June 7, 2013 6:22 pm

It really is good to talk

The relatively closed form of email ends up generating more problems than it solves

Early mobile phone advertising made much of the increased possibilities for talking; conversations would no longer be limited by how far the handset cord stretched from the wall, but could be held anywhere, at any time. I was always dubious about this, believing what was needed was better quality talk, not a greater quantity of it. Now we seem to have dispensed with the need to talk altogether. There is a marked reluctance among employees to pick up the phone and speak to somebody, as well as a maddening refusal by companies to provide enough human beings to answer phone lines; a prevailing view that everything is better done electronically, via email or other ungrounded forms of communication.

I get the feeling that in some companies – even in areas supposedly connected to deep ways of communicating – the act of speaking to someone is considered an indulgence. That robotically repeated phrase, “calls may be monitored for training purposes”, takes on a sinister ring: are employees hauled in to explain why they had to pass the time of day with another human?

But the idea that email is more efficient than talking to someone – or, heaven forbid, meeting them face-to-face – is tragically flawed. I’ve noticed this over the past few years, not least in my dealings with editors and publishers, without having nailed the precise reasons in theoretical or analytical terms.

Now that admirable polymath Professor Richard Sennett has come to my assistance. In his most recent book, Together: the Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Co-operation , Sennett relates the story of a failed attempt to use Google Wave to gather information and create policy, among a scattered group of participants, around the theme of migration to London. The technology promised much, but delivered little. The explanation, Sennett realised, was that the relatively closed form of email narrowed communication and ended up generating more problems than it solved.

Sennett, borrowing from the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, makes a useful distinction between dialectical and dialogic modes of communicating. Email is dialectical; it proceeds via closed statements, which are usually devoid of the kind of shading and flexibility which is naturally built into true dialogue. “Studies of corporations, hospitals and schools that run on email or email-like technologies,” Sennett writes, “show that shedding context often means shedding sense; understanding between people shrinks.” Far from speeding things up, email means that “interaction about concrete problems slows, requiring ever more emails to deal with particular cases.”

“Dialectic and dialogic procedures offer two ways of practising a conversation,” Sennett continues, “the one by play of contraries leading to agreement, the other by bouncing off views and experiences in an open-ended way.” I can see that companies influenced by Taylorian management techniques might look askance at the dialogic approach: the bouncing off of views might go on for ever; when on earth would anything get done?

My experience of counterproductive email exchanges is less to do with the play of contraries than with endless lists and proposals that lack the necessary nuance for me to decide which of these things is really worth doing, or in what order one might do them. I get the feeling that someone is barking orders at me, and not really listening. All of this, of course, has to do with time.

The attraction of email was always connected, not only with efficiency, but also with speed. It was not just that this message could be winged miraculously, to multiple recipients, across oceans in the blink of an eye, but that the message could be written at speed. To say that emails are very often badly written does not get to the heart of the matter. It would be truer to say that they are not written at all, if proper writing involves a constant imaginary attention to the addressee, a sense of the Other.

Emails, not necessarily of course, but for the most part in practice, are a speeded-up form of communication that is not really communication at all. As Sennett puts it, they confuse information-sharing with true communication. Human beings are not computers.

Sennett’s splendidly discursive book, which ranges over such topics as the inner workings of chamber music rehearsal and the mechanics of coalition government, is well worth reading, but he was not the first writer to analyse or prophesy the withering away of true communication. As usual, the poets got there first; in this case, the still under-appreciated poet Louis MacNeice. In his much anthologised early poem “Prayer before Birth”, an unborn child prays for “strength against those who would freeze my/ humanity, would dragoon me into a lethal automaton,/ would make me a cog in a machine”. But the later MacNeice seems even more prophetic, when in “To Posterity” he envisages a time when “reading and even speaking have been replaced /By other, less difficult media”.

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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