Some thoughts on instant communications.

I have been thinking about the effects of being able to send instant communications to anyone at any time.

Perhaps the dotard in the White House ought to consider this whilst sitting down to his morning cup of covfefe.

In this post I will talk about e-mail but the same applies to all forms of instant communications; tweets, SMS, facebook posts, usenet, even blogs.  Over the past few decades I have received many messages from many people, I have also sent many messages including some that on reflection I would rather not have sent.

ASCII may seem clear and unambiguous but it is like a black and white image, you have to assume the colours from the image, just as with ASCII you have to assume the intentions, motivations and emotions from the message, it is easy to assume a deep significance to a remark which may have been a joke or just a meaningless space filler, the person at the other end can’t see the expression on your face when you typed it.  Misunderstandings abound on the internet on both public and private channels.

Emojis have eased this situation somewhat but this is still a pale imitation of the real colours.  Pastel shades.  There is no international consensus on the meanings emojis are meant to convey.

Whenever a message arrives for me I get a message telling me “You have new mail waiting” or my phone vibrates when an SMS arrives, this gives the message a tremendous sense of urgency, after all the message may only be a few seconds old.

The same importance is given to all messages, the same announcement is made for a letter from a good friend as for a message from someone I don’t know in Taiwan wishing to introduce me to the latest unmissable business opportunity.

The Internet gives everything a sense of urgency.  My friends used to wait weeks for me to answer their paper letters, now if I don’t reply within a couple of hours they send another message asking if I got their e-mail.

It is very easy to type out an answer straight away and send it off in the heat of the moment, but when I click on that send button it’s gone, I don’t get another chance.  I’m sending out my first draft. Unpolished, unedited.

E-mail, unlike typed or handwritten letters, discourages reflection.  While logged on, it’s difficult to compose a message and then put it to one side, to re-read and edit … it’s too easy to push the send button.  We have no time to waste, modern living is all about the now.  As a result too many messages are sent without thinking about their consequences.

Do we not find more mistakes in typed and handwritten letters?  Of course we do!  After all only a few typewriters have editing facilities and if you correct a handwritten letter the mistake is still obvious, but almost all editors/wordprocessors have spell checkers.

Spell checking reassures us that everything is OK.  But there is more than spelling and grammar to a message.  What about the content of the message.

I am wondering if wordprocessing and e-mail themselves degrade the art of writing.  Our ability to effortlessly correct errors allows us to write first and think later ( if at all ). When I write with a pen in my hand I must get the sentence correct in my head before my pen touches the paper.  All over the Internet, in e-mail, on facebook, on twitter and in Usenet groups there is a lack of concern for effective writing.  There are many Web pages which are perfectly spelled and grammatically correct but are utterly meaningless!

I’m starting to think that e-mail destroys reflection at both ends of the communication channel.  With the pressure on to compose a letter on the fly, many times I don’t re-read my words or refine my arguements.  I don’t give my messages as much attention as they deserve.  In writing as well as reading slow is better than fast.

I’ve sent off plenty of messages that I’ve later regretted, I’m sure we have all done this. You know this is true because you must have received messages like this yourself !

Next time you receive a message which seems crass or ill considered take some time to think about whether the sender of the message really meant what they said or was it a message that was composed in the heat of the moment ans sent of before it was considered in a rational light.

If I write a letter on paper then I have time to pause re-read it, address the envelope, think about what I have written, get a stamp, and reconsider.  The angry letter I write tonight can be reviewed in tomorrow’s sunlight.

But not with instant messages.

The reader is at fault too.  They read the message scrolling the screen up and presses a button, in an instant the message is either filed or deleted. No reflection or contemplation, there are a queue of messages waiting for judgement.  Instead of pondering and trying to fill in the colours of the black and white image, it’s on to the next message.

Instantaneous response without reflection. Our words carry less weight, so we value them less. We don’t pack meaning into our messages.

In this modern age we are always in a hurry, time is money, we can’t waste the minutes, Schedules are tight. Deadlines press. No time to reflect.

No time.  😦

 

Empathy?

I am a very literal person, that is why I like electronics, it is predictable and deterministic.

I tend to interpret things literally, but that’s just the way I am.  Over the years I have come to the conclusion that my brain works differently to everyone else’s (notice I said differently, not better or worse just different).  There is an abstraction process which goes on in the minds of most people, they automatically see one thing as representing another whereas I have to make that link manually.  For example someone makes a statement and other people automatically think ‘oh she doesn’t really mean that, what she is trying to say is …’ but I just take the statement as a literal representation and then I have to remember to think about what other meanings there might be behind the statement.

This does not mean that I cannot do this kind of abstraction, it is just that for me the abstraction is always explicit and never implicit.  It is just a different way of looking at the world.

I also have a problem with empathy.

My understanding of empathy is that it is the ability to understand another person’s feelings, emotions and position.  To understand what is going on inside another person’s mind, to interpret their facial expression and body language.  According to the psychology textbooks empathy makes the other person feel valued and enables them to see that their thoughts and feelings have been acknowledged.

I am told that empathy allows people to make a close friend and look after that friendship.  Empathy avoids the risk of misunderstanding and miscommunication, because people who have empathy can figure out what the other person intended.

But this is an alien world, closed to me.  I have no idea how I come across to people.  I have read about empathy and analysed it as much as I can but I still cannot empathise with anyone.  I have read books on body language but it is still a foreign language of which I have little understanding.

I have noticed that other people seem to communicate as much through their eyes as through their words and they seem to know what the other person means intuitively.  I haven’t got a clue how to do body language, perhaps this puts me at a disadvantage, I don’t know.  Some people have said that I can be very didactic, that I lecture them rather than having a proper conversation, I don’t know what the characteristics of a proper conversation are, surely if I have a point to make then I must pursue it to it’s logical conclusion.  I admit that sometimes I do lecture people when I forget to try to keep up the illusion that I have some empathy.

I can and do try to emulate what I think the process of empathy might produce but this is an intellectual process it does not come naturally and so I make many mistakes.  I pretend to be normal but I miss subtle clues as to what people think and feel.  Sometimes I don’t understand jokes everyone else finds funny, chatting with people and making small talk is a nightmare, it is exhausting and stressful to keep up this pretence.

Conversations based on the adjudication of an issue where evidence can be examined and judged in favour or against a position are much easier, because then I know where the conversation is going.  I like a conversation which progresses along a logically linked linear path, a series of facts or assertions which follow clearly from from the preceding steps.  I find the desultory ‘small talk’ type of conversation stressful because it is so unpredictable.  People change the subject like a bee flitting from one flower to the next without a care for the overall direction of the conversation, it is so confusing, ‘idle chitchat’ leads nowhere and I have no idea how to do it properly.

If I think something is wrong then my instinct is to say so, but I have learned that this can be fraught with difficulties so most of the time I say nothing even though I would like to, I just don’t know how people will react to what I have to say.  If a conversation is boring for instance people can be offended if you tell them so, but if you don’t tell them then you are stuck listening to a pointless conversation going nowhere.

Other people seem to socialise together effortlessly but I have no idea what to talk to them about.  I have little idea what others are thinking about or how they feel or how to respond to those feelings.  I have learnt to assume what others are thinking and feeling but this is a conscious cognitive exercise, it does not come naturally to me.  I have to stop and think about what people might be feeling, to work out the patterns in people’s behaviour and how this relates to their internal feelings, usually this is after the event and is a very inferior and inaccurate model of what actually happened.

I feel like a prisoner of my self focus.  This is because my self focus is the only thing which is available to me, I cannot perceive other peoples thoughts and feelings.  Peoples facial expressions are difficult to read, I never really know what is expected of me.  I say all the wrong things without anticipating the hurt this will cause, until people react badly.  Usually I just keep quiet.

When I can be alone it is a great relief, I can relax and I no longer have to pretend to be like other people, and yet I become lonely when I am alone too long.

It took me a long time to even realise that I have no empathy, I suppose one of the effects of not having empathy is that it is hard to recognise the fact that you have no empathy.  I only knew that I had no friends either male or female and that all my personal relationships always seem to go disastrously wrong.  There was one colleague at work whom I considered to be a friend for many years but I offended him some time ago and now although he is still superficially friendly our conversations are limited to the most anodyne of subjects and the social interaction we used to have has been curtailed. Sigh …

Eventually I read an article in a psychology journal about relationships and realised what they were describing was not the way my mind works and so I started reading about psychology and trying to understand the nature of the problem.  Unfortunately understanding the nature of the problem does not help to solve the problem.  Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

I decided that psychology could not be classified as a rigorous science but that it does have some value despite it’s shortcomings.