In a WSJ editorial that’s likely to get passed around quite a bit, Granta editor John Freeman lays out his “Manifesto for Slow Communication,” i.e., returning to the good old days of face-to-face communication and handwritten memos.
He starts with a classic internet horror story:
“My friend has just had his PC wired for broadband,” writes the poet Don Paterson. “I meet him in the café; he looks terrible—his face puffy and pale, his eyes bloodshot. . . . He tells me he is now detained, night and day, in downloading every album he ever owned, lost, desired, or was casually intrigued by; he has now stopped even listen ing to them, and spends his time sleeplessly monitoring a progress bar. . . . He says it’s like all my birthdays have come at once, by which I can see he means, precisely, that he feels he is going to die.”
Without the context, I don’t know whether the poet’s friend just hooked up his broadband, or whether this is a bloodshot nightmare from 1998 when the rest of us did it, but I’m pretty certain I’ve read this kind of handwringing already.
You can probably guess where the rest of the piece is going. Things were better and people were smarter before the internet. We’re all fools for being sucked into this phenomenon, and despite the social goods Freeman grants it, it’s ruining our lives:
The ultimate form of progress, however, is learning to decide what is working and what is not; and working at this pace, emailing at this frantic rate, is pleasing very few of us … Of course email is good for many things; that has never been in dispute. But we need to learn to use it far more sparingly, with far less dependency, if we are to gain control of our lives … It has made it more difficult to read slowly and enjoy it, hastening the already declining rates of literacy. It has made it harder to listen and mean it, to be idle and not fidget.
One of his primary arguments is that the speed of communication allowed by the internet makes us sloppy:
We need time in order to properly consider the effect of what we say upon others. We need time in order to grasp the political and professional ramifica tions of our typed correspondence. We need time to shape and design and filter our words so that we say exactly what we mean. Communicating at great haste hones our utterances down to instincts and impulses that until now have been held back or channeled more carefully.
Freeman seems to be making a habit of project his fears onto others and extrapolating that into a massive societal problem. I don’t know about him, but I put a great deal of care into everything I write, online or off. I’ve spent just as much time on this post as I would have on a piece of similar length for print. Granted, it may be quicker for me since I’m not dipping a quill into an inkwell, but I’ll stand behind anything I post on the web. I also admit to any mistakes I may make in the process, much as he must admit to speaking out of anger in a face-to-face meeting, or had to scratch out something on a handwritten letter.
I’m no less careful online than I would be in person or in print because I understand the permanent, viral nature of the internet. I know that mistakes and embarrassments can spread far and wide on the internet, irrevocably, so I’ve learned to avoid making them. Perhaps Freeman doesn’t realize that a whole generation that knows nothing but the internet understands this as well.
His coup de grace is that the new-fangled relationships we form and nurture online are not as worthy as the old ones forged over pints at a pub:
If we spend our eve ning online trading short messages over Facebook with friends thousands of miles away rather than going to our local pub or park with a friend, we are effectively withdrawing from the people we could turn to for solace, humor and friendship, not to mention the places we could go to do this. We trade the complicated reality of friendship for its vacuum-packed idea.
This would imply that the friends I’ve made online and later met in person are somehow less important and less real, which would probably surprise them when I tell them that the next time we meet at a pub. Freeman seems to have a habit of assuming that life on the internet is mutually exclusive of life in the physical world, that if we enjoy communicating with people online, we must not do it in person.
This article is an adaptation of a forthcoming book, so perhaps I’ve missed some of the nuance of his full argument in this distilled form. But considering that the book is called The Tyranny of E-mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox, I suspect it’s mostly more of the same sclerotic nostalgia from someone who either can’t, or won’t, understand how the internet has changed the way we communicate. Some people have adapted. Some clearly haven’t.