Volume II, Number 3: Puzzling

Keep in touch

BY RUSSELL POWELL

THE RELENTLESS PACE AT WHICH we keep inventing ways to stay “in touch”–and the challenges this poses to lexicographers–is evident in this small sampling of entries from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary (online, of course), several of which seem chronologically out of place:

New England Watershed Vol. 2, No. 3

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  • Hypertext (1965): a database format in which information related to that on a display can be accessed directly from the display; also, material (as text) in this format.
  • Cyberspace (1982): The online world of computer networks and especially the Internet.
  • Text messaging (1982): The sending of short text messages electronically especially from one cell phone to another.
  • Cell phone (1984): A portable usually cordless telephone for use in a cellular system.
  • Internet (1985): An electronic communications network that connects computer networks and organizational computer facilities around the world.
  • Hyperlink (1988): An electronic link providing direct access from one distinctively marked place in a hypertext or hypermedia document to another in the same or a different document.
  • Blog (1999), short for Weblog: A website that contains an online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer.

You can bet your fax machine (1948) that more new and fascinating ways for people to communicate with each other are just waiting to be discovered.

On one level, that’s great. The latest technology is, after all, somewhat democratic in nature. Cell phones provide greater access to the fruits of modern culture than ever before for millions of people around the globe for whom land lines are unavailable or unaffordable.

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A person with a computer and inexpensive web site can now attempt to circulate his or her ideas without the intermediary of a publisher. Communications technology has provided new ways to circumvent corporate or official censorship. In an age when, at least in the U. S., ownership of the mainstream media has been consolidated into fewer and fewer hands, the proliferation of alternatives, however imperfect they may be, is a welcome development.

 

Unfortunately, though, the means of communications technology is often confused with the ends. The “online world” of cyberspace, after all, is a fiction; it is derivative of, and dependent upon, a physical world where real action — and human interaction — takes place. The simple fact that we can now make phone calls cheaply to anyone at any time of day does not mean that we have more to say.

I recently visited the blogs (can you imagine a less poetic word?) of three writers, only to find all of them shut down; their authors acknowledged that they lack the time to make new entries, and without updated material, the sites quickly lose their appeal. These writers abandoned their blogs in favor of projects that offer better feedback, an audience that can be quantified and qualified, and critical review of their work.

For every cell phone call reporting an accident or connecting distant family members, there are a thousand wondering what’s for dinner or reporting on the number of minutes it will take to get home. What’s the harm in that? Safety, for one thing. People talking on cell phones while driving are a well-documented danger to themselves and others.

I’m sure that manufacturers of cell phones and cars will continue to refine the technology so that driving while talking will become at least a little less risky than it is now. But the analogy with driving is a good one for what’s wrong with the rising epidemic of cell phone conversations. In the same way a driver’s attention is distracted when talking on the phone, we become less present to our own life’s experiences by making cell phones the objects of our real time. The act of talking on the phone becomes a substitute for direct engagement with the world, undermining our senses and eroding our time for reflection.

How many times have you seen cell phone users oblivious to their surroundings, talking too loudly in public places, ignoring friends and family? Cell phone abuse leads to a failure to observe. The people in our presence no longer command our undivided attention; it is they, and not the callers, who too often are placed on hold.

Cell phone abuse subtly robs us of the imperatives of memory, lulling us into acting as if it is obsolete. Cell phone use can atrophy brain cells: we don’t even need to remember familiar phone numbers or the grocery list — we’ll just make a call.

The problem with progress is its conceit. New not only is considered better, but also must vanquish the old. Letter-writing, for example, is a lost art. Hand-written letters are uniquely personal and communicate on multiple levels, but the physical patience and psychic stamina required to write them are too onerous and glacier-like for our push-button culture.

The possibilities of new communications technology are dazzling, true, and each invention has special virtues (and limitations). But as the inventors of the telegraph (1794), typewriter (1868) and ticker-tape (1895) can attest, it is the content of our messages, not their delivery system, that endures.


Russell Powell is editor and publisher of New England Watershed.

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