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Sure, technology can help us communicate, but it’s time for a modern-day primitive approach

Technology can be absolutely amazing. If you want a great example, try Skype, the online video telephone service. It used to be when someone would send my kids a gift, the best they could hope for is a photo of the kids opening it. But with Skype, I am able to have my kids’ godparents in Ireland watch live as their godkids open their birthday and Christmas gifts. That alone, in my opinion, easily justifies the price of the computer and Internet service.

For all the good technology out there, however, I have noticed a disturbing trend. Now that we have the ability to talk to each other in a wider variety of methods, my communication and social abilities have taken a real step back. For all the good advances we have made in communication and social networking, we use these technologies minimally, and, in turn, hurt communication.

It’s like buying a massive SUV, capable of climbing a small mountain range, and only using it to go to a fast food drive-through, or convincing yourself you swam 20 laps when all you actually did is stick a toe in the water. Also, in our rush to embrace new technologies, we have forgone good nontechnical communication and learning techniques; I think we can help our overall communication if we revisit them. Realizing a change needs to be made, I have chosen to become a modern-day primitive.

I am not judging anyone, just realizing if I don’t do something to stop my devolving situation, I might just technologically advance myself into a monosyllabic, lonely stupor. I’ve come up with some guidelines to help me readjust; I may fail at times with this new mindset, but that’s OK. It’s like anything: If I put more effort into it, the better friends, relationships and communication I will have in the end.

Judge for yourself:

1. One day per week, I will not e-mail, text message, instant message or visit a social or professional networking website.  If I have to communicate with people, I will meet with them face to face or call them on a phone and talk (phones still do that!). Sure, there could be an urgent or important message you must send or check, but really, 99 percent of all modern electronic communications can wait for one day or be dealt with over the phone.

2.  Once a week, I will try to meet with a friend for one hour. This would preferably not be the same friend every week, but rather someone new or someone I haven’t talked to in a while. Also, I promise for this hour I will turn off my phone and put it away to prevent me from not being able to focus on the conversation.

3. Once every two weeks, I will grab lined paper and a pen and write a letter to someone. No typing is allowed and it has to be more than a quick one-sentence note, at least three paragraphs long. At first, the recipient might wonder if you are in prison, but I think people miss getting letters, and this will also help my horrific penmanship.

4. If I need to convey any emotion (I’m happy, I’m angry), I will not type it or text it, rather I will do it face-to-face or over the phone. No matter how much you think you can relay with a keyboard, it’s next to impossible to convey real emotions.

5. Either I will not answer the phone if I am within 5 feet of another person, or, if I absolutely need to answer it, immediately leave out of courtesy for my fellow humans. It’s rude to sit and talk on the phone while in a crowd or with another person.

6. On my social networking websites (Facebook, Twitter, My Space) I will not “friend” anyone whom I do not know. To be someone’s friend should be something special, and not only does “friend-ing” everyone who asks elevate complete strangers to a place I might not want them, it also demeans my real friends who are suddenly grouped in with people I’ve never really met.

7. I will send a private note to all of my friends on my social networking websites once a month, regardless of whether I hear back from them or not. If they are worth joining online, then they are worth a brief message once a month.

8. If I can’t write it in 140 characters without abbreviating, distorting and losing parts of the meaning, I will not use Twitter. Twitter alone is mauling the English language into a pulp.

9. I will not text message while I am meeting with another person or when I am in my car. Using a phone as a keyboard highlights the relative non-urgency of these messages, and hence all you are doing is alienating a friend or endangering everyone on the road for something you can do later.

10. If I receive an e-mail from a friend, I will respond to it within a week.

11. I will read a nonfiction news source, not associated with the cable news networks, and not some overtly biased online mudslinger, for 30 minutes once a week.  Most of the cable news, and its online reprinting, is condensed down to almost bullet-point information. Real news articles will flush a story out, giving me a better understanding of an issue. This will not only make me smarter, but will give me something to communicate about.

12. I will proofread every message before I send it, because much of our instant communication is done with little or no thought involved. Paying attention to what you are actually saying is a good thing.

Many of my older friends (35 and up) seem to give up with the notion of  No. 1, and my younger friends are against No. 9, but the hands-down deal breaker for many is the idea of writing a letter. Funny.

This may not work, or I might end up having to abandon this plan because technology makes trying to go back impossible, but after comparing my modern communications to ones I wrote 10 years ago, my relationships are dangerously close to becoming generic. I’ll take less time online, more effort in my interactions and fewer acquaintances in exchange for closer and better friends.

Matthew McNeil is the host of a radio show on KSTP AM 1500.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by myles spicer on 11/17/2009 - 11:16 am.

    Interesting article. As a followup, I would refer you to my Community Voices article: “The Curse of the Computer” published by Minnpost Jan 7, 2009.

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