The blessing and curse of packet switching

One of the core innovations behind the internet was the switch from circuit switching to packet switching. Pre-internet, if someone wanted to communicate with you, they either found time with you in person or called you on a phone/”landline.” And, when they called you on the phone, no one else could interrupt as the “line was busy.”

Packet switching, on the other hand, breaks communication into packets that reach a destination without worrying about busy lines. While phone lines used to be either free or busy, our destinations today (email accounts, social media accounts, phone inbox) deal with packets all day along. There is no concept of idle time since people and services send us packets through the day and wait for us to acknowledge them.

Consequently, idle time has disappeared in our lives too. The constant presence of packets means we check our phones in the bathroom or when others are trying to communicate with us (the irony) in a generally futile attempt to be packet-zero. While packet switching has its many benefits, its curse is that it is built to serve the communication system and not us.

There’s a Tahitian saying that tourists have watches but Tahitians have time. While we can definitely look at packet switching as a cause for that, there’s also a deeper implication. If we don’t take control of how we consume and respond to these packets, we’ll be surrounded by communication – but will have forgotten how to communicate.

(H/T Algorithms to Live By by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths – for the inspiration)