Technology and Decisions
One thing the casual iPhone user may not have noticed about the shiny new iOS 5: the ability to let your friends know when you’ve read their iMessages. Usually, iMessage will tell you that a message has been delivered, and nothing more. If your friend has enabled Read Receipts under Settings, though, you’ll instead be able to see at what time your message was read. This is a handy tool for the paranoid amongst us who need to know if somebody is ignoring them. But Read Receipts also reflect society’s movement away from traditional methods of long-distance communication and toward a more realistic model of in-person communication.
The traditional handwritten, mailed letter differs from talking in several key aspects. You can expect several days in between every exchange, you cannot actually see the other person, you don’t know if somebody has read your letter, and you don’t know when your correspondent is replying to your message. Technology like Skype and FaceTime eliminate all of these factors. Advanced text messaging software like iMessage or Blackberry Messenger do pretty well, allowing you to see when the person you are texting is typing or has read your message, but text messaging does not.
Is a realistic technological substitute for in-person communication desirable, though? At first glance, it would seem so. The video for the new iPad, another Apple creation, opens with “technology is at its very best when it’s invisible”. This is true. Technology should make our lives easier, without getting in our way. Communication technology should be unnoticeable, and, therefore, it should try to resemble in-person communication.
But what if we don’t always want technology to be invisible? In her book “Alone Together,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Sherry R. Turkle explores how social media is changing the way we communicate. The interviews featured in her book describe a population that is hesitant to pick up the phone, one that cherishes being able to think through its responses to every text message, deleting and rewriting the same text time and time again.
Does that make me distrust online communication? Yes. I feel important conversations should be had in person because then I can pick up on body language cues like hesitation. I turn my Read Receipts on in part to keep me honest through texts. That doesn’t mean, though, that I don’t like choice or online communication.
Although choice is not always a good thing, especially when we have too many options, it can be seen in a positive light when one of the options is as liberating as the ability to think your answer through thoroughly. The people Turkle documents who feel uncomfortable with in-person communication find an escape in traditional text messaging or on Facebook. Though I am adamantly opposed to having a serious conversation online, I understand its appeal.
Apple seems to understand this. Like Facebook chat, iMessage will show when someone is typing, but he or she can still turn Read Receipts on or off, or turn iMessage off completely and return to normal texting. This choice is what ultimately separates iMessage from rival BlackBerry Messenger. When I graduated from high school in Panama last year, my classmates did not text; everyone used BBM, which does not give you the option of turning off Read Receipts. Though iPhones have gained in popularity, BBM is still a significant method for communication in Panama. On a philosophical level, it’s a shame that many Panamanians simply don’t have a choice about Read Receipts.
I never cared about Read Receipts when I was on BBM. My friends didn’t seem to mind either. We loved being able to see when others read our messages. But ultimately, BBM went further than iMessage did by forcing Read Receipts onto you. Not even Skype, arguably the most realistic model of interpersonal communication, does this—you ultimately have the choice of muting yourself, or turning your camera off at any time.
Read Receipts models in-person communication better than traditional text messaging does, but we don’t always want technology to be invisible. Ultimately, maintaining personal choice in how we communicate is more important than creating invisible technology, an observation that Apple should be commended for making.
Julian Atehortua ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, will live in Leverett House.