As more things move online, I notice that relationships are becoming increasingly impersonal. We don’t realize what we are doing in our rush to communicate with others. We don’t see how these virtual encounters can often be rude and brusque. Offended parties feel helpless to respond.
I have often felt this way myself. I don’t like the steady stream of robocalls, texts and e-mails that harass me daily. They make me feel like a lost number in cyberspace with no consideration for my humanity. I know it is no use calling or e-mailing offenders back to complain since automated responses only increase the pain and frustration. I accept these annoyances as part of living in the frenetic intemperance of our postmodern world.
However, I’m saddened that sometimes I’m guilty of this offense when sending out e-mails to my list of thousands of friends and readers. Perhaps it is better to say it’s the fault of my computer programs, for I have no desire to offend anyone.
My computer runs automated programs that treat all people with equal brutality. The presentation of its cold hard text lacks the expression of the handwritten note. Its emojis, which I refuse to use, communicate fake or exaggerated sentiments that cannot replace the human touch.
I realize that all these impersonal ways of communicating can offend my friends and supporters. In the face of such barbarous treatment, I feel the need to apologize for the monstrous processes I have set in motion. Indeed, I’m sorry. Be assured that it isn’t intentional.
Pleas From Cyberspace
What triggered these reflections were some desperate e-mails that somehow reached me. They usually begin with, “I know you will never see this e-mail, but…” These are heartfelt complaints launched into cyberspace, hoping in vain for a personal response. They beg me not to view them as “a nameless entity out there.” They even ask me to change my automated responses to reflect more human sentiments. I try to oblige but never know what the computer will do when implementing my good intentions.
Other correspondents ask me to use their proper titles of address. One e-mail-collecting app, for example, does not include as a default, such important titles like Father, Sister or even Miss. To add these titles requires customization that I sometimes overlook. Hence, come the complaints.
Then there are e-mail-sending programs that leave out these just and honorable titles. As a person who is sensitive to courtesy, I feel lacerated by their crass egalitarianism. I want to respect everyone’s dignity, and yet I cringe knowing how these programs automatically butcher proper etiquette and send out rude designations.
Dreams of Programming
At times, I think of becoming a programmer. Then I would set things right again. How wonderful it would be to address everyone as they deserve with delightful titles like “Your Excellency” for bishops, and “Your Honor” for judges. I could write code that would reflect and celebrate the unequal qualities and distinctions of others and make everything more human and beautiful. I could also code out the politically correct and ugly inclusive terms that make everything vulgar and crass.
I know these things are beyond me. Such tasks belong to the mysterious world of the technicians that I do not understand. Even in the best circumstances, I can never be sure that suggested improvements won’t fall into some black hole and become entangled in a glitch. Although I respect programmers for their work, I also know they cannot turn machines into humans. Any kind of program will always be limited in expression.
Widening the Spectrum of Offending
I wish all these offenses were limited to e-mails and written communications. However, they extend farther.
I am horrified by seeing the lack of personalization becoming more universal in our coronaphobic society. The spectrum of offending widens with Zoom conversations, Skype calls and online conferences. The new buzzword is live stream. With exceptions, live streaming tends to deaden things. However, it has been decreed that everything must be live streamed. Thus, business meetings, conferences and religious services are now live streamed everywhere.
I am not as guilty of this offense because I have never live streamed an event, although I have participated in the events of others. However, I sense an emptiness in these meetings, similar to those found in my automated e-mail messages.
I find myself reduced to a box on a screen of equal boxes. People present themselves in different states of formality, context and focus. There is a lack of unity and connection in this new medium because we are all imprisoned in our different square worlds. The boxes cannot convey the warmth of a human relationship with all its nuance and mystery. People participate with varying degrees of attention. Some tune out completely. My jerry-rigged camera setup cannot convey my personality, nor can I perceive that of others in a similar state.
It’s not all my fault, but I feel the need to apologize for the manner of my presentation and my occasional inattention during these sessions. I’m sorry that I cannot connect as I would like. The people behind the other boxes on the screen deserve much more than what I give them.
Waiting to Be Human Again
Indeed, I long for the time when we can be human again. I yearn for a situation where I need not be distanced, masked or live streamed. Then, we might talk to each other with courtesy, respect and warmth. We are social beings, meant to interact with others in society, and that is where we find our greatest natural happiness. Nothing can substitute the warm conviviality of being together. We do ourselves great harm when we live in isolation.
We are not made to be machines or to mediate our lives through them. One day we will return the machine to its role as servant. We can then address the important things that give life its meaning and purpose. We can slow down and contemplate a universe outside the square screen boxes and direct ourselves to know, love and serve God, our Creator.
In the meantime, my apologies to all.