Technology is a fascinating phenomenon. If there are modern-day miracles, technology surely is one. Our desire for communication has, in a strange way, become its own religion with millions genuflecting to characters ticking across a computer monitor.
My own technological journey is easy enough to trace. The odyssey began with three TV channels (one fuzzy) on a black and white set, a floor-model radio/stereo combo that played record albums; maps tucked in a car seat pocket; unwieldy projectors and film reels and teetering vinyl screens; and one black telephone, in the kitchen, attached to the wall. There were manual typewriters at my first real job, and refrigerator-size computers. From there: boom boxes and electric typewriters; cassette tapes and 8-tracks and VCRs; phones in a bag (popular with traveling salesmen); my first desktop computer, which featured an overbearing monitor and blinking green letters on a dark background; CDs. The web and email; cell phones with drop-down mouthpieces and pull-up antennas; shrinking cell phones with no visible antenna and no drop-down anything; DVD players; laptops; floppy disks, hard disks, flash drives; BlueRay. Flat-screen everything. iPods, GPS systems, Blackberries, iPhones, iPads, texting, tweeting, Facebook, the ability to email from anywhere, the ability to call anybody from anywhere, the ability to snap a photo and send it around the world in two minutes, the ability to watch movies or TV shows on impossibly tiny gadgets, devices embedded in the cell phone giving parents the ability to track their children, or spouses the ability to track each other, or stalkers the ability to track their victims…wait a minute. How did we get from my parents’ black wall phone to stalkers tracking victims? Like any religion, I guess, sometimes going too far with a “miraculous” discovery can take us to a dark place.
Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate technology, I really do. I can work from anywhere thanks to my Backberry and my laptop. Technology has set me free. So if I’m free, why is this miracle of communication starting to feel like a large ball and chain?
At this very moment I’m sitting near a pool in Florida. The palm trees are swaying. It’s 79 degrees. Birds (not celebrities) are tweeting nearby. I’m typing on my laptop, and my dinging Blackberry is resting close, just in case I get some vitally important email or phone call or text message. I’m not looking at the palm trees, the breeze is breezing by unnoticed, and bird sounds are dwarfed by the dings of my phone. Something is wrong with this picture. Like so many others in this new and exciting technological age, I’m hooked on communication; or rather, I’m hooked on the hope of a communication thrill because let’s face it, unless an agent is texting that she’s sold my book to Random House and has a million dollar advance check in hand, most computer communications are pretty dull. Nonetheless, I’m as much as addict to this ridiculous quest for contact as the 17-year-olds who text in the deli, in the restaurant, in the elevator, on the toilet, the minute before they go to sleep and the minute they wake up. Our drug is the trilling phone and the blinking light. We have mail, and we can’t wait to get to it, never mind how pointless that mail might be.
Down in my basement, I have a big cardboard box full of letters. The letters are in all sizes of envelopes that are yellowing and bear aging postage stamps and return addresses of high school and college friends, old boyfriends, my mother, aunts and cousins, and too many others to name. My family teases me sometimes about keeping this stuff which, to them I’m sure, is as pointless as most of the texts we all now get. For me, these old letters are a part of my history, a part of the communication of my past. I remember being just as excited getting a letter in the mailbox as I am getting an email from a friend now. The only difference between my box of letters and emails is that letters are tangible mementos. Emails and texts are fleeting, disappearing as quickly as we can hit the delete key. What, I wonder, will a 17-year-old 25 years from now have to remind her of this time in her life? Emails and texts might as well be helium balloons. There they are, the string firm in your hand, but when you let go they rise and are gone. Will anybody have a box of emails in their basement decades from now? Probably not, anymore than they’ll have a box of balloons.
Mankind has always been addicted to communication, and that’s a good thing. I suppose what’s bothering me these days is the quantity and speed of our contact. We don’t savor the words being written, and we certainly don’t save them in a big box in the cellar. We dash off a dozen text messages in as many minutes then delete them, our words being dumped into the void. There’s something hollow about this that makes me sad. Maybe it’s imagining a love letter ticking across a tiny Blackberry screen, in 140 characters or less, with a heart-shaped smiley face at the end.
We’re losing something special in this new age of communication, and I guess we won’t know exactly what it is until it’s gone for good.