Tuesday, November 24, 2009

On Ludditery: Verizonus Cellphonus Abominationus

Merriam-Webster defines a ‘Luddite’ as “one of a group of early 19th century English workmen destroying laborsaving machinery as a protest; broadly : one who is opposed to especially technological change.”

My predilections towards Ludditery have sometimes made me the butt of friends’ jokes.
Until just last year, my television was of the VCR and antenna variety. I gave it up only when the FCC gave its shit-or-get-off-the-pot warning, likely directed at a group of centenarians with aluminum foil on their rabbit ears. In January 2009, ancient tvs would no longer be receiving broadcasts.

I own a blender from the 1960s. It had belonged to my grandmother—a great classic design, Scandinavian feel, bottom console lined with individual buttons: “chop”, “stir”, “puree”, “mix”. I have had the same alarm clock for ten years, a simple travel alarm. My stereo is from the Cretaceous period and my toaster probably from the Jurassic at least.

I dislike texting, Facebooking and myspacing. I preferred the good old days of not too long ago when people made plans face-to-face or called friends at home to make plans. We would agree to a time and show up. You would show up because, well, you had made plans. All in all, this took three minutes.

Now, I might invite a friend to meet up, leaving a voicemail on her cell. She would respond by leaving a message on my Facebook page. I respond to her Facebook and also text her cell; she leaves a message on my Facebook wall to let me know something has come up, she won’t be able to make it. Meanwhile, I’ve not checked my Facebook, because I’m already enroute to our meeting location. So, I’m waiting and I’m confused and I leave a message on her cell and I wait and she can’t get back to me because she’s in a ‘dead zone’. (I think of the Verizon commercials, or maybe checking in to the Bates motel while the ‘Jaws’ theme is playing.) I think of the gang from West Side Story, hurling rocks at friends’ windows in order to entice downstairs. That probably took about one minute, (excepting, of course, time spent in the fixing of broken windows.)

Is all this really necessary? Bleeechh. Can’t we just call our friends on the phone? Do we really need to Facebook so much? Is it really of dire importance to know what everyone had for breakfast, how well he or she slept and whether it was raining?

Somehow social networking sites and insta-communication have made it easier for us to hide from the real, bricks-and-mortar world just beyond our noses. We are permitted to easily drift into self-absorption, solipsism. It just becomes so easy.

And don’t even get me thinking about technology and dating! As I sit in the coffee ship now writing this, I see a number of people perusing dating sites. It’s, like, hey, get up and introduce yourself to the people next to you! Most attraction is chemical anyways…and a good deal of communication is registered on a subconscious level.

Last week at the bookstore, I came across a very funny book, essentially the conversations between famous authors had they been members on a social networking site. It makes me laugh.
“How wuz ur day?”says Lord Byron.
“It wuz gr8,” replies Percy Shelley.
Ha, ha. I didn’t think so.

So how does a self-proclaimed Luddite react when her cell phone is destroyed?

Answer: Very carefully. And not without a hint of irony!

Only when the low-tech regimen—sticking it in a jar of rice—and the higher tech regimen—blasting it with a hair dryer—failed to achieve the intended results, did I venture off to the Verizon store. I was told I would have to wait a week for a replacement. But, but, but…I stammered… a whole week! The withdrawal set in--No calls! No text messages! No white glowing little box to connect me to family and friends hither and yon. What in case of an emergency?

In some twisted, post-modernist 21st century way, I decided to freak out. Was Mr. Verizon Guy the picture of Zen enlightenment, suggesting I voluntarily obliterate my attachments, my ego, my need to feel needed by my ‘network’? Maybe I had reached the modern-day mountaintop, and there he was, sitting there--cross-legged, top-knotted hair, Technicolor aura, thumbs and pointer fingers gently touching in a mudra, urging me to shed the surly technological bonds of earth. Come with me, my child, he seemed to say.

In the two years following college, I worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in a small northwestern city in Madagascar. A telephone would have been an unimaginable luxury. One week without a phone, my 22 year-old self would have scoffed. Pshaw. I had had a BLU (similar to a ham radio) whereby which we could reach a supervisor in the capital city (or a doctor) if need be. Privacy was a four-letter word and anything uttered on a BLU frequency was fully audible throughout the countrywide system.

The sometimes loneliness that accompanies being a stranger in a strange land made the PC BLU frequency a welcome friend. It was comforting to hear fellow English speakers, if only to hear in painstaking detail, a colleague filing a grant application for a well or getting a herpes diagnosis from who I would imagine to be our bemused doctor. There was a protocol to using the BLU—you always had to pretend you didn’t hear ALL of your friend’s diagnosis, to act nonchalant, before radioing in...."Hey, how are you. No, I just tuned in a second ago. What's new with you?"

The BLU was like a 1910’s audio Facebook of sorts, except oodles more honest and TONS more entertaining.

The other option for accessing the world beyond consisted of a pen, a piece of paper, a once-weekly Wednesday afternoon prop plane and a prayer. It was funny because the customs inspectors always took a little baksheesh from letters or packages. (I once received a package of Hershey’s kisses from home—and most of them had bites taken out of them.)

Letters were treasured-- read, re-read and filed away safely for yet more re-reading during the weeks when I knew there would be no letters.
(To be continued…)

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