Nick Bilton is a technology reporter and author of a book called I Live In The Future and Here's How It Works (which sounds a little like something Chris Morris would say to introduce a report on The Day Today). He's written an interesting but flawed piece for the New York Times about the etiquette of digital communication.
In brief, Bilton's message is, "Don't waste my time". Email and text, he argues, demand brevity and economy, and the culling of all superfluous gestures like saying "Hello" at the top of an email. As for voicemail - well, don't even bother:
My father learned this lesson last year after leaving me a dozen voice mail messages, none of which I listened to. Exasperated, he called my sister to complain that I never returned his calls. “Why are you leaving him voice mails?” my sister asked. “No one listens to voice mail anymore. Just text him.”
My mother realized this long ago. Now we communicate mostly through Twitter.
Presumably Bilton includes these charming glimpses of his family life to reinforce the perception that he lives in the future, because they don't inspire great confidence in his communication skills, or indeed in his not-being-an-asshole skills, in the present. Anyone who proudly boasts that he taught his father a lesson in communication by consistently ignoring his attempts to communicate, or that he has successfully reduced his conversations with his mother to 140-character text bursts, may not be the right person to advise on how to make friends and influence people.
One of the things Bilton objects to is people asking others for easily searchable information, such as what the weather is like where they are. He interviews a like-minded acquaintance, Barratunde Thurston, to reinforce his point:
[Thurston] said people often asked him on social media where to buy his book, rather than simply Googling the question. You’re already on a computer, he exclaimed. “You’re on the thing that has the answer to the thing you want to know!”
Yeah, like duh, what an idiot for asking me about my book! I suppose there are people who genuinely think like Thurston, but most of them are adolescent boys and aspergy adults. Most of us would feel flattered that someone had asked.
The problem here isn't just that Bilton unintentionally comes off as rather rude (in real life, I'm sure he's perfectly lovely) but that his argument betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of communication. Writing about computers a lot, he assumes communication is all about the transfer of information from one hard drive to another. That being so, the more efficient the transfer is, the better. Superfluities must be ruthlessly rooted out.
But of course, humans are not hard drives, and our communication is about more than information transfer. Often, the non-informational component of a message is much more important than its content. Linguistics refer to phatic expression: expressions whose social function is more important than what they actually say. Those annoying questions ("Where can I buy your book?") aren't information requests, they're attempts to connect. As a British person, I know full well that conversations about the weather have very little to do with the weather.
Here's Ian McEwan, writing movingly about his mother, and how he used to get irritated by the silly things she said:
"Look at all them cows." And then later, "Look at them cows and that black one. He looks daft, dud'n he?" "Yes, he does." When I was 18, on one of my infrequent visits home, resolving yet again to be less surly, less distant, repeated conversations of this kind would edge me towards silent despair, or irritation, and eventually to a state of such intense mental suffocation, that I would sometimes make excuses and cut my visit short.
"See them sheep up there. It's funny that they don't just fall off the hill, dud'n it?" Perhaps it's a lack in me, a dwindling of the youthful fire, or perhaps it's a genuine spread of tolerance, but now I understand her to be saying simply that she is very happy for us to be out together seeing the same things. The content is irrelevant. The business is sharing.