Keeping up with it all…

When I consider my age in “Internet years”, it feels like I’ve been around for quite a while. I graduated High School in 1974 and college in 1978. Back then, the Internet was something only the grad students in the Computer Science Dept even knew about and email was still considered experimental. We had phones back then, of course, but when I moved to the Left Coast after graduation, the only affordable way to stay in touch with old friends was by what the “connected generation” now refers to as “snail mail”. Needless to say, I’ve since lost track of many of my old friends from school. Same with my co-workers from the first half dozen or so jobs I had.

When I first put up my personal website in 1995 and established my own vanity domain some five years later, I realized that one of the main reasons I wanted a personal website, beyond it simply being a “cool” thing to do, was that I was establishing a beacon via which I hoped to re-establish communication with long-lost friends with whom I had lost touch through my own laziness and poor archival skills (in other words, in many cases I simply lost their addresses).

And the ploy seemed to work. Over the last 9 years or so I’ve had quite a few old acquaintances look me up on Google (or one of the many 3rd-world search engines out there) and drop me a note saying: “Hi… remember me? How’s it going”. Of course, in many cases the conversation only lasted until the civil greetings had been exhausted, as we no longer had enough common experience to keep the dialog going. In some cases, things continued on, albeit in the background. In at least one case, the other person and I had drifted so far apart in our viewpoints that, had we met in person at a party, there would have been a very real danger of a fist-fight breaking out.

It occurred to me a few years back that there was probably an evolutionary reason why humans tend to drift out-of-contact with each other over time. Every time I changed jobs during my early career, I stayed in limited touch with a few close friends but in pretty much every case, by the time a year or two had passed, I was no longer in any kind of regular communication with any of my former colleagues. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If I were to add up every person I considered a friend from High School, College, and every job I’ve ever held, the total could easily run into the hundreds. And if we were still in the paper-and-pencil communication era, and if I were to write to each of my extended friends at least once a year, I’d have to write and post a half-dozen letters per week just to keep up.

Now enter email… with which it’s possible to dash off a quick note to a friend in less time than it takes to change a light bulb. And with email comes the ubiquitous address book — where one can store contact information for anyone and everyone with whom we’ve ever been in contact. Surely there would be no more excuses for not writing. However… therein lies another trap. Because dashing off a quick note is so easy and painless, we’re expected to do so more often than if the message had to travel by physical means. There is a certain social pressure to communicate more frequently than once a year. In some cases, I’ve had running conversations with old friends in which three or four rounds of messages would be sent in a matter of hours. In other cases, it takes a day or two for each round-trip because of time zone differences and our respective workloads.

But the thought occurred to me that there may well be a limit to how much communication any given human can sustain over the long haul. Modern technology has made it more difficult to “lose track” of people the same way we used to. But, at the same time, it as also increased the rate at which new folks enter our lives, even if only temporarily. I continually receive email messages with comments on my static web pages and, in some cases, asking for advice. If the request seems to be relatively well thought-out, I’m likely to respond. Add that to emails from my current circle of friends who happen to be in other places and the steady background stream of communications with friends from the past and I end up spending an ever-increasing portion of my time servicing email messages.

Then along comes the social-lubricant web sites like LinkedIn and Facebook. So far I’ve managed to stay out of this potential (for me, at least) time sink. But I have many friends from times past whom I know are regular participants. And I even had one loon friend of mine criticize me for not joining in (as if it were somehow my duty to make it as easy as possible for random people to contact me). And now we have Twitter… ’nuff said.

Granted, there are times when I have something I’d like to say and nobody to whom I can directly say it. For that, I have been using various friends with whom I am already in regular contact. Like I’ll drop a paragraph in at the end of a message saying: “By the way, did you hear…”. But that reaches only one recipient. It does satisfy my need to communicate that particular fact-let, in much the same way that having an office-mate sitting next to you during your workday serves when you run across some interesting tidbit of web-based lore in your never-ending quest to avoid doing any real work. In fact, if I had someone sitting next to me in my office (I work mostly at home), I would probably have never thought of starting a blog. But I do understand the very real human desire to broadcast one’s innermost thoughts to someone… anyone… who will listen.

But, check the math. If we’re less likely to lose track of previous contacts… and if we’re more likely to come across new contacts we might never have hear of without having participated in “the net”… and if we participate regularly in social-lubrication systems whose whole purpose is to increase our public exposure — does that not add up to more-and-more time spent “over the water cooler”, so to speak, and less-and-less time spent actually living our lives? Are we destined to eventually become nothing more than bytes in a huge dynamic memory system made up of human brains interconnected with glass fiber? Isn’t there still some value in getting away from the computer for a while in the hopes of accumulating new experiences that we can then feed into this huge social-lubrication structure?

Or am I just frustrated that less than a dozen of the 10,000 emails I receive every day actually has content in which I’m personally interested?

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