Before you start screaming at me about how the new “work at work” rule at Yahoo is putting women back into the Stone Age, please hear me out. First of all, as a woman who has worked from home for over a quarter of a century, I will tell you flat out that even with only one child, you can’t work from home with an infant or a toddler without help. Sorry folks, but that’s the truth. Working from home without help is feasible, though not easy, once kids go to school; that gives you, the working mother (or father), a pretty clear shot at something that approximates a working day with real concentration. That’s not why Marissa Mayer is right, though; she’s right because she has a bead on what’s getting lost in our technological world which is the sparking that comes from face-to-face interaction and communication.
That spark, which we’re hardwired to experience and which we hone through repeated interactions over the course of a lifetime, beginning in infancy when we learn to “read” faces and respond, is what’s missing from everything virtual —whether it’s a text message, a classroom, visiting a museum, or “talking” to a colleague who’s five feet away on Gchat or email in the workplace. The bottom line is that technology makes us, as Sherry Turkle’s book of the same name makes clear, “Alone Together” and that’s not an atmosphere, whether it’s a cloud or a cloud masquerading as a bubble built for one, that promotes “spark.”
Yes, you can “dissect” a frog virtually, discuss The Odyssey in an online classroom, explore Patagonia, or visit the Van Gogh museum online, but you’ll miss a lot: the smell and feel of the frog’s organs, the tone of voice the teacher uses to communicate Odysseus’ pain or the comment that opened your eyes made by the red-haired kid in the front whose name you don’t even know, the sound the wind makes in a desolate part of earth and how it makes you feel, the size and scale of Vincent’s brush strokes and the depth of the paint.
I’ve written before about the things I think we should be fretting about in the digital age — babies distracted by screens; young kids using texting to communicate rather than face-to-face talk or even a phone; the weird loneliness that comes from a day filled largely with electronic chat and messaging; the posturing of young and old on social media —but Marissa Mayer brings our attention to something else. We should be worrying about the spark that only happens in the face-to-face, whether it’s in the hallways of an office, the classroom, or anywhere else, that chance encounter that might yield a fruitful meeting of the minds.
We know that the spark is already endangered, if not in jeopardy, by the habits of the digital age. The sparking depends on empathy, collaboration, a feeling of shared purpose, the ability to listen, and the sense that whatever you’re doing, it’s not just about you. All of those qualities are challenged or whittled away by how we use our digital devices. We dodge the face to face: bosses fire employees on email or Gchat, following the lead of lovers and spouses. Common courtesy and civility vanish in the rapid-fire typing of a text, and it’s easy to bully or excoriate when you don’t have to summon up a face. It was once rude to pick up a phone or read private correspondence in someone’s presence but that is now sooo last century. Even in company —at a lunch or dinner table, in a conference room, wherever —we pull out our phones to reassure ourselves of connection. I saw this some weeks ago at a birthday party, filled with Millennials, who sat crowded in my living room; by the end of the evening, they each had a cell phone in hand, still surrounded by others, texting. It was a tableau of “alone together.” Is a filled room always empty in the digital age?
Good for you, Marissa and good luck in getting Yahoo’s spark back. I’m rooting for you and the face-to-face.