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Email Lovers - Deleted with Impunity

Point Of View with Barbara Sumner Burstyn

Email Lovers - Deleted with Impunity - it can't be good for you

There’s a series of tests you can take to see if you have an unhealthy relationship with your computer and specifically your email program. It takes a while, almost twenty minutes – a major commitment in modem times - so I decide to take this seriously, even though it seems to have escaped the purveyors of the test that if you’ve surfed long enough to have found this obscure bite of web-life then you don’t need a test – your diagnosis is obvious.

Email was always destined for indispensability. It has all the ingredients for addictive personality types, going far beyond just the feeling of pleasure at hearing from a friend. Email is ego supporting, instant gratification, as if self-esteem is tied inexorably to the fullness of your inbox. Five a day, the test states - is the optimum number of times you can safely check your email without risking addiction. So I decide to keep a log. Before I’ve even finished the test I realize I’ve checked maybe three times. I dump the log and console myself with a quick check, after all, I work from home, doing email is no different than coffee breaks and post-it notes and quick chats at the water cooler of ordinary office life. The significance of smudged and fading keyboard letters and the little trough on the space bar somehow eludes me. I finish the test and email it away. A smiley face pops up, thanking me for ‘sharing so honestly’. I get that ‘going to the dentist’ feeling. The results will be in my in-box within the hour.

That I had a life: any life, pre email, and the web amazes me. I access more information in a month than my grandparents had in their lifetime. And just as air travel and the telephone revealed a universe beyond the town, the web has opened up my hearts desire and more. At the strike of a key I can buy exotic things, read magazines, book trips and concerts, get medical advice, send gifts, find love, resolve disputes, send an insult – anonymous of course - plan my funeral, own a virtual dog and even visit a psychologist – all on-line, all with great ease.

But is it really without consequence? I’m having so many relationships out there I’m forgetting how to be right here, right now. My conquests are becoming so cerebral that I’ve almost forgotten how to make eye contact or read body language. Some mornings I don’t even bother to get up; the battery of my laptop creating a warm patch on the bed beside me. I’ve even fallen asleep, propped up by pillows, mid sentence to someone, somewhere out there. And I’m always in email trouble. It starts innocently enough, a chance meeting, a few well-chosen words, and then suddenly I’m in a flurry of phrases. And because it comes in perfectly formed sentences, not the staccato of real talking, the excitement is enhanced, spread over hours, or days.

Where once I would stand at a bar with a perfectly poised martini making myself up, now it’s the on-line structure of my words that do the damage. Where once it was the stance, the pitch of the laugh, the toss of the head, now it’s the cadence of words, the structure of the sentence, the pithy reference in the subject line and we go from stranger to new best friend almost overnight. But as fast as they spring up, cyberfriends whither in cybertime - those bites of moments rather than the months or years it takes to grow ‘real’ relationships - bored by the narrowness of the context, embarrassed when they try to infiltrate their real life, enticed away by another well turned word. Deleted with impunity.

But there are other advantages, aren’t there? I can work from home, avoid traffic jams, surly shop assistants and irate pedestrians or anything at all that irritates or annoys me. I never have to listen to anyone else’s opinion or endure a tirade from a colleague or even have my ears blasted by the guy with the bible standing on the downtown corner. And just as the railroad across American was set to end segregation the Web is welding us into one homogenous community sans frontiers.

But is it? In the antithesis of the hype I am discovering that my virtual life is shrinking my world with self-interest, not expanding it with knowledge and opportunity. It’s as if I now believe myself to be separate from other people’s realities, the compulsion to get alongside someone, to listen to a tale different from my own has receded. My community used to be the Indian upholster around the corner, the refugee family who moved in down the street or the woman who works in the local pharmacy. But now I buy my furniture on-line, read about people like my refugee neighbours in my customized virtual newspaper and buy my medications and cosmetics from the dot com pharmacy. The web allows me to believe that I need nothing and no one except my modem, and my rampant individualism. I can insulate my self from any reality except the one I create inside my laptop. And increasingly as I live on a diet of my own personal concerns, my neighbourhood, once a local amalgam of difference has now become a global conglomerate of special interest. Like all diets I’m getting thinner as increasingly community means people just like me; disconnected, narrow and self interested.

In short, instead of expanding my life, email, the web and my addiction to it has caused my world to grow around itself. Hermetically sealed in my own image I find I am increasingly shut into an emotional and intellectual gated community, something akin to a National Geographic experience of reality. But underneath it all I still crave for community, for relevance, for connection, for the corner dairy and the butcher who knows my name, for real soil and a dog that barks, not bleeps at me. So now I’m making an effort to step away from my screen, away from my emails and the distant instant sycophantic friends, the witty repartee, and the incessant appetite for information that becomes meaningless in the barrage. I’m going to shop local and talk to my neighbours and catch a bus more often. Maybe I’ll even organize the worlds first ‘step away from your screen’ day just to see if it makes a difference. But before I do I think I’ll just check my emails one more time, to see if my test is back.

The results fill my screen. It seems I have a serious form of IA (internet addiction). The smiley face pops up, offering me hope – a 12-step 14-day Cyber Stress Cure program. On line of course.

For more POV columns go to: POV at Spectator.co.nz

© Barbara Sumner Burstyn, April 2002

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