When I was a teenager in the early 1990s, I would rush home to catch the 6:30 p.m. broadcast of NBC Nightly News. I had to find out what Tom Brokaw thought I should know about what was happening in the part of the world his producers paid attention to. Sometimes I would get in at 6:33 or 6:37. Those first minutes of news were gone. The broadcast could have opened with, "Our top story tonight: Baratunde Thurston. Good grades. Athletic. Mothers love him, but their daughters haven't quite learned to yet. Let's look at tape from the library today," and I'd have no idea.
Technology—VCRs, then TiVo, video-on-demand, and Internet streaming—moved us into the time-shifting era, and generally, this is a good thing. It puts us in control. There are downsides, of course. Marathon binge viewing means many of us smell worse, having forsaken hygiene for "just one more episode" of Breaking Bad. And with everyone choosing his or her own adventure, easy workplace small talk (Did you see what happened on show X last night?) has been stolen from us, increasing intra-office awkwardness from level seven to check-out-these-photos-of-my-cat.
This on-demand desire for control has infiltrated much more than our conversations about media, particularly with the rise of mobile email and its more popular cousin, texting—the ultimate representation of communication "on my terms." We once ridiculed texting. We agreed to make fun of people who preferred to tap out a poorly constructed sentence rather than use the phone to just call the person and say, "I'm away from a computer. Can you redirect puppykicking.com to my Tumblr?"
Today, we've flipped the scorn 180 degrees. When my phone rings, I get visibly annoyed. Ugh! Why are you calling me? Is this some sort of emergency? Did someone die? Are you trapped under a heavy object with no other recourse but to disturb my life? Text me, bro!
And when confronted with a face-to-face social interaction we find momentarily nonstimulating, we whip out our communicators, opting out of the present moment, and text people we assume are more interesting than the dullards around us who obviously couldn't hold our attention.
We've embraced these more asynchronous forms of conversation in part because we cannot be bothered to engage in real-time exchanges with another person when he wants it. That would obligate us to him or result in a sharing of power. In a textual relationship, both parties can feel as if they are in control. Both can avoid the messiness of live interaction.
As a society, we're obsessed with convenience, control, and perfection. Any late-night infomercial proves that: "Are you tired of [this activity no one is actually tired of doing]? Well, then you need [this thing no one actually needs], and you can have it with just four easy payments of [too much money]." We love shortcuts. They're perfectly acceptable in international shipping, unproven crash diets, and the algorithmic bankrupting of the economy via high-frequency stock trades. But in the intimate space of interpersonal communication, efficiency isn't always a good thing. We don't need to optimize every conversation. In fact, we may be served best by the opposite.
Sometimes we just need to talk. It's often inefficient. It can take up valuable time. Occasionally, we may have to give our full attention to the other party. But just imagine the rewards: mutual respect. Immediacy. Clarity. And no more autocorrect changing the words hippest to holiest, I will try to unwilling, or stops to afros.
Illustration by Kyle Bean
A version of this article appeared in the October 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.