This Batcher is Streaming

"To Stream or to Batch" - a response

Responding to our guest post of a few days ago (“To Stream or to Batch”), I hate to say this, but might this streaming and batching stuff be “generational”? (Why does that always feel uncomfortable, as if the real meaning is “You’re just too old”?) I do admit, though, that my generation couldn’t possibly have streamed communication as young people do today. Consider, for example, how children, teens and college students used to communicate with each other in perfect batches. (Warning: If you’re a millennial, this might frighten you.)

When I was about 12 or 13, I subscribed to a magazine for young teenage girls called Ingénue. Near the back of each edition was a “pen pal” page where one could offer her name and address in search of a pen pal. I chose a girl my age in Yonkers, New York. (I remember her name to this day!) The whole thing was “batching,” for sure. First I sent a check in the mail (my batch) and waited for the magazine (their batch) to arrive.  Once I chose Joyce (yup, that was her name) as my pen pal, I wrote her a letter on a piece of paper, using a pen, and addressed an envelope, added a stamp, put it in the mailbox outside, and raised the flag. Then I waited for my mailman to pass it to her mailman, and ultimately for her batch to arrive.

About two weeks after I wrote that letter, the mailman would deliver the batch from Joyce in Yonkers - and so it went, month after month. No email in those days, certainly no texting or Skyping or FaceTiming. Batching was our only option. And there were no cell phones, so long distance calling was absolutely out of the question – way too expensive. So we sent our batches of communication by U.S. postal service.

One day my father, who traveled for work, found that he needed to go to Yonkers! And so we arranged that, when he was within local (affordable) calling distance, he would call Joyce’s father from a pay phone, using a nickel. The two dads had a friendly little conversation, and then each one offered his batch to his daughter. Joyce and I then resumed exchanging batched communication, laboriously writing, folding, addressing, stamping, etc. – and waiting. There was simply no choice. Batch it or forget it.

Even when I went to college, if I wanted to stay in touch with high school classmates at other University of Wisconsin campuses, I wrote a letter on paper, mailed it in my dorm mail box, and waited at least two weeks for a response. Batch out – batch in. Seemed absolutely normal to us.

I realize now that I communicated with my peers in the same way as my mother and even my grandmother had done. It cost about 10 cents for a stamp and required a sheet of paper and a lot of patience. How communication has changed in one generation! 

Referring to Dale Oldham’s original post about the large Italian family that streams while others batch, I have to say that even my large extended family batched if you really examine the situation closely. No matter how noisy and crowded the room, no matter how quick and animated the conversation, communication was largely exchanged in batches, not streams.

Let me illustrate. My mother was the oldest of eight. Right behind her were six brothers, one born every two years or so. The absolute high point of any holiday in my childhood was to sit in my grandparents’ spacious living room and listen to my uncles have at it. They were, to a man, bright, witty, verbal and devilish, and they loved nothing more than to tell the funniest joke or inspire hilarity with a story crazier than the one another brother had just told.

We spent hours in such an electrified atmosphere with never a moment of silence. And yet, as I reflect, every man was batching. Every ear in the room strained to hear Ed’s joke. As soon as he got the last word out, all eyes turned to Paul, who immediately tried to top that one, and all ears listened to Paul’s batch. No one was texting with a distant friend or reading emails or looking at a phone. There was a phone – one. It was a big black thing that hung from the wall in a special nook dedicated to it alone, and it had no push buttons but a rotary dialing mechanism. If it rang, one person went to the phone nook to retrieve the batch, and then brought it back to the crowd where all voices hushed to hear the batch recently delivered by phone.

Now, I’m not saying that was better, and I’m not saying my generation cannot stream. Why, every time the Green Bay Packers play, my four siblings and I watch the game together. That is, in four different states, watching five different devices (usually TVs – let’s be realistic), we text to the group our response to every play, every call, and sometimes to a commercial or half-time act. We all text at once, and we all have long streams to keep up with. And it’s fun as heck. It seems to me we’re just catching up with the times.

So maybe it is generational. More likely it’s simply technology driven. But the tsunami of communication that now streams through our lives, bringing us more information than I could ever have imagined at age 20, and at a rate that even the keenest human brain cannot keep up with, just might be more than a wonderful breakthrough from batching to streaming. I suspect that we humans just might have gone a bit too far – maybe quite a bit too far. I wonder every day whether it’s possible we are simply communicating too much. Let’s take that subject up on another day.