Posts Tagged ‘Communication technology’

Brave New E-World

September 3, 2011

Sorry, Wrong In-Box

The other night I did something silly.  In a hurry to reach my friend K., I made the mistake of calling him on his mobile phone.

“You should have texted,” he chided me the next morning, when he finally heard the voice mail I’d left.  “You know that’s the fastest way.”

It’s hard to keep track.  Because my friend A., who frequently sends text messages, somehow fails to recognize that she might receive them as well and almost never checks.  With her, I’m supposed to call.

But not with my friend D.  Between his two mobile phones, two office phones and one home phone, you can never know which number to try, and he seems never to pick up, anyway.  E-mail is his preference.  He has three e-mail addresses, at least that I know about, but I’ve figured out the best one. I think.

You hear so much about how instantly reachable we all are, how hyperconnected, with our smartphones, laptops, tablets and such.  But the maddening truth is that we’ve become so accessible we’re often inaccessible, the process of getting to any of us more tortured and tortuous than ever.

There are up to a dozen possible routes, and the direct one versus the scenic one versus the loop-de-loop versus the dead end changes from person to person.  If you’re not dealing with your closest business associates or friends, whose territory and tics you’ve presumably learned, you’re lost.

There are some people partial to direct messages on Twitter and others oblivious to that corner of the Twitterverse.  There are some who look at Facebook messages before anything else, and others whose Facebook accounts are idle, deceptive vestiges of a fleeting gregariousness that didn’t survive their boredom with Rebecca’s bread dough (“It isn’t rising! Tips?”) or Tim’s poison ivy (“Itching and itching! Remedies?”).

I know only a handful of people with just one e-mail address, but I know many with three or more, and not all of these people understand automatic forwarding.  My friend M. was recently reacquainted with an in-box unattended for a year.  It was stuffed with hundreds of unread messages — some, remarkably, from people flummoxed by her aloofness.

During a cyberbinge a few years back, I set up three new, uncoordinated e-mail accounts, though I’m not entirely sure why.  Maybe I had some vague notion that I’d be a subtly different person with a subtly different life on each.  In fact, I remained the same person with the same life on the same two e-mail accounts I was already using, and that person couldn’t remember the passwords or user names for the additional ones.  My debit-card P.I.N. is challenge enough.

Recently, I missed an interview because I was 20 minutes late and the subject assumed I was a no-show.  I’d been texting her about my delay because we’d communicated that way before.  But it turns out that she has two mobile phones, and was monitoring the one whose number I didn’t know.  Meanwhile, she was sending me e-mails, but it didn’t occur to me to look for those.

Speaking of interviews, Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, arrived for one two years ago with four BlackBerrys.  Maybe it was some elaborate anti-hacking system, a Murdoch Defense Shield.

Communication can become a multistep, multiplatform process.  My friend J. and I like to talk on the phone, but only after she has sent me a gmail to propose a gchat, during which we determine if a call is actually warranted and whether I should use her home, mobile, main office or satellite office number.  By the time voice meets voice, we’re spent.  There’s a lot of heavy breathing; none of it the fun kind.

To her egalitarian credit, she gives out all of her contact information freely.  Others use theirs to create castes of acquaintances: those with only an outer layer of business coordinates; those with “private e-mail” penetration; and those with the vaunted home phone.  I’m no longer sure why I have a home phone, whose voice mail I neglect.  A message from my friend L. languished there for two weeks.  She really should have e-mailed.

Newly minted relationships come with operating instructions.

“Try his cell first, then shoot him an e-mail,” says a bigwig’s assistant. “Or circle back to me. Here’s my cell, and my e-mail, and …”  Contact information is now contact exegesis.

And contact itself is subject to infinite vagaries.  An e-mail can go to spam.  A call can bump up against a voice mailbox not taking new messages.  Its owner, managing too many mailboxes, has let it fill.

My friend E. just texted, two days after my text. “Didn’t see it,” she reports. “On this new phone, I can’t figure anything out.”

In this new world, neither can I.

Frank Bruni is an op-ed columnist for the New York Times.  Click on Frank Bruni to read some of his other columns

Hat tip to Laura Cushman.