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Optimal Email Animals

by Colin Rule
April 2007

From Colin Rule's blog.

Colin Rule

It's not unusual to find periodic columns decrying how technology is undermining the authenticity of human interactions, but it is relatively unusual to hear such sentiments coming from a blog A-lister like Robert Wright...

In his (what seems to me) hastily put together op-ed in today's NYT, Wright says "I have a theory: the more e-mail there is, the more Prozac there will be, and the more Prozac there is, the more e-mail there will be."

The main thesis seems to be that in the past our interactions were more genuine because they contained non-verbal cues. Now Wright mostly interacts by email, which strips out the "tone of voice, facial expressions" and other various grunts and nudges. He also says that twenty years ago, when most communication was by telephone, we also got some non-textual information from tone of voice. His second thesis is that these new technologies enable many people to call Mr. Wright friends who really are nothing of the sort, and that dilutes the true meaning of what "friend" indicates. He then ends by suggesting that we may re-program ourselves through pharmacology to better fit into an email-oriented culture.

I shouldn't get too wound up about this article, especially as Wright himself admits that the column is "full of blithe generalization, speculative fancy and jokey hyperbole." But it seems poorly considered and quite misleading, and will be read by many technophobes and luddites as a clear conclusion from someone with a lot of experience that technology is leading "us" (the royal us, meaning our society) down the wrong path.

First, Wright has chosen a very public persona in the blog world, which does cater to the creation of many, many shallow relationships. MySpace and LinkedIn create similar dynamics. However, for those of us who choose a lower profile, there is not so much of a sense of shallow, throw-away relationships. I work in the online dispute resolution field, where a relatively small community of people (probably in the hundreds) stay in close contact around the world to collaborate on areas of mutual interest. Our interactions would not be possible without technology, and our relationships are strong and lasting. We also punctuate our long periods of online interaction with occasional face-to-face meetings (disproving the false dichotomy of online vs. offline which often is taken as a given in these kind of pieces.)

Second, technology has enabled me to chat on a daily basis with my colleagues in Sri Lanka, Australia, India, Germany, etc. And it's not all email -- I'm in Dublin today using skype right now to chat (both text and voice) with co-workers and family in the states, all for free. I plugged in my computer and immediately got a skype call from a friend in the PayPal HQ back in San Jose who had no idea I was in Europe. I saw his video and we chatted by voice. Also, what about cell phones? Wright seems to argue that we talk less on the phone than 20 years ago. 20 years ago a 15 minute phone call could cost $12, now it's free under most cell plans. Most young people talk on the phone with friends far more than I used to. They switch seamlessly from f2f to AIM to texting to cell calls, and I'd bet they spend as much time f2f with their friends as I did back in my formative years.

Third, this connection to prozac seems extremely ill-informed. Is he asserting that email interactions make us sad and/or confused, so we need drugs to make ourselves happy again? This sounds more Huxley/Brave New World than the reality of Prozac. Wright says that "this is the one point /he/ isn't joking about" -- that we may use drugs and genetic engineering to remake ourselves into "optimal email animals." As someone with more than a passing knowledge of antidepressants, something Wright himself admits to not having, this seems like more wild speculation than an actual prediction based in fact or experience. I spend a lot of time online, and I feel that time excites and engages me, instead of leaving me confused by mixed signals from my peers.

Now I admit that there is something significant in Putnam's Bowling Alone thesis, that we are becoming more isolated in our physical lives. We don't join Rotary and Elks lodges like we used to. But at the same time technology is opening up many new pathways for interaction and connection. And we can now connect with those who share our passions on the other side of the world, whereas before our interactions had to be bound by geography (which often led to the reinforcement of local culture, local values, and local relationships, instead of cultures and values and relationships that were further away.) We don't know how this shift in our network social connections will change us, but I remain optimistic.

Email is just one step in the evolution of technology. Textual communication is only one channel. Yes, technology is changing us, but we are changing technology much more. Who can doubt that we will soon have high speed, on demand, video and audio technology connecting us to every area of the planet? Humanity longs for this kind of connection, and technology is being continually and relentlessly developed to get us there. The notion that we will breed ourselves to work better with computers is at odds with recent history. Remember when we were told to use different typefaces so that computers could more easily read them? Or to train ourselves to write differently so that our handhelds could understand us? Computers got smarter, and they adapted to us, not the other way around. The evolution of technology has made it easier by having it work the way we want it to work, not the other way around. That's why David Riesman’s theory has come to look dated.

If Wright is unhappy with his current online life I urge him to change it. If he was unhappy with his meat world life I would offer the same advice. It's easy to make shallow friends and to be lonely without the help of computers. And it is easy to develop lasting, meaningful relationships with the help of computers. But please don't use the very prominent soapbox of the NYT editorial page to put up hastily considered musings that cloud issues as opposed to clarifying them.

Biography


Colin Rule has worked at the intersection of technology and conflict resolution for the last two decades. He is CEO of Modria.com, an online dispute resolution service provider in Silicon Valley, and a non-resident Fellow at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School. From 2003 to 2011, he served as eBay and PayPal's first director of Online Dispute Resolution, designing and implementing systems that now resolve more than 60 million disputes each year. Mr. Rule is the author of Online Dispute Resolution for Business, published by Jossey-Bass in September 2002. He has presented and trained around the world for organizations including the U.S. Department of State, UNCITRAL, the International Chamber of Commerce, and the CPR Institute for Dispute Resolution, as well as teaching at UMass-Amherst, Stanford, Southern Methodist University, and Hastings College of the Law. He has written and been interviewed extensively about the Internet since 1999, with columns and articles appearing in ACResolution, Consensus, Dispute Resolution Magazine, and Peace Review. He holds a master's degree from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in conflict resolution and technology, a B.A. in peace studies from Haverford College, and he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Eritrea from 1995-1997.



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Website: www.modria.com

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