Monday, January 25, 2010

The Digital Muse

While we're on the subject... As I was writing the last post about digital communication it crossed my mind that the great stories of history and literature—and of our own lives—might have been drastically altered by 21st century communications technology. For example:

Remember that fateful letter from Friar Lawrence to Romeo, telling him that Juliet was only mostly dead? The one that arrived too late? If Shakespeare had instead given each of those two men a Motorola Razr, timely communication would have been established and tragedy turned into comedy. ...Except that the Capulets and Montagues would have continued biting their thumbs at one another until the world's end.

Or how about Robinson Crusoe? If he'd made a satellite phone call from the sinking ship, he might have been rescued about 28 years sooner. And nobody would ever have cared much about his survival story. Oh, and Friday would never have been rescued from murderous cannibals.

Then there's the whole Midnight-Ride-of-Paul-Revere thing. One if by land, two if by sea? Totally unnecessary. "Through the night went his cry of alarm, to every Middlesex village and farm"? A waste of breath. Just text it, Paul, and all those colonial farmers will be ready with their muskets and their night-vision goggles.

And if Odysseus had bought matching iPhones for Penelope and himself before heading off to battle the Trojans, the trip home would have taken on an entirely different tone:
P: Honey, where are you? I left you like ten voice mails yesterday. 
O: Long story, Penny. After a rough day on the wine-dark sea, we took a pit stop on some island. I had already checked Google Maps, and I told the guys that there was a nice, authentic Greek gyro joint on the next island, but did they listen? They were so hungry for a steak, they just couldn't wait. They came across this herd of grass-fed, free-range cattle and just went nuts with their battle axes—had a big ol' Texas barbecue.
P: Typical men.
O: Yeah, well, it gets worse. It turned out that those cows belonged to Helios the Sun god. Seriously bad news. Let's just say I'll be home a bit later than we'd planned. I'll tell you all about it in dactylic hexameter when I get there.

Poetic, no?

It seems pretty clear to me that our modern hyper-connectedness would have drained a lot of the color from many of history's best stories. And even from my own life's stories.

When I was 13, my family lived in Kenya for 6 months. Without a cell phone. Or a home phone connection, for that matter. My dad did have a phone at his office, but the line would mysteriously go dead whenever he mentioned anything negative about events taking place in the country at the time. E-mail was in its infancy, and few people ever thought of communicating via computer. (This is making me feel old.) Our contact with home was minimal and normally involved letters that might take weeks to arrive.

While we lived there, a day came when my brother and I could not get home from school because of a riot taking place in the city through which we needed to travel. Cars and trucks—so loaded with people that the bumpers nearly touched the road—were streaming out of the town, and ours was the only car going toward it. Our driver stopped to ask what was happening, but we could only get hints and rumors. A few people said that they had fled because everybody else was doing it. So we waited. Meanwhile, news of tear gas and gunshots spread through the surrounding area, and my parents had no way of finding out where we were—or whether we were alive. For a few nervous hours they felt the way that many Haitian parents must be feeling now: fearful and wondering where their children might be. With today's technology, a quick text message could have told my parents that we were safe, and spared them those hours of distress. But then we wouldn't have had much of a story to tell afterward. Every good story involves some kind of conflict or tension waiting to be resolved. Who wants to hear about the day that started happy, went along happily, and ended with smiles all around? I want to live that day. But I don't want to hear about it. Without those hours spent in fear, this story wouldn't be worth telling. And a cell phone, I'm quite sure, would have removed the uncertainty that made the afternoon memorable.

Another event that my sons love for me to recount is the day in 1998 when I was driving alone through the barren wasteland of Central Washington and slid off the highway into a field. My car came to a stop directly on top of an ancient, rusty plough that was half-buried in the dirt. After trying everything I could to free myself from the grip of that antique piece of machinery (4-wheel-drive, reverse, digging, pushing), I only managed to spin my tires deeper into the dust. I was stranded and clearly needed help. With a cell phone, I would have let my fingers do the walking. Without one, my feet had to do it.

The nearest sign of civilization was a dilapidated farm house about 40 yards away. I waded shakily through the dry grass, climbed up the steps onto the collapsing porch and knocked insistently on the ripped screen door. A couple of hung-over teenage boys dragged themselves off of their bare living room mattresses to answer my persistent pounding. "The party ended like three hours ago," they informed me. When I explained my situation  and asked for a phone, they said that theirs had been disconnected for months. In an act of selfless heroism, they pulled on some shoes and walked back with me to my car. After helping me try unsuccessfully to push it off the plough, they shrugged and walked back to the house to sleep off the last night's beer binge. But before they did, they sent me to search for a man who was wandering the property seeking antique farm machinery to weld into fences. I found him behind an old silo. He turned out to be a fifty-year-old, three-hundred-pound Mexican immigrant with a great dane. And red pickup. After laughing a bit at my predicament, he drove his truck to the scene of the accident and used it to push my car free of the plough.

Unfortunately, once he did, the radiator began to empty its green contents into the dirt. He raised his eyebrows and whistled through his teeth. "There's no way you're gonna make it to town like that," he told me. We climbed into the cab of his pickup, and he drove me to the next farm with a phone, called a tow truck for me, and drove back to my car to wait with me. For the next hour, we sat  on his tail gate and learned each other's names. I told him I was an art student. He told me he'd sent his daughter to the Art Institute of Seattle with money he'd made from welding fences out of farm junk—the kind of farm junk my car was stuck on. He offered me a cold Pepsi. I showed him the design projects I had in my car.

Thanks to my lack of a cell phone, I ended up spending a ridiculous and fascinating hour on the back of this man's pickup, exchanging stories and sharing soda under the baking sun, next to a dog the size of a pony.

It's true that the story could have turned out differently—so differently that I'd never want to repeat it. A cell phone offers a sense of safety, and I wouldn't want to find myself in a similar situation again without one. But it's also true that if I'd had my little flip phone at my disposal, I would never have made human contact with the people at that farmhouse, and I would have one less memory to laugh about with my kids. In retrospect, I'm thankful that I (and Romeo and Crusoe and Paul Revere and Odysseus) didn't have a phone that day. But I think I prefer the way things are now. Mostly.

1 comment:

Signe said...

I have a few of those stories from my pre-cell days. When I was a kid, way back in ancient days, we had party lines on our land lines. We could listen to the neighbors phone conversations and vice versa. It was great.

Our social working in Addis was floored that we didn't have our cell phones with us. They didn't work in Addis anyway, and I was not going to pay $3.50/min to use it even if it did.

I guess I am getting old. I would love to ditch my cell phone and go back to walking up to people's front doors, gasp! I would like my daughter's to have cell phones while driving through central WA however.

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