Some years ago, I wrote a book about marriage, and the theme I heard again and again from people I interviewed was the importance of communication. “Communication” was the buzz word of the times. In contrast, if there’s anything we have plenty of these days, it is communication. People are on their cell phones and iPads constantly — talking, texting, e-mailing or connecting through social networks. Yet, in a strange way, the qualities of closeness and understanding, of intimacy and empathy may be as difficult — or more difficult — to attain today than in those long ago times when everyone was searching for communication.
My granddaughter tells me that a popular term kids and their parents use is “TMI,” meaning “too much information.” When someone pours out to you every detail of a recent illness, for example, you’re getting more than you want to know, TMI. I would dub the year just past as one of TMI, and I worry about the year ahead. Technology is “gr8,” as a text message might assure us, but the need to be constantly in touch with a slew of others has pushed many people, especially young ones, further out of touch with themselves and one another.
In a coffee shop, I see two teenage girls lunching together. Except that each is on her cell phone texting other friends. Will these girls ever have real conversations with each other? Is each gossiping about the other through her text messages? Has either had a chance even to look at the other?
“If they didn’t have thumbs, they would be speechless,” the activist Edith Everett said recently of the texting craze. To be sure, texting is a fine way for children and parents, or any of us, to stay in touch when necessary. It’s also fun. But does anybody need non-stop conversation? And, according to news reports, many young people’s obsession with that conversation has reached the point at which e-mail is no longer fast enough. They crave instant replies, so that they can respond just as quickly. There’s no time left to think.
Sitting in synagogue reading the Exodus saga these weeks, I imagined Moses and Pharaoh texting each other using today’s spelling and terminology. “Y shud I?” Pharaoh might have snapped at Moses’ demand to let his people go. “You make me lol (laugh out loud),” Moses might have responded to the king’s excuses and delays. “Ttyl” (talk to you later), Pharaoh might have signed off, shutting down any further debate. Maybe the story would have had the same ending, but civilization would have been forever deprived of its inspiring majesty. Face to face interaction, and discussion unfolding with time, cannot be replaced.
Facebook, of course, is another matter. With the Goldman Sachs infusion of money, that company is worth more billions than ever. But isn’t it ironic that people with so little time on their hands that they need to text each other in shorthand, seem to have all the time in the world to write about themselves and read inane items about others’ activities? Here, too, what seem to be revelations concerning the most intimate details of a person’s life actually lack intimacy because they go to hundreds, maybe thousands, of “friends.” Wouldn’t some of the time be better used working on the smaller, more meaningful relationships in our lives?
In the political realm, we’ve also had too much information this year, notably from WikiLeaks. Julian Assange, its director, sees himself as a whistleblower, most recently releasing tens of thousands of secret United States diplomatic cables. How do we evaluate this on-the-spot data taken out of the larger context of the clandestine activities of many of the world’s governments? When we read that Arab countries fear Iran — something most of us knew anyway — we are reading what they tell American diplomats. What’s in their government’s internal documents, which have not been leaked? Besides that, the most effective diplomacy has often involved deep secrecy. Will these exposures prevent diplomats from taking necessary risks in the future?
On the other hand, we received diplomatic data this year that shed light, albeit negative light, on the past. The newly released Nixon Oval Office tapes, with that president’s anti-Semitic rants and Henry Kissinger’s disgraceful “gas chambers” statement about Soviet Jews, are important historical documents. We have enough distance from the events to see them in perspective, and learn from them. The help these two men gave Israel in the Yom Kippur war does not excuse their ugly talk; their talk does not take away from their crucial actions. Opening files after many years can benefit historians, journalists and all of society. Dumping out contemporary ones can be dangerous.
Whether on a personal or political level, we need to be wary of too much information. So here’s 2 balance in the Nu Yr.
Francine Klagsbrun’s most recent book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.”