Easier done than said: Modern electronic communication has Richard Beardshaw at a loss for words

Click to follow
The Independent Online
I'VE SEEN someone I think may be a colleague at the university where I work several times over the past five years. One night recently, standing outside a student-staff party, I saw him coming from a distance. I couldn't get out of saying something and wanted to say, 'Hi] My name's Richard,' or something suitably witty, dry and academic. But all that came from my mouth was a single indecipherable syllable. He stopped for a moment, looked at me, said nothing and walked in.

This problem has come about, I think, because of too much communication. I arrive at my office at 8.30. The answerphone is winking at me. There are three messages: 'Richard, this is Dodi. Hi sweetie. I forgot to give you a list of a few extra things to get at Safeway's. Could you get - are you ready? (yes, I'm ready) - green pasta, some micro-Pampers, sour cream, tomatoes, orange juice . . .' Beep beep. 'Hello, this is David Robinson of Sumpter High School, Scunthorpe, telephone . . . Please send me a copy of the research paper.' Beep beep. 'Hello, Caroline here. The professor wants to see you immediately. This is Caroline calling on Tuesday at 4pm.' Beep. That was yesterday.

Then I collect my post: two letters from the Inland Revenue, one from Exeter University, some academic junk mail ('Your subscription has lapsed to Rhetorica'; 'Buy all the poems ever written, on CD-ROM, for pounds 2,500'; 'Papers are invited for a conference in 1993 on the rhetoric of the supermarket check-out operator. We hope you will give a paper'). As I open the last letter, the phone rings: 'There's a fax for you from Peter Medway in Canada. He wants an instant reply.'

Faxes, answerphones, letters. I switch on my computer for a break. 'Hello Richard,' it says. 'there is E-mail from Peter Medway and two messages from Australia.' Peter is clearly using a pincer movement. One of these E- mails is inviting me to collaborate on a dialogic newsletter. The computer also tells me that I can now access any library catalogue in the world from my desk.

Instead, I think I'll try the Internal Revenue Service Center in Philadelphia to see if I can get a US Social Security number for my teaching there this summer. Beep, bop, bip, pip, pip, beep. 'Hello, is that the IRSC . . .?' I am cut off by a machine voice: 'You have reached the IRSC. If you require assistance with tax forms, press 1 now. If you wish to question your tax rating, press 2 now. If you want to speak to Donald R Oppenheimer, press 3 now. If you need valium, press 4 as soon as you can make it. Goodbye, and thank you for calling the IRSC. Have a nice day.' If you are confused, press all the buttons in any order.

Actually, I'm glad I don't wear a remote-control beeper. It must be distracting to have a little buzzer going off somewhere around your backside when you're trying to find le mot juste to impress the professor, or about to ask someone for a coffee.

The real trouble with all this electronic communication is that I don't communicate with people any more. As I rush from fax office to pigeon-hole to telephone to computer, I'm scared stiff someone will stop me and try to engage in conversation. Used to the time-lag allowed by fax and E-mail, I need time to compose a reply. 'Hi] How are things?' someone may say. It will be several days before I get back to them. I hope I'll bump into that person again so I can say: 'Oh, by the way, you know you asked how things were with me the other day. They're fine, just fine. How are you?'

But I don't have time to wait for the reply because I have to fax Canada before the office closes. All the unfinished conversations will come back to me in time, like the words, frozen on board that ship in the icy Siberian sea, that exploded in the air as the ship reached warmer climes.

I'll just stop answering the phone, forget the post, avoid the fax, pull the plug on E-mail and shut myself in a dark cupboard. On the door I'll put: 'This man suffers from overcommunication. He is undergoing broom therapy. Don't leave any messages for him until you hear him go beep.'