Hypercommunication: How we live now

The house is dark this morning, and gazing outside I see that the trees have been painted with snow down to the last twig. The lawn should be launching itself toward the mower-blade height at this point of the year, but it’s white too, with maybe an inch of wet snow.  Recognizing that we’d had a power outage, and that, although I could still boil water on the gas stove, there was no way to grind the coffee beans — and thus realizing that my normal morning ritual was rapidly degenerating into hardship and brutishness and the full Hobbesian nightmare — I did what men have been doing in this situation for millions of years: I went back to bed.

And then eventually manned up and went to Starbucks.

My big, thorny question, which I pose in the muted morning light (the laptop is commendably enbatteried, and I have backup batteries, so I guess I have no excuse but to try to write), is: Do we invent technology or does technology invent us?

Think of the way that some people hypercommunicate on an iPhone, how they’re always camped out on Facebook or texting madly or talking on the cellphone while driving, or maybe doing all of the above simultaneously. The technology can be described as enabling. The compulsion to communicate comes from the end-user, the social animal. Some of us are pack animals, some are loners, but we’re all part of a fundamentally communicative species. Technology allows us to extend our communication across great distances, or multiply the number of recipients of our messages. In the digital era, we can quantify our communicative success; we know exactly how many people “follow” us, and how many clicks we’ve gotten. We can even rank ourselves by communicative sweep.

What hath God wrought?

Surely the technology shapes us, and alters our behavior, and perhaps even rewires our brain in a way that is hard to measure. There’s a feedback loop that makes us want to get the jolt of pleasure from additional connections. Can you become a communication addict? And if so, what’s the cut-off point between volubility and addiction? (My daughter Shane wrote about this a while back, as you recall.)

There’s another basic human need that can get lost in the shuffle, and it’s the need to think, to contemplate the world, to daydream. The brain needs space. The brain needs silence.

When we read, for example, we need to turn off the phone. Everyone knows this, but how many people have the discipline to do it? What if someone important needed to reach you? To turn off your phone is now like going into isolation. It’s like going to sea in the 19th century. I’ll be back in a few years, Mom.

There are people who have figured this out, who’ve learned the perfect balance between silence and communication, who know when to sit quietly in a nook and read a novel, and when to work the phone, and when to sent out a blast email, and when to monitor Twitter feed and update Facebook, all while maintaining meaningful face-to-face relationships and setting aside time for hobbies and exercise and caregiving and home maintenance and all the other necessities of a civilized existence.

I just don’t know any of them.

And on that note: The power’s back.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."

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Joel Achenbach · March 21, 2013