The Intensity of Web Communication

Written by Lionel Tiger on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

Bodies are
finite envelopes. Put too much or too little into them and there are clear medical
and esthetic consequences. Everyone knows that. This is one reason half the
population seems to be on a diet and the other chooses its food as if it will
confer either instant death (bacon) or life forever (tofu on a bed of greens).

Leontief received a Nobel Prize for analyzing input-output economics. Anyone
with a scale does the same thing every morning. n But what about the mind or
brain or spirit or soul or whatever you decide to call it? Is the notion acceptable
that not only is it desirable to have an immense array of interests and to pursue
a large number of different intellectual directions, but that in some sense
doing it makes it easier to do more? That, like exercise, reading five newspapers
makes a person more effective at reading 10? That knowing the latest Liszt recording
smoothes the way to understanding neatly the musical genealogy of Keith Jarrett?
That seeing Iranian movies improves your capacity to generate theories about
the sources of style?

Just go
into your good neighborhood magazine store and you will realize how limited
is the purview of your mind’s eye. There is an impossible luxury available
to you of publications reflecting every conceivable focus of interest from the
skin of starlets to the earnings of professional billiard players to a comparison
of rotary saws for cutting formica. This is to say nothing of the flood of contributions
to the same issues but from other countries–Italian bikerwear, Brazilian
gardens, Japanese platform shoes, Dutch sailboats, the latest Zen chants.

This overwhelming
cornucopia is of course wonderful in every sense. It is the most colorful possible
demonstration of the intellectual and artistic vitality of the community, and
of the consequence of a relatively unfettered freedom of expression. But it
has to be set aside from the other media of communication that are available
also, and which absorb time like the desert soaks up water. The most obvious
at the moment is the Internet and its role in organizing the millions of e-mails
that flash around the world each hour. It would be interesting to know how many
hours of each workday are spent in the office exchanging an array of messages
that have little or nothing to do with why a paycheck arrives every two weeks.
Don’t get me wrong. Communication with the outside world is vital for employees.
At a management conference in Colombia I made the point that a main characteristic
of working-class jobs is that there is no easy phone access, and I suggested
that every factory floor have a large red telephone centrally located on which
otherwise mute employees could make and receive urgent calls about their lives
away from work. So e-mail and now cellphones offer more people what only a relative
few used to have–"Miss Smith, call the Coast."

My concern
is with time. E-mail is phenomenally useful and its cheapness, speed and interestingly
laconic dialect provide an immense advantage to the people, businesses and societies
that use it. Through the various interest groups served by instantaneous communication
between hundreds of people at once, useful information or tasty gossip or simple
assertions for their own sake can be retailed with the cost and efficiencies
of wholesale.

But the
time! What is to be done with the 30 or 40 or 50 messages or many more that
may accumulate while the owner of the computer is sleeping peacefully or quietly
knitting scarves or unreeling a movie? Delete them before reading? Set up a
system of barriers? Or plow through them, especially the ones marginally of
interest and which, anyway, are they? I recently was invited to join a somewhat
select group interested in a particular matter that involves my job, and I have
been almost swamped by the intensity and volume of communication among people
whose work is all about communication, so it is no surprise that that is what
they do so readily. But things that are in print are readily converted to electricity
and then to e-mail, and so there is a flood of stimuli that only time and decision-making
can discipline.

It is like
having the whole magazine store in your workroom. Where do you start? and where
do you put things? and, oh golly, here comes next month’s batch. It is
a management problem drastically worse than the early days of VCRs, when countless
people taped countless programs they hadn’t time to watch when they were
broadcast but then of course hadn’t time to watch at any time. And all
this can take place at home, so that not only are North Americans working longer
hours, but more of their hours at home are likely to be scented by the rumor
of the workplace.

Now the
Ford Motor Co. announces that it will provide each of its 350,000 employees
all over the world high-speed PCs, color printers, home pages in 14 languages
and unlimited Internet access for 17 cents a day. You can bet your bottom share
of Microsoft that the barrier between work and family will become ever frailer
as information about work is available at the kitchen table while the recipe
for dinner, if anyone is around to cook it, is being accessed during an Internet
break down at the plant. This will happen in India as well as Canada, Poland
as well as Mexico. The implications are immense for the company and the communities
in which it operates. And every employee will check the price of Ford stock
on which he or she has ownership or options 10 times a day, and the general
interest in the stock market will be further enhanced when a huge percentage
of the population has access to the minute-by-minute information about the market,
which used to be one of the principal privileged tools of those who worked on
Wall Street, not Main Street. The Brave New World won’t be that brave,
but it is certainly new.

When people
move to a city, they have to choose a neighborhood. The world is now a city.
Every neighborhood has some amenities, some pains in the neck, some charm, something
better, something worse. People take for granted that they cannot live in all
neighborhoods at once all the time. The same sense of limitation is not accepted
about the neighborhoods of the mind. The assumption is that brainpower and attention-power
expand to receive the available interesting subject matter. But they can’t.
That woman who comes to play tennis during her lunch hour but spends half of
it on her cellphone, or people having dinner together who talk to other people
on their phones, suffer from a crowding disease the symptoms of which are not
yet altogether clear