Only Connect

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In Victorian literature, star-crossed lovers invariably were doomed by misaddressed, misunderstood, or mislaid letters. The plot of An Ideal Husband, as translated to the screen via Miramax by way of Oscar Wilde, hinges on both the recovery of a scandal-tinged letter and the true meaning of an ambiguously worded billet-doux read by the wrong person. These mail-dominated fantasies reflected an era shaped by a single communications technology: London's hyper-efficient postal service with up to five deliveries per day.

How laughably outdated. In the Clinton era alone, I have acquired my first fax machine, cell phone, and e-mail address, as well as enough separate telephone numbers to equip an old-time bookie joint. But rather than putting me in closer touch with friends and colleagues, I am instead ensnared by as many communications pitfalls as a love-sick Victorian.

A close friend in Hong Kong recently e-mailed my wife Meryl, asking to stay with us on a sudden visit to New York. But the wired-to-the-wall telephone is still the favored means of communication in our household, and Meryl is notoriously delinquent about checking her e-mail. So our Hong Kong-based friend was in a pricey Manhattan hotel room for two days - and steaming over our failure to respond - before Meryl even noticed the original e-mail message.

About the same time, I telephoned a magazine editor with a time-sensitive story proposal. I left a detailed message on his voice mail. His response: ego-deflating silence. Only belatedly did I learn the folly of my touch-tone sensibility. It seems that this editor now does all his business by e-mail and his telephone system is nothing more than a vestigial prop, akin to reporters who keep manual typewriters in their offices as a nostalgic reminder of the good old days.

Then there was the conference I missed because the invitation lay unread for weeks amid the detritus behind my fax machine. Not to mention the friends from New Mexico who left a cheery we're-in-town-and-we-want-to-take-you-out-for-dinner message on the one answering machine that I no longer bother to monitor.

Technologically adroit readers may smugly conclude that I am in desperate need of a software program that will magically meld voicemail messages, e-mail, and faxes into a single system that I can access from the Palm Pilot I do not own. Yeah, sure. As a home-office worker continually stymied by such 1950s tasks as filing and updating my on-paper expense accounts, I have neither the time nor the expertise to master a new system that would probably be technologically obsolete the moment I installed it.

Admittedly, I'm still a phone-y trying to fake it in an e-mail age. As a journalist who takes pride in my prose, I consider composing even the shortest e-mail note to be unpaid labor, while talking on the phone remains a joyous interruption. That's why I find the smug superiority of dedicated e-mailers to be exasperating, as they have opted out of less advanced technologies, like human conversations. Faxers, on the other hand, seem perversely oblivious to the simple reality that people with home offices run out of fax paper.

What makes this an era of miscommunication is that Americans are segregating themselves based on the communications technologies they prefer. Surveys (see chart) show that office workers routinely juggle hundreds of messages a day that arrive and are sent by every means save carrier pigeon. But in truth, most of us exhibit decided prejudices about our messaging proclivities, placing a priority on e-mail, voicemail, faxes or, in the case of a few Luddites, business letters typed on crisp white stationery.

In the short term, honesty is the only remedy for the chaos wrought by the communications revolution. Instead of littering business cards with street addresses, e-mail locales, fax and telephone numbers, pick a technology and stick to it. Like a restaurant proud of its association with American Express, a business card should have the confidence to boldly declare, "We only respond to e-mail" or "Phone calls preferred." And if you're a straight-forward, just-the-fax person, proclaim it to the world.

In all likelihood, the current Tower of Technological Babble is a temporary phase, a momentary glitch on the road to one universal system that will be the 21st century equivalent to the 19th century British postal service. After all, the climactic line of that 1982 Steven Spielberg sci-fi classic was "E.T., phone home." There was no choice of competing technologies in that message. Just the simple extra-terrestrial faith that if you call home someone will answer, instead of switching you to voicemail as they surf the Net.

As for me, I'm still in the phone book. And I do check my messages.

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