[VIEWPOINT]Hello? Are you a human being?

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[VIEWPOINT]Hello? Are you a human being?

"Can you attend the professors' meeting at 5 this afternoon? It's something urgent." A fellow professor sent me this message by e-mail, yet his room is right next to mine. "I enjoyed your JoongAng Ilbo column," reads a text message I received on my cellular phone from a middle school friend whom I've known for more than 30 years.

Instead of getting up from my seat to walk over to the fellow professor's room, I sent my reply by e-mail affirming that, yes, I will be attending the meeting, and then I sent my friend a text message saying, "Thanx," instead of dialing his number and calling him up.

For those of us who live in this age of information, this is the kind of communication method that we use the most.

It also seems to be society's general view that this is the product of civilization's development. Yet when you think about it, the noisiest of the numerous animal life forms on earth is the human. Plants, by nature, do not make noise. Humans cry, laugh, talk, chatter, sing and are very noisy creatures overall. Thanks to us humans, the quietest month on earth is probably February -- it's a few days shorter than the other months.

Despite this, we are hearing less and less of human voices in society these days. E-mails, faxes, beepers and text messages are replacing the physical voices of human beings.

Of course, it could be said that the traditional face-to-face conversations began to decrease centuries ago, ever since the beginning of the cities and the invention of the printing press. Yet the "de-voicing" of society has caught up as never before because of the recent information revolution. Thanks to the brilliant achievements of the information revolution, we have been introduced to the world of e-mail and text messages, liberated from the burden of having to meet people personally to talk.

As with all brilliant things, there is a dark side to this de-voicing that we should know about. Conversations exchanged face to face in warm human voices are what make human beings become closer to one another. The human voice is the vessel that holds the individuality of the person and the window through which it is projected. Isn't there even a genre of comedy imitating the voices of famous people? Faxes that can't differentiate vocal notes, text messages that ignore the differences in the loudness of people's voices and e-mail that can't give a hint of bad breath could never bring us a warm, human world. Moreover, humans don't always exchange only necessary thoughts. The importance of information in communication is secondary to the importance of emotions.

The fact that face-to-face conversation between humans is decreasing means that alienation and isolation between humans are growing. According to the British communication professor John Locke, the ultimate stage of the devoicing of society is an autistic society.

A generation that refuses contact with others and shuts one up in oneself is about to come down on our society like a tragedy. The motive power behind the information revolution that tells without talking, understands without hearing is of course the computer. Should there be no computers, we humans could one day even lose the very ability to hold conversations with one another.

Perhaps the cellular phone, whose manifest presence has taken over the diffusion of eyeglasses in Korean society and that has now become practically a part of the human body, will become the last evidence of the "homo loquacious." The reality is that a cellular phone does not even seem like a phone anymore, with all the eye-opening progress of additional functions, among which text messages are about the most basic.

The cellular phone is also seriously deteriorating the traditional roles of the human mouth and ears: The human mouth and ears are now being used to

"communicate" to a recipient far away instead of being used to "talk" to people nearby. Conversation is disappearing from the face of earth and telecommunications is taking over. With such phenomena we are finding ourselves ignoring and shunning those immediately around us.

This Chuseok holiday weekend is a season when your blood calls you and you long for human warmth. It is the time to gather around with friends and families and just talk and talk. Look up at the full moon of the harvest holiday and just give a few minutes to ponder what makes us humans and what humans really need.

As an experiment, this weekend let go of the obsession of checking your e-mail. As matter of fact, don't check it at all. Additionally, don't bother switching your cellular phone to vibration mode. In fact, just turn off the phone.


The writer is a professor of sociology at Hallym University.

by Jun Sang-in

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