Getting it right

People who write a lot, like those who talk a lot, face a cruel inevitability: They will sometimes get things wrong, which will be thrown at them by critics who ignore the times they got things right1.

What brings it to mind is our excessive communication. We act like a species which has only recently learned to talk, so fascinated with a new ability that we cannot stop exercising it2.

About fifteen years ago, the economist/columnist Paul Krugman wrote

“The growth of the Internet will slow drastically, as the flaw in ‘Metcalfe’s law’ — which states that the number of potential connections in a network is proportional to the square of the number of participants — becomes apparent: most people have nothing to say to each other! By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s.”

And a century and a half before Krugman, Henry David Thoreau wrote

“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”

Yeah, they were wrong about one thing. They underestimated the charm of remote communication. But they were right that most people — Maine and Texas, say — have nothing to say to each other face to face in real time. Then cell phones and texting — and telegraph lines — changed that dynamic. No need to deal with non-verbals, with gestures, with tone. Just spit out the words. Much of the time, no need to wait for an answer, or even to allow one. You are isolated from real-time people: you can text or talk on a cell phone with absolutely no concern for or awareness of someone sitting right next to you, the real-time person to whom you have nothing to say.

QED.


  1. I have in mind those who more often get things right. Those who are frequently — or characteristially — wrong are another breed altogether.  ↩

  2. Not the first time I have grumbled about it, nor will it be the last.  ↩

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