In November 2011, The Boston Globe had a panel on "cyberetiquette." We met in a theater at Boston Globe headquarters. On the stage was a moderator, a Globe reporter, and two of the Globe's regular "advice and manners" columnists. And then there was me, there, I suppose to represent the cyberworld and where it might take us.
As I remember it, we responded to questions from the moderator and from the floor with general agreement on most matters: No texting at family dinner. No texting at restaurants. Don't bring your laptop to your children's sporting events, no matter how tempting. (Your daughter looks up from her star turn at lacrosse, and you are deep into an e-mail to your supervisor. The game was boring until then, sure. But e-mail can get so engrossing that you've got to be careful; you're playing with fire!)
Then came this question from the floor: A woman said that as a working mother she had very little time to talk to her friends, to e-mail, to text, to keep up.
"Actually," she confessed, "the only time I have is at night, after I'm off work and before I go home, when I go family shopping at Trader Joe's [a supermarket]. But the guy at the checkout line, he wants to talk. I just want to be on my phone, into my texts and Facebook. Do I have the right to just ignore him?"
The two manners experts went first. Each said a version of the same thing: The man who did the checkout had a job to do. She had a right to her privacy as he provided his service. I listened uncomfortably. I thought of growing up and all the years I went shopping with my grandmother, all the relationships she had with the tradespeople at every store: the baker, the fishmonger, the fruit man, the grocery man, for this is how we called them.
If they hadn't spoken to us, we would have been upset. If we hadn't spoken to them, I always assumed they would have been upset as well. I was not older than my fellow panelists. And I've never considered myself a nostalgic person. But I found myself disagreeing with them.
I answered the question from the floor in a very different spirit. I said that we all know that the job that the man at the checkout counter was doing can now be done by a machine. But until he is replaced by a machine, I think he should be treated as a person, with all the rights of a person. And that includes a bit of human exchange, since that is clearly what makes his job tolerable for him, makes him feel that in his job, this job that could be done by a machine, he is still a human being.
My fellow panelists were not pushovers. Nor was the audience. This was not what they wanted to hear. But in this moment, as in so many others like it, when I took stock of their unhappy reaction to what I said, I felt myself at the cold, hard center of a perfect storm: We expect more from technology and less from each other. What once would have seemed like "good service" is now an inconvenience. That's the "less from each other" part of the equation.
We also want technology to step in as we invite people to step back. It used to be that we imagined that our mobile phones would be for us to talk to each other. Now, our mobile phones are there to talk to us.
New commercials for Siri, the digital assistant on Apple's iPhone, have it serving as a best friend and confidante to a man who is preparing for a romantic dinner date at home and to an ingénue who takes a rainy day off from work to dance around her apartment in bare feet. I interview young people who tell me they hope that in the future, Siri will be even more like a best friend to them.
We are at a moment of temptation, ready to turn to machines for companionship even as we seem pained or inconvenienced to engage with each other in settings as simple as a grocery store. We want to instrumentalize daily life with real people and accept fantasies of "intimate" conversations with robotic personal assistants who have no real understanding of what we are saying to them in terms of what things mean to us.
We seem lonely but afraid of intimacy. Siri, the social network, digital assistants, all of these give the illusion of companionship without the demands of relationship. The path we are on seems fraught with paradox and about the most important human matters.
Yet smitten with technology, we are like young lovers who are afraid that too much talking will spoil the romance. We don't much want to talk about these problems. But it's time to talk.
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