I’m a guy with a short fuse. There are many things that could suddenly piss me off, and my reactions to these things have become sort of “legendary.” So when I began using email six years ago, I discovered to my disappointment that email plus my temper could be a bad mix.
Very bad, indeed.
There have been countless times when I’d check email in the morning, I’d see something that gets my goat, then I’d mindlessly fire off with whatever garbage that comes to mind. It’s so easy—you just make some mouse-clicks and there you go. The problem is, I’d usually end up regretting the stupid things I’d send.
Renowned primatologist Jane Goodall said in an interview several months ago that emails are the most dangerous form of communication because of its peculiar character: email “compels” the recipient to send an answer immediately, and with usually a huge number of emails waiting in our inbox, we usually end up saying things we wouldn’t say in person or on the phone.
“I remember when I worked for Lewis Leakey,” Jane said. “He was very impulsive. He’d get a letter in the mail, and he would open it, and it would be perhaps something from a scientist he thought was quite ridiculous. You could hear him muttering ‘Bosh! Rubbish!’ The poor bit of paper would be scored with his marks, and he’d turn to me and say ‘Get so and so on the phone!’ I got very wise to his moods, so I would pretend the number was engaged, or the man wasn’t there, and then an hour or two later, he was rational again.”
That kind of distance, that sort of emotional buffer, is banished in the form of communication email provides. Everything is instant. That’s the ugly thing. The first human reaction is usually the honest one. But the human brain has built-in prejudice. Compound that with the so-called Reptilian Complex, add some temper into the mix, and you get a fair picture of how ugly impulsive human reactions could be.
Unfortunately, the technology around us panders to such impulses. There is probably profit to be earned in keeping people from digesting things and allowing them to think first, before swiping that credit card or clicking that Send button to fire off some angry missive. If Joseph Dobbie didn’t use email to confess his love for Kate, for example, he wouldn’t have found himself in deep shit (on second thought, maybe he didn’t really mind).
In a way, email and all these new ways to “communicate” have even made it harder, more confusing to reach out to the Other. We’re all engaged in a daily balancing act of sending thought from one place to another. And while the “tight rope” seems to have gotten easier and faster, it has also become much more fragile that it can snap at any moment—leaving us tottering in an insecure place where we might just find ourselves destroying bridges in a zap, instead of building them.
There’s a Close-up TV ad that drove home the point of technology having made us more connected, but not necessarily closer. Although we usually enjoy it and we don’t mind, technology probably is smothering us more than we care to think.
But it’s also utterly foolish to pine for the good old “innocent” days. Personally, I’d still choose technology over throwing the proverbial sabot. But maybe, what’s required of us is to face these new, increasingly ubiquitous things with a sense of control and a greater presence of mind. Like avoiding checking your email every 10 minutes, or sticking to a schedule. Or remembering that not because “it’s there” that you can access it as often as your impulses demand.
These days, whenever I’m checking my mail, I make sure there’s something posted near my desk that reminds me to take things easy and never react as swift as lightning to “provocative” emails. Something like a Post-it note that says, “Back off” or “Take it easy,” or “Count 100 electric sheep” or “Stupid mails can get you fucked”—and I realize these small things can make a whole world of difference. These small reminders buy me enough time to think it over first. And they help me make sure I won’t be burning the things that are increasingly becoming more and more fragile.
Like the few bridges I haven’t destroyed yet.