I recently received a text message wishing me: "choicest blessings on the auspicious occasion of Eid Al Adha". The sender, a long forgotten colleague, had obviously sent this "one size fits all" message to all the contacts in his address book. Rather than respond directly to the sender's greeting, many of the recipients, probably just group-texted their own generic Eid messages.
I have to question the value of such greetings. Are we really wishing each other well? How much heart and soul can there be in such effortless bulk-communication? It is easy to imagine a future where we pre-programme our phones with the following instruction: If Date = Dec 25th send " wishing you the sincerest seasons greetings" To contact group = "friends and family". For the recipients and the senders of such thoughtless pre-programmed messages, what exactly would be the benefit? This is a classic example of what we used to call "cant".
The historian Ben Wilson describes cant as a four-letter word that has all but faded from the English language. Cant originates from the Norman French for chanting, meaning a type of formulaic and derogatory speech used to mask the absence of any genuine devotion. Cant is decorum and sobriety without sincerity. Cant is jargon and cliché masquerading as substance. Cant is well choreographed verbiage bereft of any authenticity. The word may not have survived but the practice is thriving, and perfectly suited to our increasingly digitised existence.
My hollow Eid greeting is just one example of a technologically mediated epidemic of a lack of authenticity. Consider Facebook status-spin, a type of cyber posturing designed to make us appear cooler, quirkier, happier than we really are. "OMG the weekend was total bliss, wondering if he can recover in time for round two (smiley face, winking)". Then we have "celebrity" tweets, which are meant to be the uncensored musings of the fabulously famous when in reality they are often no more than the carefully crafted sound bites of a public relations team. And in the wonderful world of e-mail who hasn't won the lottery, or been befriended by a billionaire who needs a little help moving some cash around? The full spectrum of deceit is flourishing in our digital world; from the culture of cant, to new virulent strains of fraudulent criminality.
One explanation for the resurrection of cant is that the communication technology actually makes it easier for us to lie. Research performed in the 1990s that was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology reported that lying to a person's face is much harder than lying over the phone. The diary-based study found that phone lies were far more frequent than the face-to-face variety. A 2010 study entitled, The finer points of lying online: E-mail versus pen and paper also explored the role of technology in deception. This study used an experiment to compare the willingness of participants to lie when using either email or pen and paper. The findings suggest that people were far more willing to lie when communicating via e-mail with the lie rate 50 per cent greater than for those using pen and paper. Furthermore, those using e-mail reported feeling more justified in their deceit, even when the people being lied to were people they knew.
So what is it about technology and e-mail in particular that makes us less inhibited to deception?
The Nobel Prize winner and animal psychologist Konrad Lorenz suggested that technology allows us to override our natural human instincts. Lorenz's observations were focused on acts of aggression. He noted how military technology had allowed humans to kill one and other with greater psychological ease and in greater numbers than ever before. It was easier to drop a "smart bomb" than wield a bloody club. Perhaps our modern communication technologies work in a similar way, helping us to override our natural instinct for truth.
Email, SMS, and the tweet have displaced handwritten communication and to some extent, face to face contact. Compared to written communication, electronic messages are viewed (rather mistakenly), as less permanent. Overall there is a reduced feeling of accountability associated with electronic communication. Therefore, cant, self misrepresentations, and outright lies become much easier.
Considering what to do in response to the seasonal cant sent to my phone, my first response was not to respond to group greetings. I recently re-thought this position and have now decided to respond to each message, but with a very detailed personalised and well meant greeting. It takes time, I know, but people really are worth it.
Dr Justin Thomas is a psychologist and assistant professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi