Switching off

The other day,  as I was sneaking into bed next to an already sleeping Renata, the European Champions League game between Chelsea and Liverpool having just ended, my cellphone peep-peeped at me, letting me know a message had arrived:  “How about Chelsea?!?!!! What a game….But, frankly speaking, lousy defense.  Should be easy for Barcelona (ed: Chelsea’s next opponent).”

It was my Peruvian friend who is a director at a major Dutch consultancy firm and who officially resides in Toronto, but is just as likely as not to be at his pied-á-terre in Amsterdam – or traveling in any other major city in the world – and whose cellphone, inexplicably, has a UK number.  Where he watched the game and what time-zone he was in, I can’t even guess.  It could have been a sports café in Buenos Aires or an airport business lounge in Tokyo.  I’ll make sure to ask him the next time we meet up for a lunch-time Vietnamese spring roll at the local Friday market.

Yesterday my daughter, Miriam, was showing me how one aspect of her university internship placement works.  She’s teaching religion classes at a local high school and one of her jobs is to grade essays.  The students submit their essays on-line and a computer application automatically checks them for plagiarism; when Miriam opens the student’s file, she sees a side-by-side result of the assessment.  In one panel is the student’s work, and in the other are details of any verbatim copies from on-line sources.  Since very few students, when they write, are consulting anything off-line these days (books!?), it becomes quite easy for teachers to trace word-for-word copying.

A memory comes to me of Renata and I waiting at the Meknes train station, in Morocco, on a sunny spring day in 1987.  We were studying Arabic in Fez, but had come to Meknes to pick up our mail.  An acquaintance would be traveling through on their way to another destination and during the stop in Meknes would hand over about two month’s worth of post that had been collecting for us at the address we were using in Spain.  The meeting at the carriage door was brief.  We felt like spies.  The plastic bag bulged with unopened letters and we were so eager to read them that, like not very good spies, we promptly sat on a bench further along the platform to fill up on all the news from friends and family.

It really is almost unbelievable how much change has happened in communications technologies in the last 20 years.  Just a year before our Meknes experience I had witnessed for the first time a computer dial-up connection: the person in question had a “portable” computer the size of small suitcase, plus another device connected to the computer into which one placed a telephone handset.  With a bit of luck and a lot of beeps, honks, and buzzes the computer could (slow….ly) communicate with another computer somewhere else.  At the time I couldn’t quite see the point.  Now my daughter, Eva, carries around a device with dimensions less than those of half a slice of toast that lets her receive emails, watch films, check real-time weather images, listen to music, etc., etc.  When I mumble something about Dick Tracy she just stares at me blankly.

Some years ago, in conversation with my friend Elly (then recently retired after decades of missionary work in the Philippines), we agreed that the best place to be in all the world is an intercontinental flight, between commitments.   Old responsibilities left behind, new ones not yet taken up, and nothing to do but look out at the clouds while pleasant attendants serve up food and drink.  But life onboard flights has changed too.  Most people are now plugged-in to some form of electronic gadgetry, keeping up the busyness of their pre-boarding life.  The last time our family flew together across the ocean, we took an inexpensive charter flight but upgraded to their “business class” – which was actually equivalent to “economy” on a regular carrier, but gave us more than double the baggage allowance for only a marginally more expensive ticket.  My children were hugely disappointed that on this low-budget carrier, the “business class” entertainment consisted of nothing more than overhead television screens, rather than the computerized personal entertainment centers at each seat that they had grown accustomed to.

It isn’t the ease of communications technology that worries me; I’m all for it.  Rather, it’s the relentless presence and pace of it all.  Six months ago, when I started work at my new parish I made a conscious choice to take a step back from patterns I have developed in the last 10 years.  I don’t check my email nearly as often as I used to and when I do I don’t always reply right away (!).  At times, not at all.  (I know!)   I no longer have an answering machine on the land line phone and sometimes, very sometimes, I – can I say this? – I switch off my cellphone.

You know what?  Nothing dramatic has happened.  I’ve not missed any appointments or crucial decisions, I’m not any more or less out of the loop than I used to be, nobody has died and not been buried.  It’s just the loop moves more slowly.  And my life seems slightly more sane on the communications front.

Take my advice: switch-off and unplug more often, if you can.

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