The Cold War, the Hot Line and Twitter

August 30 was the 44th anniversary of the "Hot Line" linking the White House and the Kremlin, developed after the Cuban Missile Crisis as a way to prevent future such crises.

I recall vague images of a red, rotary-style telephone, with translators hovering over Krushchev and Kennedy, all ears glued to the receiver.

In truth, while it was dedicated, it was more a line than a handset; and it took 15 minutes to set up a call.

But the idea seems sound. By linking the Head of the Free World and the Head Red, world wars would be averted.

And—indeed, we’ve had no world wars since. Of course, we can’t infer from their absence that the Hot Line can take credit.

Yet we tend to treat communication as a panacea. How many times have you heard (or said) that the key to world peace (or a happy marriage, or racial harmony) “all boils down to communication. If everyone just communicated more, it’d all work out.”

What if the Red Phone had always been on? A permanent connection, picking up everything on each end?

What if JFK and Krushchev had had access to—Twitter?

Twitter is software that allows users to digitally emulate being a Siamese twin, sharing via cellphones or IMs material like “I’m going to go get a coke,” or “it’s really humid today,” or "I just had two bowls of curry." It tells you how many seconds old the news is. (Barack Obama is on Twitter. So’s Hillary. Rudy’s entry is a month old. No surprises.)

If some communication is good—isn’t more better?

Maybe not.

The world is already a-twitter. Think cell phone conversations on the bus or train. Popup ads. Spam. Facebook’s Wall. Everything-cams. Ads that address you as “America.” Message-based t-shirts and bumper stickers. Waiters who tell you their name.

Communication may be necessary—but it’s not sufficient. The world probably is safer when leaders look face to face, rather than demonize from afar. Sales and negotiation and relationships all benefit from greater communication.

But familiarity breeds contempt. Taking a bathroom break? TMI, thanks very much. And I’d prefer Snakes on Planes to Cellphones in the Friendly Skies.

Effective communication requires, three prerequisites:

  • Veto power,
  • Permission, and
  • Relevance

I want to be able to shut you out when I want; I need a mute button or kill switch before I let you in at all.

For me to re-up—to keep my channel open—you need to continually earn the right to my attention, by being relevant. And relevance isn’t a fixed function of content; it’s the result of constantly monitoring what my current hot-buttons are, and—respectfully—offering content to match.

Communication isn’t just an “always-on” shared experience. It can feel that way when young, when the heady sense of connection with an Other relieves the pain of teen-age alienation.

But as we mature, communication looks more like a constantly renewing process of gaining permission through observing, noticing, making assessments of the Other’s interests. With respect. Including knowing when to leave well enough alone.

Silence is often the best communication. The Quakers got that right.