Remember when we used to write TTYL? And BRB?
I almost just typed TTYL. It felt strange. My plane was taking off and I was about to put my phone in airplane mode. That’s one of the few scenarios in which we still unplug, if only for a moment.
My whole life, I’ve been wired. The internet was nascent, but very much alive in my youth. I’m not sure younger people understand the difference between the internet and computing, and technology. I certainly do.
The internet’s early limitations made for a natural division between the digital world and… that other one. In the early days, you had to literally sign on and off the dial-up internet.
That was the process. Sign on. Sign off. We had to say goodbye to our friends because we had to say bye to the internet, at times. Maybe someone would need to make a phone call, or you were going to run out of minutes. The internet wasn’t life. It was just.. the internet. That’s changed.
The line between online and offline is blurred. There is no need to write BRB because we never go away, meaning we never need to come back. Back in the day, one might say BRB to go to the bathroom, answer the door, grab a door, or maybe make a fancy mobile phone call on a Motorola Razr (the original, not the new one). Now wherever we go, the conversation continues. Expectations have changed as a result.
Because we have our conversations anywhere and any time, no one expects conversations to be continuous. I recall in the days of AIM that I would immerse myself in deep conversations, sometimes for hours. The desktop computer tied us down, but promoted a focus and discipline largely lost upon us today.
With modern messaging, conversations are a blend of synchronous and asynchronous, leaning asynchronous. They can be substantive, but rarely with the richness of a real dialogue. The joy derived from the rare moments when you message a friend, they message you back, and you actually end up chatting for a while make what we’ve mostly lost out on all the more clear. Maybe that’s why Slack is so popular.
In normal life most people no longer casually sit in front of a computer, but at work people do. For as much as Slack is intended to be used as a productivity tool, and is to a great extent, I’ve noticed that it’s stickiest and most engagement as a virtual water cooler hang out. The direct message experience is like instant messaging of yore.
The magic of instant messaging as that when you were online, you wouldn’t miss a message. Sitting at one’s desk, one was essentially in message receiver standby mode. The moment a message arrived you engaged with it. That’s not longer the case.
Even though you now receive your messages instantly and everywhere, you’re not primed to respond. If anything, from screen time apps to restrictive notifications, most of us are trying to fight back against the deluge. And unfortunately, most of that deluge is from apps trying to steal our attention or one to many social media posts driven by the principle of ego validation. When I put it that way, it sounds really bad. Maybe it is.
I miss the days of deep conversations with people on the internet. Today we are somehow more connected but less connected. We are more connected to the internet but less connected to each other. Many are trying to solve this. I invested in a company called Squad which makes a place for people to hang out on the internet. I hope they succeed, though that’s just a start.
Something more needs to change, The desktop internet was addictive, but had its limits. If even if we were better off in the past, we can only go forward. Being connected all the time is the new norm. If anything, we’ll only become more plugged in with neural interfaces and the likes. This need not be mutually exclusive to deeper human interaction.
Today’s smartphones apps are basically dopamine hit generators. Opening our phone after a buzz is like pulling a slot machine in Vegas. In the desktop era we could opt into some internet, then leave. Now we can always have internet but can’t, so the devices constantly tempt us. People are now actually addicted to their smartphones.
Whatever comes after the smartphone, I hope it will allow us to be more connected. I believe that implies, counterintuitively, that the next generation devices must have more power to communicate with us. Then their makers would be incentivized to gain our trust rather than steal our attention. I call that serendipitous computing and have written much more on it elsewhere.
Whatever the computing future looks like, I miss the TTYL and BRB. I’m not certain if we should bring them back. They are mostly gone for now, which says much about the time we are in. I am certain that we need to bring a depth of human connection back, even if that comes at the expense of the breadth we have today.