Sunday, March 10, 2013

sometimes the punishment is being the person who deserves the punishment

I have puzzled over this piece in the Times, by something vaguely human referred to as Nick Bilton, for a little while now. I have decided that the Times is not nearly a smart or subversive publication to publish this piece as exceptionally dry satire. I am therefore moved to conclude that Mr. Bilton is, in fact, as profoundly pitiable a creature as he presents in this piece. Since Mr. Bilton's purpose is actually to insist to the world at large that he is very, very important-- not at all the type of person who frequently finds himself desperately worrying that he is in fact not important at all-- and is therefore strapped for time, I'll try to be quick.

Let's review.
Some people are so rude. Really, who sends an e-mail or text message that just says “Thank you”? Who leaves a voice mail message when you don’t answer, rather than texting you? Who asks for a fact easily found on Google? 
Don’t these people realize that they’re wasting your time?
You cannot waste something that has no value. The attention and time of people who are offended by receiving a text message or email that has the intent of demonstrating respect and caring are people whose time and attention have no value. Therefore there is nothing to waste.
Then there is voice mail, another impolite way of trying to connect with someone. Think of how long it takes to access your voice mail and listen to one of those long-winded messages. “Hi, this is so-and-so….” In text messages, you don’t have to declare who you are, or even say hello. E-mail, too, leaves something to be desired, with subject lines and “hi” and “bye,” because the communication could happen faster by text. And then there are the worst offenders of all: those who leave a voice mail message and then e-mail to tell you they left a voice mail message.
Politeness and manners are the ways in which societies inculcate the assumption of the value of strangers, the presumption that they are worthy of respect and kindness. At their best, manners remind us that the bellboy has a life of perfectly equal value to that of the hedge fund manager he attends to. More, they remind us that not one of us is indispensable, that the death or disappearance of any individual never upsets the balance of society very much, and that none of us are mourned for long. Manners emerged from wisdom; Mr. Bilton, being of a type, is unfamiliar with the concept.
My father learned this lesson last year after leaving me a dozen voice mail messages, none of which I listened to. Exasperated, he called my sister to complain that I never returned his calls. “Why are you leaving him voice mails?” my sister asked. “No one listens to voice mail anymore. Just text him.” 
My mother realized this long ago. Now we communicate mostly through Twitter.
My own mother has been dead since 1989, my father since 1997. And yet I feel lucky to have enjoyed a fully human relationship with both of them for the short time I had them. Mr. Bilton, meanwhile, apparently regards his parents as the human equivalent of a pop-up ad or a sponsored tweet from Dominos. This passage seems to me a failure of Mr. Bilton's own desire for concision; simply writing "I have traded everything good in life for empty monuments to my own self-regard" saves him a few characters.
Now, with Google and online maps at our fingertips, what was once normal can be seen as uncivilized — like asking someone for directions to a house, restaurant or office, when they can easily be found on Google Maps. 
I once asked a friend something easily discovered on the Internet, and he responded with a link to, which stands for Let Me Google That For You. 
Human beings ask for things of each other because we are limited, fallible creatures. We give to each other mostly because it is right to give but also because we recognize in ourselves the same limitations that compels others to ask us for help. Sometimes the things that we are asked for are little things, like our time, our full attention, our regard. We extend them, not in spite of their inefficiency but because of their inefficiency, because the purpose of human effort is to become more human; it is not to save more time for the least human parts of our lives. Once you recognize human society as a series of apologies, a long chain of forgiveness that extends from each of us to each other, you will never mistake being asked for a tiny courtesy as itself a tiny matter. Nor will you allow your self-obsession to grow to such a level that you mistake being asked for something with an imposition; what about you is so grand that could come to feel imposed upon?
In the age of the smartphone, there is no reason to ask once-acceptable questions: the weather forecast, a business phone number, a store’s hours. But some people still do. And when you answer them, they respond with a thank-you e-mail.
In an age of human tolerance, there is no reason to suppose that being asked a question is not acceptable, and more, no standing on which to believe that you are such an advanced creature that you can assess what is acceptable and what isn't.
“I have decreasing amounts of tolerance for unnecessary communication because it is a burden and a cost,” said Baratunde Thurston, co-founder of Cultivated Wit, a comedic creative company. “It’s almost too easy to not think before we express ourselves because expression is so cheap, yet it often costs the receiver more.” 
Mr. Thurston said he encountered another kind of irksome communication when a friend asked, by text message, about his schedule for the South by Southwest festival. “I don’t even know how to respond to that,” he said. “The answer would be so long. There’s no way I’m going to type out my schedule in a text.”
Mr. Thurston is clearly in need of a few facts, but perhaps these aren't as easily Googled. So let me supply them for him. Mr. Thurston: no one is remotely as impressed with you as you are with yourself. No one else mistakes your time for a precious commodity. Self-regard does not make you important, nor does a chronic overestimation of your own value actually make you valuable. You are not the cosmos. Most of the people around you are laughing at you, all the time. They are right to laugh, because you have violated a basic social compact. You believe that what you want and value is more important than what others want and value. In fact, no one thinks much about what you want at all. Some of the best advice you can give: remember that the minute you leave a room, no one is thinking about you. Harsh, but necessary.
The anthropologist Margaret Mead once said that in traditional societies, the young learn from the old. But in modern societies, the old can also learn from the young. Here’s hoping that politeness never goes out of fashion, but that time-wasting forms of communication do.
"Learning" is a powerful word, a misunderstood one. I'm sure Mr. Bilton spends much of his time absorbing little facts, churning through the deracinated information that the internet spreads out endlessly, shorn of context or curriculum, just true enough to be mistaken for knowledge. Perhap this is how it has to be. Maybe Bilton is the wave of the future. For myself, I don't think that there's anything to be done; the punishment for people like Mr. Bilton is living the life that they've endeavored to live. I'm sure their manic effort to degrade and destroy any genuinely human connection is proceeding on with great efficiency; I have no doubt they will reach that rarefied territory where there is nothing human at all on the other end of that well-loved smartphone. I picture him writing this piece in a dark apartment, face lit up with the sickly blue glow of his laptop, chattering away in the dark alone about all the people who have failed him. 

You might find all of this harsh! I confess that I feel some vestigial guilt about it, some antique notion of kindness and compassion; it's the manners talking. But those are concerns for another era. The world ran out of time for such things.


JS Bangs said...

Sorry, normally I like to leave more substantial comments if I comment at all. But all I really want to say is:

This. Yes.

(Like Mr. Thurston, I also hate voicemail. But I don't mistake my dislike for a virtue.)

paul said...

How many hours per week do you spend reading articles on NYT / Denton-blogs / Slate / Atlantic? ... I mean, yeah, there's a lot of bullshit out there, but you probably wouldn't run across so much of it if you closed your web browser every once in a while

Freddie said...

How many hours of your week do you spend being pedantic about other people's reading habits? The advice goes both ways, friend: all you have to do is not click.

lfv said...

Really? You have typed all this defending the scourge that is voice mail?

Freddie said...

I've had some really painfully inaccurate glosses on what I've written, but that may be the worst ever. Please: read the actual post, then comment.

Freddie said...

One thing I would like to point out: when my subjects do not involve literal life and death, or hunger or poverty, etc., you should read a little bit of tongue-in-cheekiness into my writing. I think this dude is probably a self-important fuckwit, and it's a profound error to blame people for their attempts to be polite and respectful. But also understand that I go a bit far because I am also aware of the extremity of my own reaction.

I think the the things I write. But I also recognize that, with certain targets, what I write is over the top.

mbh said...

Well said

ddd said...

TL;DR: I think you might have gotten distracted by the horrible framing/tone of the article and thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

1.) Social norms change. The barely-functional "thank you" text between close friends is losing its "politeness" currency. Defending it is IMO arbitrarily socially conservative, absent proof of harm. Presumably social bonds will remain reasonably strong without this, either due to different expectations or some other random kindness (maybe one enabled by technology itself!). (However, I suspect it will continue to be rude to berate your friends and family in the press for being slightly behind the times when it comes to norms around technological communication. This is the obnoxious aspect of the article IMO.)

2.) These changes are not strictly about selfishness. They're more efficient all around. Doing a few seconds of research yourself is faster than engaging in communication over an easily self-answered point. As society gets more comfortable with technology we get a better feel for what's easy and what's an unnecessary (if minor) burden. And being on the other side of these issues does feel silly - these lessons are easily learned for that reason alone.

If anything, what the article is observing is little more than today's version of society learning not to ring at dinner-time. That it's doing so in the form of "I'm such a victim of my friends who inconsiderately call me during dinner" is unfortunate but doesn't render the observations irrelevant.

Freddie said...

Your points are fair, but I would argue that when we're talking about human interaction and human decency, there is no frame/substance divide. The substance is the frame.

ddd said...

I'm not sure I follow - what if the article had been a compassionate observational piece about how these norms are changing, and maybe had a humorous anecdote or two about politely and lovingly educating older family members about how to use Google to answer simple questions themselves?

poliballgame said...

Yeah, I'm going to have to side with Nick on this one, Freddie. Though I generally like actually talking to people, I do find it a bit annoying when people leave me long-winded voice messages. In my email exchanges of late, I notice I have occasionally wondered about, "OK, do I reply with a 'thanks!' here or would that actually be annoying?" I actually kind of appreciate finding that this isn't just an instance of me overthinking things, and that others are also dealing with the ambiguous social calculus of wanting to be respectful and appreciative but not wanting to annoy.

bensix said...

I refuse to believe that the term "comedic creative company" has not been employed ironically. The consequences of its being a sincere description are too terrifying to contemplate.

Dan said...

I'm sure Mr. Bilton spends much of his time absorbing little facts, churning through the deracinated information that the internet spreads out endlessly, shorn of context or curriculum, just true enough to be mistaken for knowledge.

This may be the best precis of the Internet I've ever read.

Freddie said...

what if the article had been a compassionate observational piece about how these norms are changing, and maybe had a humorous anecdote or two about politely and lovingly educating older family members about how to use Google to answer simple questions themselves?

Then I would disagree, but much more nicely. Right? Someone pointed out to me how much more effective this piece could have been had he been self-deprecating. If the point were merely "don't use voicemail if you can avoid it," then that case could be made in a way in which he didn't posit some sort of deep failure on the part of the people using it, and in a way that doesn't suggest that his time is a commodity that all people must recognize as deeply valuable and important.

I don't think that there's a substance/style divide here; I think that he's talking about the need to drop some manners in a way that demonstrates why we actually need them very much. Indeed, the piece betrays such a failure to understand how we should treat each other, that it undermines any of his advice. See what I mean?

somefeller said...

I notice the author's email address is at the end of his article. It probably would be cruel for you to encourage your readers to send him emails, particularly short ones thanking him for his article. Because that would be wrong. Very wrong.

Scott Garren and Heather Shay said...

Freddie, thank you!


sdrace said...

There are those who claim the art of the put down is dead. While true in general, this post offers hope.

sdrace said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
The Eggplant said...

I guess Nick has a few friends, because how else to explain a few of the above comments? I still want to marry the blog on the basis of this post, though.

eg said...

Mr. Bilton and his ilk will simply disappear into the black hole which is their solipsism.

None of us will be diminished by their absence, eh?