ReelThoughts: May 10, 2012

"Unplugged"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


When I was a kid, I knew a middle-aged man who owned a cabin in the woods by a lake. Based on the way he described it, it hadn't been upgraded since it was built in the mid-1800s. It didn't have a telephone, electricity, or running water. The bathroom was an outdoor outhouse with a cesspool under the toilet. He loved going up there, and would spend nearly all his vacation days at the cabin. He'd hike and hunt and swim all day and spend nights reading books by firelight. He called it a "break from civilization" that recharged him for the rat race of the modern world. At age 12, I thought he was nuts. Now, I'm not so sure.

Don't misunderstand - I have no desire to live in a cabin in the woods with no electricity or running water. But I have discovered that being connected 24/7 can be exhausting. Paradoxically, while the advances in communications over the past few decades have been designed to improve freedom, they have in some cases achieved the opposite. Now, you simply can't get away. True, it's nice to be able to call home from the grocery store to confirm what brand of ice cream to buy, but that level of connectedness means that work and other unwanted pressures can never be escaped. How many people check their work e-mails when on vacation? My hand is up.

I spend roughly 10 hours per day sitting in front of a computer screen. A little more if I don't have a movie to see, a little less if I do. I rarely surf the web the way I used to. When I'm puttering around the Internet, it's usually for a purpose, even if that purpose is to browse through an electronic version of the morning paper. I do a lot of writing and my "day job" consists of 50% answering e-mail and 50% doing research, writing meeting minutes and contracts, and creating spreadsheets. I probably couldn’t live without a computer.

I have always been an early adopter. First on the block to own a DVD player. I had Internet access at home before most people knew what "the Internet" was. I had a website in place before it was fashionable, when most web surfing was done at work. I was a little late into the smartphone arena, but not too late. When I read a book, it is most often done on a Kindle because I appreciate the light weight, ease of use, and ability to alter the size of the font at will. I am by no means a technophobe.

But then there's Facebook. I have never understood the fascination with the platform, which simply bundles a bunch of existing applications under a single umbrella. Recently, my wife made some comment about having to do something to her Facebook page and I heard a news story about how employers are assiduously researching the Facebook pages of potential employees. At that moment, I felt an almost overwhelming sense of relief. I don't have to worry about those things because I don't have a Facebook page! I subsequently discovered that this sense of electronic freedom is shared by others. Some people can't live without Facebook; I don't think I'd be happy living with it.

That's not to say I will never have a Facebook page. It depends in large part on how long Facebook exists in its current format. It is the synthesis of aging functionality that may well be irrelevant in a few years' time. I have a novel that is publication-ready; the possibility exists that the publisher may want me to create a Facebook page for marketing purposes. One doesn't have to be in love with a tool to use it.

I find it interesting to ponder how we can't simply "go back." We have tethered ourselves so inextricably to technology that our bridges to the past are charred wreckage. This was very much a topic of concern in 1999 with the so-called "Millennium bug." Was it overhyped? Of course. The fact is, however, if it had not been proactively addressed in computer systems around the world, there would have been a major problem. It wasn't that the issue didn't exist, but it was fixed before December 31.

If the Internet crashed and burned today, we would not be thrown back to 1990; we would be thrown back to 1890. My neighbor's cabin in the woods would be state-of-the-art. In 1990, electricity, cable TV, and landline telephones were all stand-alone systems, with their own independent infrastructures. Home computers were appliances, like televisions. Electricity controlled computers, not the other way around and, for the most part, they did not communicate with one another. We cannot get back to there from here. Take away the Internet and everything collapses: the banking system, the power grid, the telephone system, and everything else that makes our life "modern." This is why there is such a heightened concern about cyber-terrorism.

When the power goes off on a nice summer day, I become anxious. There's no reason for it. The temperature is such that I can live comfortably. I won't freeze. I have an almost endless supply of books and lots of batteries for the flashlights. My smartphone gives me limited Internet access and voice connectivity. But still... It's at times like that when I realize how much I am a child of the electronic age. I once wrote books and papers on a manual typewriter and used a corrector ribbon to fix mistakes. My main entertainment at night was watching TV with my parents or listening to the radio. I read books while sitting at my desk in the solitude of my room, which had no television or telephone. Staying in contact with someone who was not within bike-riding distance was a virtual impossibility. Today, such a life seems archaic. Technology can be seen like a benevolent cancer; it infects and spreads slowly. The changes aren't apparent as they happen but are remarkable when looked at retrospectively.

I don't really wish I could go back. But sometimes, when I feel the electronic walls closing in and can't seem to escape for a few moments of unconnected solitude, I naively wish I could. It's a pleasant fantasy... sort of like being a Jedi or living in Middle Earth.


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