” Demanding efficient communication on the part of others reflects, Selinger went on, a “selfish desire to dictate the terms of a relationship.” There is a kind of sociopathology at work when we begin to judge conversations by the degree to which they intrude on our personal efficiency. We turn socializing into an extension of economics.
It’s hard to blame the net. The trend toward demanding efficiency in our social lives has been building for a long time. Indeed, the best response to Bilton came from Theodor Adorno in his 1951 book Minima Moralia:
The practical orders of life, while purporting to benefit man, serve in a profit economy to stunt human qualities, and the further they spread the more they sever everything tender. For tenderness between people is nothing other than awareness of the possibility of relations without purpose … If time is money, it seems moral to save time, above all one’s own, and such parsimony is excused by consideration for others. One is straightforward. Every sheath interposed between men in their transactions is a disturbance to the functioning of the apparatus, in which they are not only incorporated but with which they proudly identify themselves.
What are Bilton and Thurston doing but identifying themselves with the apparatus of communication?
To dispense with courtesy, to treat each other with “familiar indifference,” to send messages “without address or signature”: these are all, Adorno wrote, “random symptoms of a sickness of contact.” Lacking all patience for circuitous conversation, for talk that flows without practical purpose, we assume the view that “the straight line [is] the shortest distance between two people, as if they were points.”
Adorno saw a budding “brutality” behind the growing emphasis on efficiency in personal communications. That may be going too far. But we do seem to risk a numbing of our facility for tenderness and generosity when we come to see aimless chatter and unnecessary pleasantries as no more than burdens and costs, drains on our precious time. “In text messages,” writes Bilton, “you don’t have to declare who you are, or even say hello.” For the efficiency-minded, that would certainly seem to constitute progress in the media of correspondence. But, in this case, allowing the mechanism of communication to determine the terms of communication could also be seen as a manifestation of what Adorno termed “an ideology for treating people as things.”
This post is an installment in Rough Type’s ongoing series “The Realtime Chronicles,” which began here.
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