Techual Cruelty
©2019, George J. Irwin. All rights reserved.

How many times have you heard this: "I e-mailed you, but you didn't answer, so I left you a voice mail to check your e-mail. But you didn't respond to my voice mail, so I texted you."

It's just one symptom of what I've come to call "Techual Cruelty." We're all victims of it to one extent or another, and we're often perpetrators as well.

There's nothing quite like opening your in-box and finding out that while you were doing something In Real Life, a hundred messages magically appeared. They range in importance from Critical to Junk Mail. The Junk Mail ones are just aggravating distractions. The Critical ones scream out for your attention. For added fun and excitement, there are Critical e-mails that come in while you're answering the first Critical one that arrived with a red exclamation point. And there are e-mails that challenge the credo that multitasking really isn't possible for the human brain. (I've seen studies that show that as the number of concurrent tasks goes up from one to two or more, the time taken to switch between tasks eventually consumes more time and energy than actually performing the tasks. There's no small irony in where these studies have been presented to me... and I think I'll leave it at that.) By the way, to anyone that would like a return receipt showing that I opened your e-mail... that won't happen.

I know of very few e-mail programs that don't include a handy appointment calendar. (In my personal life, I use one that does not.) They are calculated to drive people... forward, I suppose, is what might be said, though I have other terms in mind.

First, there's the "reminder" which pops up between fifteen minutes and eighteen hours before the event. If you don't dismiss that, or don't show up in time for your appointment, another box interrupts what you're doing with the appointment again, plus the word: "NOW." You're wanted now, why are you not at your meeting NOW, you are due somewhere NOW. I wonder how long the combination of Corporate Psychologists and Ruthless MBAs worked on figuring out just the right term to incent maximum agitation. "Now" has become a Four Letter Word, now.

And this "NOW" and other items that require immediate attention on your part are often accompanied by a sound. Not just any sound, but a sound that to my ears is just a bit off-putting, maybe even a semi-tone off-key. The cry of a human baby is just anti-tonal enough to trigger a reponse in parents (particularly mothers). I think that's been emulated, though I certainly rank an infant's need for food, comfort or a new diaper to be well above anything that sets off the Instant Message "Ding!" in my world.

I suppose I'm not alone among my demographic, which bridges between the days of the typewriter (manual!) and the current electronic communication devices (including voice-activated now!) and wonders how it is that anyone got anything done when everything needed to be manually prepared and sent. My father, for example, wrote countless memos, which had to be typed and forwarded via Interoffice Mail. How did they do it? At least part of the answer is, "with a lot more people." Ah, productivity...

But back to communication of the electronic variety. Is it fair to say that the expected cycle time of a response is best measured not in fractions of a day, but fractions of a minute? I know I've texted people who don't respond right away, and then I start worrying... are they alright? Did something happen? Do I need to reach out to them in a more aggressive way? I am getting better at not worrying... most of the time. We seem to have become conditioned to receiving an instantaneous response, whether that makes sense or not. And most of the time it doesn't.

Instant Gratification Desire 1, Humans 0.

E-mail isn't much better. When I send one, I really do think I should get a response within a couple of hours. I mean, don't I deserve it? Don't answer that...

Yes, there are people who follow up an e-mail with a voice mail and then a text, and maybe even a Social Media Message (or similar). And on the other end of this spectrum, there are people who use precisely one means of communication, and only one. And if you even try any other method... well, don't, since it won't be acknowledged or returned. "I wish they'd just pick up the stupid phone," one friend complained about trying to have a two-way conversation to set logistics for an upcoming event. "But it's e-mail or nothing." Then there are people, including me, who have jumped from Instant Messaging to Texting to a phone call, all as part of the same conversation. "I was getting tired of typing," I explain.

And while it's perhaps outside the chronological scope of this treatise, I can't help but pause here to note that my mother has more than mildly berated people for apparently having a "one-way phone"—you know, the one that receives calls just fine, but doesn't seem to be equipped for outbound dialing to someone else.

There is plenty of Automated Techual Creulty out there. Among the e-mails I receive under duress are reminders that I Need To Do Something, say, respond to a survey about How Much I Liked My Last Hotel Stay or that I need to pay Immediate Attention to an Invite. They've even invaded my work e-mail account, which receives garbage like "Here's Your Latest Report on the Information Economy in Nigeria" (no, I am not making that up, and I assume it has nothing to do with a series of alleged royalty who reside there who desperately need my help). These e-mails, like others, try to make me believe that I've actually requested this crap. They, and Special Invitations to Exclusive Events that I Have Never Heard Of, go right into the Recycle Bin.

As bad as they are, they pale in comparison to pop-ups on my computer that The World Will Stop Revolving If I Do Not Install The Latest Update to my bla-bla software. At least on my "private citizen computer," I have the choice to tell these pop-ups (great, I'm talking to them now) that they are just going to have to wait. On my company-owned laptop, I don't get a choice; sometimes I get a "countdown clock" and more often then I'd like I just get a spontaneous reboot. Be sure to save your work frequently!

Another exciting aspect of Automated Techual Cruelty can easily be found at the other end of a toll-free number. Have you noticed that no matter how long it's been since you've called, you Need To Listen Carefully because the phone prompts Have Recently Changed?

"Please choose one of the following options:
If you'd like to hear your current status, press 1.
"If you'd like to update your address, press 2.
"If you'd like to speak to a representive, press π."

Well, that's assuming that there is only a one-level menu. Some prompt trees I've been subjected to are more like an interconnected forest.

But perhaps nowhere is Techual Cruelty more apparent than on social media sites. In fact, it's been suggested that they may be hazardous to our health.

It's certainly been suboptimal with respect to my sleep at times: read a post, especially one with a link, which leads to another link, then another, and before I know it, I'm stuck in the Internet Vortex and I have completely lost track of time.

But then there's the notion of my own posting, and checking back far too often to see if there's been any feedback, you know, "likes." Hey, how is it that these people I follow didn't find my words of wisdom, or my photo, or my citation of an item elsewhere in cyberspace compelling enough to click that "thumbs up" icon?

Oh, because while I am following them, they are not following me, perhaps?

Or maybe it's just that the Almighty Algorithm has decreed that my contribution is not sufficiently newsworthy to appear on the long list of what my social media friends see. Or not monetizable. Or not friendly to the platform on which I've posted it.

I've brought all this up before: "Our life is frittered away by detail... simplify, simplify." Wrote one Henry David Thoreau. It's an oft-repeated quote from his classic Walden (or more properly, A Life in the Woods), which was published in 1854. To put this in context, the telegraph developed by Samuel F.B. Morse was patented in 1837 but was only coming into widespread use as Thoreau spent his time in and around a cabin in Massachusetts. "Mr. Watson, come here, I want you" via the first practical telephone did not arrive until 1876. Thoreau died twelve years before that. I suspect that high school students are still reading Walden, but what does "Simplify" mean now? Put your smartphone down for a few moments? Why do that?

But let's get back to that not responding to e-mail issue. You know who one of the worst offenders is in that department?


Yes, guilty as self-charged. As a private citizen and internet content provider who really could be a lot more prompt replying to questions and comments, it can be days and sometimes weeks before I get back to someone. I have had people e-mail me a second time wondering if their first correspondence got through. That usually—but not always!—guilts me into action.

And yes, the cruelty continues apace. Never mind the first message sent by telegraph, What Hath God Wrought: What Have We Wrought?

I'll have to get back to you on that.