Ryan Bingham is the focal point of the new George Clooney film, Up in the Air. Bingham prefers the life of insulation and an arms-length approach to deep relationships. He flies about 320 days out of the year, leaving him 45 days a year to suffer through being in his home city of Omaha.
He makes a living as a traveling consultant who fires people for client companies who are downsizing and don’t want to do it themselves.
This is the new cost-efficiency system proposed to his firm that can wipe out all those travel expenses incurred by Bingham and his 22 colleagues who do the same job for his consultancy. When he watches Natalie Keener, the 23-year-old Ivy League inventor of the system, fire a distraught 57-year-old employee in Detroit over a webcam, the dehumanization of this new media system hits home and even Natalie herself.
It’s barely a step up from being fired over the phone by an unknown recorded telemarketer.
It doesn’t help that this poor guy has done nothing wrong other than cost the company too much in salary as a longterm employee. To the consultants and their company, he is just another name to check off the list.
But this scene also hits home to anyone who thinks interpersonal communication is somehow better in the computer’s virtual reality than in flesh-and-blood and face-to-face exchanges. Certainly we live in a time when online communication is vital and enhances many areas of our lives. But there are still times when face-to-face interaction just does it better.
Communication is the goal of talking and listening. But it is also the process by which we verbally and nonverbally try to create specific meanings, images, and feelings in the minds and hearts of others.
Effective communication occurs when the message intended equals message received, and when we convey connotations as well as denotations. When you take all that and apply it to online communication – even with webcams – you encounter a problem. That problem is we lose what I would call effective emotional feedback. This is the kind of instant feedback that takes place when you want to respond immediately and appropriately to what someone is expressing emotionally through non-verbal cues.
If you are linked via webcams, you can certainly see some of those non-verbal cues (although things like fidgeting hands or white knuckles would be outside the camera shot), but you are still responding to a camera and not a person.
If you have ever had a Skype conversation with your wife or husband, you know what I mean. Perhaps one of you is on a long business trip; maybe even out of country. It is late at night, and you are both missing each other and realizing you love each other a great deal. Think about how easy it is to express that feeling of love when you are together looking into each other’s eyes vs. looking into your webcam lens.
In Up in the Air, effective emotional feedback was needed when the veteran loyal employee had just been told he was no longer needed in the company; that he was losing his job. But the young executive Natalie could not express an effective kind of feedback because she was firing him over a webcam from another location.
He was crying softly into a camera in his office; she was frozen in an emotional prison in hers. It was a sad moment for both individuals. One needed the feedback; the other wanted to give it but was prevented because of the isolating technology used to communicate.
As hardened as Ryan Bingham was to this business of firing others, even he realized that what he was observing here was too much; too detached and too cruel.
This particular scenario is part of what psychologist Kenneth J. Gergen calls postmodern consciousness, or the syndrome of Americans who are so bombarded by media-created images, personalities, and relationships, that they have trouble hanging onto their own personal identities and recognizing the authenticity of traditional reason and emotion.
Gergen believes the driving force behind all this is technology that showers us with vicarious social relationships as opposed to real ones.
If we use computers and the Web to exchange content, to stay in touch, and to expedite the handling of a myriad of business practices, these are effective applications. But if we wind up using ths kind of detached communication to exchange feelings and to comfort, encourage, or inspire each other, we are probably asking too much of the new media and its reality which — after all — is virtual.