Five thousand years ago, give or take a few centuries, the people of the earth, speaking in unified tongue, got together and decided to build a tower to reach the heavens (Genesis 11:1-9). God, ever wary of humans getting uppity, put an end to their folly with two neat tricks. First, she made their utterances incomprehensible to each other. Then, he scattered people across the face of the earth. Thus marks the beginning of widescale human interference with the natural order, and our inability to understand each other.
Fast forward five thousand years, give or take a few centuries, and human hubris bristles anew. Seven point eight billion of us completely dominate the planet. And though we speak over 6500 languages, our communication is seamless as in the days of Babel. Thanks to Google translate and its technology cousins, we can bridge any communication gap.
So why are we suffering through an era of unprecedented miscommunication? Because, as humans are wont to do, just as we smooth out one problem—translation—we create another confusion—format. Back in the days of Babel, we had only the human voice. Plus a bit of stone chiseling. Over time we developed paper and ink, which Guttenberg refined with the printing press. This led to the hard bound book, the penny rag, the Sears Catalog, and Trader Joe’s Fearless Flyer. The more paper we printed upon, the less valuable it became, until the only folks who will mess with it hang out at US Post Office. They deposit junk in our mail slots, which we recycle, unopened.
These days, real communication is electronic.
Whoever invented email is my friend. I think it was Al Gore. Anyway, no surprise to anyone that I’m an email kind of guy. Email is perfectly suited to a sixty-six-year-old guy finnicky about writing stuff down, documenting conversation, and keeping it all in order. I keep my Inbox trim, ruthlessly ‘unsubscribe’ from junk, yet maintain years of missives organized in dozens of subfolders. It’s doubtful I will ever need to retrieve any of them, but infinitely reassuring to know that I can.
I read, save, delete or otherwise deal with every message I receive by email. Texts are more problematic. If my phone beeps when I’m out and about, I forget about it. The message gets queued down. It disappears from my consciousness as well as my contact roll. Opportunity lost.
And then there are the other formats. Instagram. Snapchat. Facetime. Zoom. Google Docs. iMessage. eye-yay-eye. No way I can keep up.
Of course, the affinities are flipped for folks who made their primal scream just as ‘You’ve Got Mail” dominated the multiplex. In the recent article, “Could Gen-Z Free the World from Email?” Adam Simmons, age 24, proclaims, “Email is all your stressors in one area, which makes the burnout thing so much harder. You look at your email and have work stuff, which is the priority, and then rent’s due from your landlord and then Netflix bills. And I think that’s a really negative way to live your life.”
I can agree with Adam that an inbox full of work tasks and bills is a negative way to live. Unfortunately, since Adam doesn’t do email, and I don’t Tweet or Signal or Google Group or Substack or use whatever cool format post-Millennials favor this week, I doubt we’ll ever have the opportunity to share a meaningful moment of cohesion on the matter.