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The Tyranny of Constant Contact

Sunday 17 May 2015

MAY 14, 2015

By HENRY ALFORD

Everything I know about the Internet, I learned from my 87-year-old mother.

Like, the harder you hit “Send,” the faster the email travels. If you want wholly to colonize your reader’s subconscious, just end your email or text right in the middle of the. If you’re still not sure your reader is fully invested, simPLY LEAN ON YOUR CAPS LOCK TO IMBUE YOUR MISSIVE WITH A THROBBING IMMEDIACY.

But Mom’s larger message is that the Internet and cellphones have created a kind of tyranny of connectedness: Even those of us who don’t have small children or jobs with the State Department, it seems, now need to be accessible at all hours of the day. It’s as if we’re doctors on call.

Like Madonna confessing that during her marriage to Guy Ritchie each kept a BlackBerry tucked under their pillows at night, we have to keep up standards. If you go to the theater and discover your phone has died, you better borrow a seat mate’s phone and pre-emptively call the last five people you spoke to; if there’s a glitch in Gmail, you better start checking all your other portals with an assiduousness that verges on the robotic.

In my own effort to stay afloat the data surf, I subscribe to two policies. First, if it takes me more than 24 hours to respond to an email, I’ll apologize to the sender; after a day, the failure to respond betrays disinterest, concern or alcohol poisoning.

Second, in the intimacy-based communications hierarchy (with a face-to-face meeting or a phone call being at the top, and tying a message to a rock and then burying the rock in the dirt being at the bottom), I try always to meet the incoming vehicle at its level or higher. You can’t answer a phone call with a message on FarmVille.

My methods seem to work well enough. But daily I see others struggle. “I was in the recording studio the other day,” the producer and jazz trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis said. “I’d hired five musicians. We were in the studio for seven or eight hours. One of the musicians was 100 percent committed, no interruptions. He will be hired again. By contrast the bassist stayed on his phone throughout the session, doing social media. He will only be hired again if I can’t find someone else.”

Asked what dark, tangled forces may have prompted the bassist’s behavior, Mr. Marsalis said: “There’s a fear that: ‘Hey, I’m doing this session with you, but another guy might call me and give me a gig that pays $10 an hour. I can’t miss that call.’ ”

When she was a sophomore at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2011, Elisabeth Chramer and her communications class were asked by their professor to refrain from any cellphone or electronic use for 72 hours.

“There were a few students who could not complete the assignment,” she said. “They just could not isolate themselves.” Ms. Chramer, who now operates her own customized embroidery company, added that one of the huge challenges of communicating with members of her generation is their varied response time: “It’s either instantaneous or it’s a week later. People go from platform to platform. You have to catch them while they’re on a certain platform, or you wait a week.”

The more messaging platforms and types of social media that we welcome into the world, the more our communication skills are scattered and made diffuse; every year, we have ever-sophisticated ways to approach the microphone and mumble, “’Sup?” Thus it’s interesting to see the workarounds that people use to keep their interactions from dissolving into a meaningless spray of pixels.

The entrepreneur and philanthropist Jean Paul DeJoria, a founder of the Patrón Spirits Company and the Paul Mitchell line of hair care products, does not use email even though he presides over a multibillion-dollar empire.

“I would be so inundated that I wouldn’t be able to get off the computer,” he said. “My executive director only brings me messages that are important. I teach the people around me to pay attention to the vital few and ignore the trivial many.”

Mr. DeJoria added: “A personal phone call to someone means the world. Or if somebody writes me a letter and there’s enough room on that letter, I will handwrite my answer on the letter and either mail it back or, if they have a fax, fax it to them.”

Mr. Marsalis, who wrote a children’s book “No Cell Phone Day” about a father and daughter who spend the best day of their lives when they temporarily put aside mobile technology, said that he often imposes restrictions on his 14-year-old daughter and her friends.

“I won’t allow cellphones in the car,” he said. “When her cousins come to visit, I tell their parents, ‘Your child will not be available to you for the next four hours.’ ” Mr. Marsalis said the parents’ reaction is usually rhapsodic.

But workarounds, of course, can work around in the other direction, too.

When Washingtonian magazine published an article in January about Green Bank, W.Va., where wireless Internet is outlawed because the town is host to a high-tech government telescope “so sensitive that it can pick up the energy equivalent of a single snowflake hitting the ground,” the magazine also reported that, according to one seventh grader, many children in the area connect to home Wi-Fi networks and then use the texting functions in Facebook and Snapchat to talk to their friends.

Genaro Cortez, a lawyer in San Antonio, said that he once told all his clients that he was going to a criminal law conference in San Diego, and then set up an automatic Out of the Office email to the same effect. Nevertheless, during the conference, one of his clients texted him about a hearing scheduled for the following week. Mr. Cortez said that in this instance he responded because the question posed was legitimate and didn’t inconvenience him.

“But it’s a matter of degree,” he said, “so long as the person texting or emailing doesn’t abuse the issue by contacting multiple times on frivolous matters.”

In the end, it may be all but impossible to keep ourselves from scattering our online attentions to the point of meaninglessness.

Eschewing the Internet altogether is an option. My mother estimates that about half the seniors in her retirement community aren’t online. “A lot of them are scared to death by the whole idea, by the infernal machine,” she told me. “You know the pathetic fallacy, where you ascribe human qualities to nonhuman things? It’s that. They ascribe human qualities to the computer. Like the computer is going to reach out and grab them.”

They’re entirely right.

Henry Alford is the author of “Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That? A Modern Guide to Manners.” Circa Now appears monthly.

A version of this article appears in print on May 17, 2015, on page ST2 of the New York edition with the headline: The Tyranny of Constant Contact

See online: The Tyranny of Constant Contact