The Electronic Plague

I was awakened very early last Saturday morning by a phone call from my cousin who I’ve seen twice in the last three decades.   I instantly knew something was wrong because everyone knows that when the phone rings at this hour and it’s someone you don’t speak to regularly, it is definitely not going to be good news.  And it wasn’t, my grandmother had passed away.

I don’t know if you will remember but I wrote about my grandmother a few articles back.  She was a really special lady and at 97 I am thankful that she had a good, long life.  I took great solace in the fact that until the last few weeks, she had been in great shape both physically and mentally for someone her age.

Still wiping the sleep from my eyes and my mind, I assured my cousin that I would continue the ‘bereavement phone chain’ and contact a few key members of our family as there were too many for any one person to reach out to.

With a heavy heart and heavy eyelids, I plodded over to my computer which I had just logged off of less than an hour ago so I could go to sleep.  96 new messages.  Ughhh, it’s only been an hour since I checked my email, how is it possible that I have this many new messages? The first thing that crossed my mind was ‘How could I have let it go that long and grow out of control’? I actually felt bad for trying to get some sleep.  Twisted huh?  Even more twisted is the fact that I swore to myself that I wouldn’t let that happen again as I was already thinking of a way to sleep with my iPhone attached to my face so I didn’t have to deal with such a backlog ever again.  Did I mention that I was still very sleepy?

This is a medical emergency, I need to operate on my inbox and clear it out STAT!  Thank god that the bulk of the emails were from the “RESADM-L” or the “NIH_ESUB_SYS2SYS-L” list-servs (I can’t remember which).  Blessedly, once you identify the topic of the thread they are easy to comb through and delete.  The subject of this particular listserv was “Is hair dye that is used in effort to make investigators appear younger while presenting papers that resulted from their last grant an allowable charge? And how do you put that in the ADOBE Form?” or something equally random and non-sensical.

After taking a sentence-sized biopsy of the next few messages I quickly realized no-one knew what the answer was to this weighty topic. With a “Shift Delete”, thirty electronic growths were excised from my inbox.   Only 66 more to go…

Don’t these people have lives?   Why are they even online this early on a Saturday? Yeah, did I mention that I’m slightly delusional when I’m sleep-deprived?  I looked around to make sure there was not a mirror in sight for me to see my own reflection and then I looked up to make sure a lightning strike wasn’t flashing down from the heavens above to hit me.

I continue to operate on my inbox to get it stable. My EMI (Email Mass Index) has to be less than 10 before I feel comfortable enough to send a new email message.  I get to the last offending email and I pop it open.   FUN.  This one is a novella, written by an InfoEder to a big group of us about how something in our software was supposed to work.  I can’t tell if it’s a question or statement.

As I read through it, I quickly realize it has no end to it. The author started repeating themselves over and over again.  They must have figured out a way to loop their email message like Auto Repeat on a CD player.  When I got to the end of the message, it just started over thus never allowing me to be done with it.

While I was running on this email treadmill, I could feel my temperature rising and my index finger started throbbing from overusing the scroll wheel.  Things started getting a little cloudy and then I blacked out.

While I was stuck between this world and the next, I saw a light. As I walked down this bright tunnel towards this beautiful blue aura, my entire electronic life was flashing before my eyes.  The first revelation on this brilliant journey was “Why did I even consider that emailing family members was an acceptable vehicle to tell them about my grandmother?”

I was instantly ashamed that it had even crossed my mind but I immediately found great comfort in the fact that I did have the sense of mind not to be like so many who would have simply changed their Facebook status to “Gram died. Stay tuned for more details…”

Maybe I thought it would be quicker and more efficient to tell people over email?  Or maybe I thought it would be less stressful and sentimental for everyone involved if I emailed them the sad news?  Either way, I now realized I had no choice but to call everyone.  It was clearly the right thing to do.  Although it was a pity because I was extremely proud of the collection of email addresses I had obtained over the years for just such an event.  Each time I got an email from a family member, I scanned the recipient list it to see if there was a new email address on it that I could add to my “Family” distribution list.   Very clever of me, huh?

Not so much.  It very quickly dawned on me that I didn’t know any of their phone numbers.  I didn’t even know where most of them were currently living.  I remember that Great Aunt Evelyn lived somewhere in Ohio in 1993, but I thought someone told me she moved in with her daughter, what was her name???

The irony here was my grandmother (who just passed) had EVERYONE’S addresses and phone numbers all the way back to the great depression.  She had mine.  I’m talking every address and phone number from my freshman college dorm room days to my current home address all written in and crossed-off in her simplistic chicken scratch on the folded up pages of her battered black address book.  Wish I had one of those little black books now!

But I don’t because my life had been eclipsed by electronics.  What strange disease had I contracted that changed me from someone that used to talk to people, to someone who only emailed them?  And family no less!  It must have been a slow progressing virus because I did not sense it enveloping me until it was too late.  Did I catch this e-disease from someone?  Was my internal anti-virus software out of date and as a result I caught a new strain of something?  Or was it a genetically passed electronic syndrome?

Looking back a few years, I suddenly recalled my phone ringing late one evening, not too late, but just late enough to be alarmed.  The caller ID let me know it was my daughter. Before I could even answer the phone, my heart started racing and I was freaking out.  What happened to her?  Was she OK?  I had just spoken to her 10 minutes earlier downstairs.  She was IM’ing people while she pretended to do her homework.  How the heck could she have gotten out of the house undetected?  Was she abducted?

I answered the phone as my mind and my mouth continued running amok.  “Where are you?!  Are you OK?!”  She was startled by my hysterical response to her call. “I am right where you last saw me.  In the family room” she said very matter-of-factly.

Needless to say, I hung up on her after calmly explaining to her why God gave her legs.  Really?  She called me from our own house?  She was 20 feet away from me.  Apparently, too far to warrant a face-to-face interaction.  My heart continued to pitter-patter for hours afterward.

Total recall…I remembered another event where one of my other daughters was quite distraught.  It turns out her boyfriend had broken up with her.  I wasn’t sure if I should console her or ask her who he was since I didn’t even know she had a boyfriend. She had never gone out of the house with him. She had never even mentioned his name to any of us.   Even more important was she was only 12!  I was not prepared to even deal with the notion of her having a boyfriend.  Didn’t you have to be at least a “teen”?

My shock and awe aside, I listened intently as she then explained to me that she met him in a chat room and then they started chatting privately.  My insides were twisting and I was trying to remember where I put my grandfather’s old hunting rifle as she informed me that after Instant Messaging (IM’ing) each other for a few days, they knew they had something very special.   “He knew what I was going to type even before I typed it.  Love like this only happens in movies, Daddy!”  Did I mention she was 12?  And who knows how old he was!

The good news is she never actually talked to him or met him, she only knew him by his screen name and the icon he used on his profile.  From what I can gather he asked her out by texting her.  She assured me that it was a very romantic text and he used the coolest emoticons.  I was reminding myself how easy jail is for men convicted of killing child predators as she cried over her lost love.  “My friends are very jealous of me Daddy.  He was so cool!”

Yeah, cool… Well apparently you can have your heart broken even in this type of electronic relationship, I know mine was.  Maybe it was a genetically passed electronic syndrome after all.

Moving towards the light in the now seemingly endless tunnel, I recall even more examples of this e-disease, all the while realizing that I have another symptom – my spelling bar has also been drastically lowered.

While I never won a National Spelling Bee, I used to take pride in being able to spell a majority of the three and four syllable words in the English Dictionary.   My electronic disease has gotten so bad that I’m now ecstatic to be able to get two-syllable words close enough so that spell-check can fix them.  And what is up with the word “whet”? What does it mean and does anyone use it?  Why is it the first word in the spell check replaceable words list when I misspell “what”?  I am almost to the point where I am going to figure out what “whet” it is and start using it in order to appease the “whet” god.

I am starting to feel tired in my quest to get to the light.  I recollect the last email message that did me in.  Then it hit me like SPAM does when it’s actually relevant to you.  I now have the answer as to why the email put me in this e-coma.  It was not the email itself but the face-to-face conversation it tried to replace.

Somehow a distorted version of a line from the Matrix appeared in my internal dialog. “If you take the blue pill, the story ends and you wake up in your inbox and believe whatever you want to believe.   If you take the red pill, you awake from your e-coma and I show you how deep the reality-hole goes.”

I take the red pill.

I now stop moving down the lighted path. It’s not a disease I have. It’s a plague. It’s an electronic plague.

I turn around and start running hell-bent back towards my body.  I am not ready to let the electronic reaper take me!   I am not going to live in a reality where an anorexic person is one who uses too many text shortcuts like “CUL8R” or “OMG”!    I cannot fathom an existence where Acne is misplaced capital letters all over the body of their emails, where someone with Elephantitis has a combination of non-conjugated verbs and fractured sentences in their messages.

The email that did me in was from someone that had an e-version of Tourette’s where they repeated things involuntarily and whose convulsions resorted in many run-on sentences in an ultimately failed attempt to communicate.  What would life be like for your average ten year-old if playing guitar involved strumming on some wire strings instead of pounding on and pushing a series of colored buttons as the video game moves the song along?  Somehow we’ve all decided that “Wii” is more important than “me”.  Profound, huh?

Well, I knew what the solution was – feet and voices.  Use your feet to move you to a place where your voice could be heard.

I thought about asking my IT staff to see if they could limit email messages, not only by size but also by words used. “Your email exceeds the number of words allowed in a single message. Please find a more succinct way to communicate or just turn your chair around and talk to the person next to you instead.”

Feet and voices.

I pay A LOT of money for rent, utilities and electricity.  Do you how expensive cubicles are?  Why bother if people are going to email each other in places where conversations should be had?   We have office space.  We all work in the same area.  Why don’t we use our feet and voices?

Searching the web frantically trying to track down my Great Aunt  Evelyn’s last known address and phone number, I vow to use my feet and my voice more often.  Instead of shooting an email to one of my staff members about something essential, I’d like to use my feet and my voice to reach out to them.  I’m not talking about meetings.  I’m talking about conversations.  Once you put conversations on calendars they become meetings.

Less instant messaging, I am going to make more of an effort to chat with people in their space, to reach out and call people, hear their voice for a change.  I’m going to use my voice if my feet can’t get me there.  Don’t I get half credit that way?

Don’t get me wrong, emails absolutely have their place. But I know that one 5 minute conversation can sometimes replace hours of emails.  Think of the time it takes to write them, read them, respond to them and so on.  God forbid two people email back to the same email at the same time and now you have a pair of emails to respond to; each not aware of the other’s comments.  If I can get down from 96 emails per hour on a Saturday morning to 56, I will consider it a major coup.  Don’t worry, I’ll try not to call too many of you on a Saturday morning, well at least not too early!

I also suspect that cutting down on email will cut down on the professional drama as well. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen someone’s feelings get hurt because they interpret tone (that was not meant to be there) in an email and take insult as a result.

I am so scared that one of my kids is going to get married to someone they never spoke to, just texted and exchanged emoticons with.  What comes next -marriage vows over a PDA?  How romantic.  The irony is nearly everyone has a cell phone.  But phones now-a-days, are really just tools to text, email, IM and update your Facebook status.  Would my cell phone bill be less if I got the “no voice calls” plan?

There is a dying art of conversation and the satisfaction that can come from it.  Not only from a productivity point of view but from an interpersonal one.  I believe the art of conversation is being lost to the dexterity required to text 100 words a minute with your thumbs.  The ability to use shortcuts instead of words.  Shortcuts, in most cases, can’t even be spoken – one more nail in the communications coffin.

I feel like my generation is at a crossroads.  My parents did not have access to e-communications until much later in their lives.  My grandmother never even had an email address, but she did have a little black address book that would have served me well now!

I look at my kids and their friends who spend so little time talking and an overwhelming amount of time texting or updating their social networking statuses.  I fear that once they invent e-Beer they will never put their Smart Phones down!

At this pivotal point, I’d like to try something new – actually something old.  I’m going to try to take a bite out of bytes and talk to someone.   I encourage you to exercise your voice, not your thumbs.  Realize that conversation is an art. Study it and appreciate it and above all, don’t take it for granted.

Share This Post

Post Comment