The Boston Phoenix
May 21 - 28, 1998

[Out There]

Unsend my heart

Technology brings nuance back into our lives

Out There by Ellen Barry

An otherwise high-functioning young woman of my acquaintance recently discovered the voice-mail function that allows you to review, erase, and re-record the message you are leaving on someone else's system. That night I listened as she put technology to work for her.

"Willy? This is Sally. Give me a call, Okay?" she said, and then, "Hi, Willy, this is Sally returning your call. I should be home all night, so give me a call," and then, "Willy, hey, this is Sally, just returning your call. Try me tonight at home. I may be out."

And then, in a tone at the same time sweltering and glacial -- with paper-thin pauses that told a story all by themselves -- fully calibrated, unflinching -- "Willy, this is Sally returning your call. Try me at home tonight, Okay?"

Young love! I thought, and then I thought of the thousands of answering-machine messages I had left during my life where I had, in one way or another, showed my hand -- breathed too loudly, for instance, or recorded my roommate making woo-woo sounds in the background, or accidentally given someone else's name. And then I thought of my children, and my children's children, and the advantages that go along with living in the late 20th century. At least we didn't make that ozone hole for nothing.

From Ned Ludd through Ralph Waldo Emerson through Henry Adams, philosophers have painted technology as a dehumanizing influence: Big Brother is watching us, the machine is in the garden -- somehow, progress threatens to reduce us to emotionless automatons. This idea prevailed in my parents' household, where we were constantly on the lookout for Orwellian developments. My parents felt that a Walkman could potentially cut me off from my fellow man, so decided as a matter of principle to deny me one, which resulted in several years of such sustained anger that they eventually saw the benefits of cutting me off from my fellow man. I did win a VCR once in a bingo game, but we rarely used it. And although the family has bent with the prevailing technological winds -- we now use a pop-up toaster -- time has not made these relationships any easier; 10 years after the answering machine entered her life, my mother still records her outgoing messages in a tone of voice generally reserved for hostage situations.

My personal view of technology is a good bit softer; after all, I learned BASIC at an early age. I realize that technology is value-neutral, and does not wipe out the foibles that make us human. In fact -- it strikes me lately -- technology can magnify them. The primary example is e-mail, which has thrown many of my important relationships from the casual post-Aquarian verbal mode into the epistolary. The effect is less George Orwell than Jane Austen.

The world changed the first time someone wrote down a domain name on a cocktail napkin. When I realized this had begun to happen, it was at the end of a long party in a strange part of town, and I had an icy feeling that the exploratory phone call had been replaced by an exploratory e-mail. I was right. Over the past year or so, my friends and I have spent untold hours trying to extract deeply coded messages from comparatively few words. In the process, we have found ourselves falling back on social strategies straight from the age of sealing wax. There's nothing good about sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring, but at least we were trained to do it. Waiting for the computer to ring is something else entirely.

For one thing, we have been forced to develop a whole new repertoire of passionate gesture. The moment of slit-eyed fury when you delete a name from your address book! The terror of realizing it's too late to unsend! The new romantic clichés: the relationships that lived and died without face-to-face contact! The ability to document every tiny shift in dynamics! The condensed time scale! The subject line!

Then, the stratagems: One friend taught me the coy trick of inserting typos into your e-mail messages so as to appear (a) nonchalant and (b) booked. Never, by the way, underestimate the variable of elapsed time, which can carry as much freight as the message itself. This point was brought home to me for the first time by a young man with whom I had established what I thought was a charming correspondence. "You really respond fast," he told me in a tone of mild contempt, as if he had caught me mooning around in the shrubbery under his window.

The form has also brought with it a fresh crop of brand-new insults, which are all the more maddening because they take 20 minutes to explain, even to members of your own generation. There is, for instance, the exquisitely galling experience of receiving, from someone who is not returning one's phone calls, an e-mail Top 10 list also being sent to every other person that individual has ever met in his or her entire life. Or sending off a long personal letter and receiving, in answer, the Top 10 list -- something that, as one friend points out, "wouldn't happen in a conversation."

On the subject of the mass mailing: Know that your correspondents are reading your address list as if it were a French novel. Know that they may be writing down your friends' addresses if they think they might like your friends better than they like you. If you are on someone's list for political humor, you can be equally sure that there is another list, maybe a blonde-joke list, that you are not on, and that you never will be on.

So electronic mail, while on the one hand as quaint as a glance over a fan, can turn around and bite you right on the ass. It's as fast as speech, and as easy as speech, but it lasts forever. It can be used as evidence against you (that means you, I'm not saying you shouldn't use it, I'm just saying beware: by sending the wrong message at the wrong moment, you can anger people in ways you never knew existed. And then those people will forward that message. And then, insofar as the electronic community is simultaneously coffee klatsch and war-crimes tribunal, your goose is cooked.

One last piece of advice: Do not zap back a response to a lovey-dovey e-mail message sent last week, signed "XOXOXOXO," if you broke up with the sender over the weekend. That's bad manners. For God's sake, delete "RE: Re: RE: Re: RE: Re: Honey bunny" and just start again. Because even though there is no name for this faux pas, it can do serious damage to your reputation. When someone sent such an e-mail to an otherwise discreet young woman of my acquaintance, she forwarded the message to me along with a second message headed "DELETED." I knew what that one said before I opened it.

Ellen Barry can be reached at