Mind the Seams

When online communication goes haywire

Dining on Sacred Cow

In a world that has witnessed the rise of digital interfaces, online avatars, and one-click transactions, a basically conservative reaction has become fashionable in circles both left and right: A creeping depersonalization is killing everything we hold dear. As a fundamental optimist about the future, it’s my tendency not to put much stock in such arguments. Albeit some changes in platform, the social content of our lives would still be eminently familiar to our great-grandparents: We build friendships, go to work, pair off, and make homes. Same as it ever was.

This said, a few days ago, my faith in online platforms as seamless extensions of humanity was faced with a crisis of tangled wires and mislabeled files. Recoil if you must, but like many of my peers, I’m in the midst of the career recruiting season and engaged in the online dating world. Both pursuits of a better life require abstraction into profiles, reduction to essential tidbits, and careful curation of flattering perspectives.

The overlap is surprisingly non-trivial. Both company applications and OKCupid ask you to put your qualifications in terms of drop-down categories; CVs and selfies (whose form, we’re told, says as much as their content) need to be uploaded, lest no one care how eager you are to get onboard. Contra tech messianism, we’re still miles away from pure representation in the digital space.

And when the back-to-school maelstrom of internship deadlines and evenings yet to be planned takes to portals and profiles, accidents happen and the seams come into stark relief. I wish I had a story to tell about an unlucky Wellesley woman who opened her inbox only to find a cover letter addressed to some dynamic, problem-solving would-be lover named Oliver Wyman. Mine is in fact worse.

I turned on my phone to an anxious message: so-and-so from the On-Campus Interview program, saying that there had been a problem with my transcript, to call back immediately. Remembering that in a spell of digital haste, I had uploaded an image file of my transcript rather than the prescribed scan, I called back without trepidation, acknowledging at first breath that I knew what the problem was, and was ready to fix it.

“So it was an accident?” the career services guru led me.

“No. I was in a hurry, and the image file was all I had,” I answered, worried that I’d crossed some inviolable law of transcript-sharing.

“Are you sure? Because it was a picture of a girl…on a runway.”

Unwilling to explain to a stranger that I’d pulled a photo of an online date prospect to show to my roommates, I feigned confusion and promised to get to a computer immediately. Though my company-portal applications appeared unharmed, she explained that I had saved the very unsuitable image as “Current Transcript” on my Harvard careers page. Damage control was underway, but two firms had already downloaded the shapely runway girl, whose knowing pout gave no evidence of my coursework in Arabic or my above-average GPA.

I do not mean to blame the mishap entirely on an overwired world: I elected to enroll with both OCI and OKC, I should have double-checked my document uploads, and I probably could have gone without downloading the glamour shot of a woman I’ve never met. In any case, it is hard to imagine such indiscretion in a world before profiles: No one in his right mind would attach an 8 by 11½ of a prospective mate to a physical resume, blurt out his scores and qualifications on a first date, or anything of a similarly catastrophic sort. We would—speaking generously—call such a type antisocial.

Moral considerations set completely aside, situations like these are to be expected when communication is unmoored from its human producers and abstracted by machines much better suited to huge numbers than to simple decency. The OCI portal has no good way of tailoring searches to personality; high scores on OKC’s numerical matching system prove to be of no avail in the absence of good biochemistry. Limited though our scope may be, evolution’s brain-and-behavior legacy rarely fails us in distinguishing right from not-quite in determining what to share with would-be employers versus would-be mates.

The solution, however, is not to abandon our tools. Career portals and dating sites flourish precisely because they work—not by replacing human intuition and pattern recognition, but by broadening our horizons and suggesting opportunities that might have been lost in the welter of our modern minds. We must push the limits of our nature anew: Just as the first Sumerian reed scribes learned to proofread, digital multitaskers will have to become organized to a fault and adept at sensing when something is “off” about their digital interactions.

And if the story of my very comely transcript is any indicator, failure to evolve will not be without consequence.

Joshua B. Lipson ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a Near Eastern languages and civilizations concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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