The (in)convenience of modern communication

It’s only lunch time, but I’ve been having a bad day and I text a friend to see if they want to meet up for drinks after work. A few minutes pass and my read receipts show they’ve read the message, but a reply doesn’t appear. I begin to wonder why they haven’t responded yet.

At any other point in history, the ways in which we communicate today would seem unbelievable. Fifty years ago, if you wanted to talk to someone you didn’t see on a regular basis, you had to call them (at their home, not on a cell phone), write them a letter (which wouldn’t be delivered if it happened to be a Sunday), or just show up at the places they frequented and hope they were there.

In 2019, my iPhone is constantly by my side and I pick it up anywhere from 80-120 times a day, according to my Screen Time app. It’s been ten minutes since my friend read my text message, and since there’s still no reply, I try to do something productive to pass the time. After all, people have lives that don’t involve them messaging me back the second I reach out. But waiting for that reply starts to become all I can think about.

The way we communicate has changed dramatically in the last generation, and even more so in just the last few years. It might seem strange for the modern person to consider, but Skype and video calls as we know them didn’t exist until 2003. Facebook, the world’s largest social media platform, wasn’t founded until 2004 (and wouldn’t be available to the public until 2006). And while there have been other social media sites (Myspace, Friendster, etc.), these adolescent platforms have become so big that it’s difficult to imagine a world without them.

Nowadays, everyone has a smartphone. My grandparents have smartphones. The only people I can think of in my life that aren’t constantly engrossed in the world of modern technology are my great aunt and uncle, and they still have cell phones, just not the internet-enabled ones that most of us keep in our pockets.

No one I know is unreachable for more than a day — although more than a few minutes is probably more accurate if the need should arise. But it’s easy to forget that it’s not just you trying to reach out to someone on a moment’s notice.

Suddenly everyone has the ability to reach you at any time of the day, from your boss, to your mom, to someone you went to high school with that you haven’t seen or heard from in years. And that gets stressful.

In his book The Singularity is Here, Ray Kurzweil says “we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress.” Which not only points to the fact that technology is being introduced and becoming outdated at a moment’s notice (have you seen an old iPhone recently?), but that humans probably aren’t cut out psychologically to deal with modern communication.

To go from not being able to get in touch with someone for days (or weeks) at a time to all at once being able to communicate with practically anyone you’ve ever interacted with at a moment’s notice is crazy. It’s no wonder Americans are incredibly stressed and becoming more stressed with each passing year.

We aren’t wired to experience 20,000 years of progress at once, to borrow Kurzweil’s phrase. And we aren’t wired to have our days interrupted by 40-90 notifications every twenty-four hours either.

Obsessively checking my phone to see if someone has messaged me back causes a lot of anxiety. While an hour or two between replies seems reasonable (at least in my mind), more than that has me second-guessing everything. Are they mad at me? Did I say something stupid? Are they okay? Just busy? Then why aren’t they texting back???

Many of us have a bad habit of reading too much into it when someone doesn’t get back to us right away, even when the reasons are likely benign. They probably just got distracted, or were checking in with family members to see if they actually have free time. Better yet, they were hopefully enjoying some time away from their phone, reading a good book or hanging out with other friends.

But modern communication has made it impossible to see that. The ability to reach someone at any time of the day has made us believe that we are entitled to be in contact with someone whenever we feel like it. That if you send a message, you deserve a quick response, and that you should act just as quickly to reply to message when one is sent to you.

Not only is that not healthy, it prevents you from being productive and enjoying your life. It might not seem like such a big deal to be interrupted by a few notifications when you’re working a job you don’t particularly like, but what about when you’re having dinner with your family? Or when you’re on a date? When you’re trying to read a book you’ve been putting off starting?

Your best bet? Just turn off your notifications. All of them. And urge your friends to do the same. Understand that people will reach out to you when they can and that being able to get in touch with people whenever you want really isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Modern communication may be convenient, but it also comes at a cost: our peace of mind. And we shouldn’t be willing to sacrifice that so willing.

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