Copyright The New York Times
January 29, 2006
I do not own a BlackBerry or a pager. I don’t chat or instant-message or text-message. My cellphone could connect to the Web if I let it, but I don’t. I don’t gamble on the Internet nor do I game on it (or on any other electronic device). And yet I’m starting to twitch.
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Related Verlyn Klinkenborg’s The Rural Life
I have three everyday telephone numbers, not counting Skype and a calling card, and two fax numbers. I have six working e-mail addresses, as well as a few no longer in use. A couple of weeks ago I started writing a blog for The Times. Part of my job, as a blogger, is to read and approve the publication of readers’ comments. That is the equivalent of another form of e-mail. There are probably half a dozen Really Simple Syndication tools on my computer, and one or another of them is always unfurling the latest ribbon of news in the background. It is astonishing how old the morning’s headlines seem by evening.
Back in the dial-up days, computer users made brief forays onto a bulletin board or some outpost of the primitive Internet, all the while clocking connection time in order to keep costs down. Going online was like driving a Stanley Steamer Ã³ better for scaring horses and wowing the youth than for long-distance hauling. There was always a slightly neurotic edge to it. You could feel the seconds ticking away while nothing happened. But nowadays turning on the computer is synonymous with being online. Who turns the computer off? It’s rarely worth severing that digital link. For some of us, the computer has become less and less a place to work and more and more a place to await messages from the ether, like hopeful spiritualists.
I thought I was a fairly temperate user of computers. But in the past year or so I have become addicted to e-mail. I confess it. You probably know the signs. Do you tell your e-mail program to check for messages automatically every two minutes Ã³ and then disbelieve it when it comes up empty? Have you learned to hesitate before answering a new message so it doesn’t look as though you were hunched over the keyboard, waiting? Do you secretly think of lunch as a time for your inbox to fill up? But the clearest sign of e-mail addiction is simply to ask yourself, what is the longest you’ve gone without checking your e-mail in the past two months? Anything longer than a broken night’s sleep is good.
I blame my e-mail addiction, in part, on the United States Postal Service. Seeing the mail lady pull up to our rural mailbox in her red station wagon with the flashing amber light on top is one of the high points of my day, whether there is anything “good” in the mail or not. (The “goodness” of mail is another question entirely.) When you think about it, the postal system is a remarkable thing, even in this new universe of instant-delivery systems. Its genius is this: The mail comes only once a day. All that expectation gathered into a single visit! And once-a-day-ness is built right into the system. I try to imagine the mail lady bringing every piece of mail to our mailbox as she gets it. In fact, that’s exactly what she does, because the mail shows up only once a day at the local post office.
I suppose I could tell my e-mail program to check for mail on a postal schedule Ã³ once a day Ã³ although minutes are the only intervals the software understands. But that would defeat the logic of e-mail, which is meant to arrive seriatim Ã³ hence, its addictive punch. The principle of snail mail is infrequency; the principle of e-mail is frequency. The real question is, what is the frequency for?
I think of e-mail as a continuing psychology experiment that studies the effect on humans of abrupt, frequently repeated stimuli Ã³ often pleasurable, sometimes not, but always with the positive charge that comes from seeing new mail in the inbox. So far, the experiment has revealed, in me, the synaptic responses of a squirrel. It is a truism of our time that we now have shorter attention spans than ever before. I don’t think that is true. What we have now are electronic media that can pulse at the actual rate of human thought. We have the distinct discomfort of seeing our neural pace reflected in the electronic world around us.
Amid all that is wasteful, distracting, irrelevant and downright evil about e-mail, there is also this. We carry dozens of people, sometimes hundreds, around with us in our heads. They pass in and out of our thoughts as quickly as thought itself. E-mail is a way to gather these people Ã³ so many of them scattered across the globe Ã³ into the immediacy of our lives in a way that makes even a phone call feel highly formalized. It is the nearness of e-mail, the conversations it creates, that is addicting as much as the minute-by-minute stimuli. I try to remember that when I am getting twitchy, when I start wondering whether the mail server is down again. I tell myself that I’m just listening for a chorus of voices, a chorus of friends.