The other afternoon I was checking e-mail at an Internet cafe in Grenada, the Caribbean island the U.S. invaded in the Reagan years. A friend request from Facebook led me to log on to that site. Oh, what the hell, I thought, I'll post my whereabouts and "next stop Bequia," a small and rather unknown isle in the Grenadines. Back to the ship. The next morning I rose early for snorkeling and noticed that I had a text message from my friends Rob and Debs: "We're in Bequia." I had met this energetic and thoroughly charming couple a few years ago at Christmas on the remote island of Boipeba in Brazil. The following year we were all in South Africa together, and last year it was Buzios, again in Brazil. We are currently planning a boat charter in Turkey this coming June. All this to explain that we usually know each other's whereabouts at the holidays, but we'd had a gap in communication. So, thanks to Facebook and texting, I spent a lovely afternoon with them at their rented villa in the hills above Bequia's exquisite harbor. Sometimes modern technology is amazing,
I used to describe myself as a Luddite (a member of a radical anarchist group that tried to impede the Industrial Revolution in Britain by throwing sandals into the machinery and stopping the factories from functioning -- momentarily. Obviously, they didn't succeed at halting industrialization). I had held out against being online until a clever group of friends gave me an iBook for my 50th birthday, and soon I came to love not only writing on my computer, but e-mail and online access to other gay men. I actually met my last partner on a dating site! Yet when we met, six years ago, I was adamant: "I can run my business and life with a fountain pen." My resistance broke down step by step: I have a website; Googling and YouTube are daily activities, I'm Linked In and have 1,800 "friends"on Facebook -- and I write an online column!
Language acquisition is an apt metaphor for my relationship with technology: Those born after 1980 or so grew up speaking computer and cell phone, etc. I, who went to college with an electric typewriter, am learning the language of technology as an adult. I can hope to be conversant if I work at it, but I will never be mistaken for a native speaker. Learning Spanish in my youth and Italian in college were much easier than when I studied Portuguese in my 50s. It's a challenge to be a beginner at my age. A worthwhile challenge, I am finally ready to wholeheartedly admit and embrace.
Technology is neutral. How we use it is not. I am disturbed by seeing so many people, particularly the young, absorbed by their devices as they walk the streets or even, as I saw yesterday, sail on a catamaran in the Caribbean. They're missing the experience of being where they are. As a society, we are losing touch with our context.
Right now my context is writing in my cabin on a ship on my iPad. I
have some anxiety, as this is a new device for me and I am not yet able
to ensure that this piece will not be lost by an errant click. Pad and
paper have a certain reliability. MobileMe will eventually put this
into cyber storage. That boggles my mind. If I had showed up with this
device or my iPhone 30 years ago it would have been like having a
Wizard's wand. When I am impatient, as I was at the cybercafe
yesterday, with the slowness of the PC, I try to remind myself that I am
being impatient with a miracle ...
I have friends who resist
technology and decry its danger to our well-being. I absolutely
sympathize with such concerns. However, like the Industrial Revolution,
the information age is here -- until the next yet-unknowable
breakthrough. Of course we need to hone our awareness of the pull
toward losing touch with the present and our context. It is our duty
to mitigate its dangers and to use its abilities to create connection,
peace, understanding, and good. Age doesn't have to be a dividing line.
I know 90-year-olds who use e-mail and cell phones. I know much
younger folks who in their resistance are becoming caricatures of
ungraceful aging. I am grateful for the fluency of the young as I
stumble, at times, in this new language. As I strive to expand my
technological acumen I also strive to uphold the poetry of my native
tongue, remembering to switch my devices off and simply "be here now."