By Ellen Goodman
Saturday, August 13, 2005
CASCO BAY, Maine — I arrive at the island post office carrying an artifact from another age. It’s a square envelope, handwritten, with a return address that can be found on a map. Inside is a condolence note, a few words of memory and sympathy to a wife who has become a widow. I could have sent these words far more efficiently through e-mail than through this snail mail. But I am among those who still believe that sympathy is diluted by two-thirds when it arrives over the Internet transom.
I would no more send an e-condolence than an e-thank you or an e-wedding invitation. There are rituals you cannot speed up without destroying them. It would be like serving Thanksgiving dinner at a fast-food restaurant.
My note goes into the old blue mailbox and I walk home wondering if slowness isn’t the only way we pay attention now in a world of hyperactive technology.
Weeks ago, a friend lamented the trouble she had communicating with her grown son. It wasn’t that her son was out of touch. Hardly. They were connected across miles through e-mail and cell phone, instant-messaging and text-messaging. But she had something serious to say and feared that an e-mail would elicit a reply that said: I M GR8. Was there no way to get undivided attention in the full in-box of his life? She finally chose a letter, a pen on paper, a stamp on envelope.
How do you describe the times we live in, so connected and yet fractured? Linda Stone, a former Microsoft techie, characterizes ours as an era of continuous partial attention. At the extreme end are teenagers instant-messaging while they are talking on the cell phone, downloading music and doing homework.
But adults too live with all systems go, interrupted and distracted, scanning everything, multi-technological-tasking everywhere.
We suffer from the illusion, Stone says, that we can expand our personal bandwidth, connecting to more and more. Instead, we end up overstimulated, overwhelmed and, she adds, unfulfilled. Continuous partial attention inevitably feels like a lack of full attention.
But there are signs of people searching for ways to slow down and listen up. We are told that experienced e-mail users are taking longer to answer, freeing themselves from the tyranny of the reply button. Caller ID is used to find out who we don’t have to talk to. And the next killer ap, they say, will be e-mail software that can triage the important from the trivial.
Meanwhile, at companies where technology interrupts creativity and online contact prevents face-to-face contact, there are now e-mail-free Fridays. At others, there are bosses who require that you check your BlackBerry at the meeting door.
If a ringing cell phone once signaled your importance to a client, now that client is impressed when you turn off the cell phone. People who stayed connected 10 ways, 24-7, now pride themselves on going dark.
People hunger for more attention, says Stone, whose message has been welcomed even at a conference of bloggers. Full attention will be the aphrodisiac of the future.
Indeed, at the height of our romance with e-mail, You’ve Got Mail was the cinematic love story.
Now e-mail brings less thrill — who will be there? And more dread — how many are out there? Today’s romantics are couples who leave their laptops behind on the honeymoon.
As for text-message flirtation, a young woman ended hers with a man who wrote, C U L8R. He didn’t have enough time to spell out Y-O-U?
Slowness guru Carl Honore began In Praise of Slowness after he found himself seduced by a book of condensed classic fairy tales to read to his son. One-minute bedtime stories? We are relearning that paying attention briefly is as impossible as painting a landscape from a speeding car.
It is not just my trip to the mailbox that has brought this to mind. I come here each summer to stop hurrying. My island is no Brigadoon: WiFi is on the way, and some people roam the island with their cell phones, looking for a hot spot. But I exchange the Internet for the country road.
Georgia O’Keeffe once said that it takes a long time to see a flower. No technology can rush the growth of the leeks in the garden. All the speed in the Internet cannot hurry the healing of a friend’s loss. Paying attention is the coin of this realm.
Sometimes, a letter becomes the icon of an old-fashioned new fashion. And sometimes, in this technological whirlwind, it takes a piece of snail mail to carry the stamp of authenticity.