Electronic Quill

Hark Hark the Ark

There is a sea-change on the way. No one knows if it will be a squall or a deluge, but few people will be unaffected by it. We're talking about the radical transformations taking place in the world of technology. For several years we have been on a relatively calm island. It wasn't necessary to upgrade operating systems continually, or applications, or motherboards. What we had were basically patches and band-aids, modifications and minor face lifts. My back-up computer, for example, is nine years old and humming along. A nip here and a tuck there are all that were required.

But well-made machines don't move the economy. And stable systems are a thing of the ancient past, the stone age of the 1990's. We're not only talking here about iPods and iPod videos, or even the proliferation of mobile phones and their growing list of features. We're talking about fundamental changes in underlying architecture. Digital safety pins are on their way out. Products that most of us haven't even conceived of are on their way in. After all, it was not so long ago that a personal computer was considered too radical a concept to be taken seriously, and data was transmitted onto mainframes without the benefit of visualization boxes called monitors.

It's not just that surgeons are using iPods to relax while they're cutting us up. It's not even that GPS technology is being extended to finding lost children or tagging suspected criminals. (And if Congress has its way you or I could well be the next suspect, without our even suspecting it.) MIT is preparing to let its students broadcast their locations to friends and acquaintances. The office cubicle, the desk, and the familiar water cooler may become artifacts of nostalgia, museum exhibits of the primitive world that was. Why go to an office if you can instantly and always be found? Why go to meetings if the meetings can come to you?

The cell phone, as ubiquitous as it seems in the United States, commands the personal communication network even more forcefully in places like Tokyo, Seoul and Helsinki. Messages, photos, podcasts, videos, network television combined with constant conversations add up to a planetary noise blizzard. Some complain, for example, that teenagers chatter almost nonsensically with interspersed clumps of meaningful messages, but you have only to think of the recitatives of opera leading up to grand arias to understand what is going on. Essentially La Scala or the Metropolitan Opera House are all around you in a kind of urban music. This means that you are never alone: tendrils of communication link you instantly to others. These links, however, reinforce how very much alone you really are, each user a minute nucleus in an isolated biological cell. That innate loneliness is reinforced by one student at the Haas School of Business at Berkeley who said of his email, "If I've been to sleep and don't have at least four messages when I wake up, I feel no one loves me."

On the one hand, as David Kelley wrote so poignantly recently in an episode of "Boston Legal", "It's fun being me. Is it fun being you?" On the other, wired love is hardly a match for a hug. Affection starvation cannot be cured by devices no matter how magical.

I have a neighbor who refuses to buy a cell phone because he specifically does not want to be "on call" at all hours. He values his privacy, his dream time, his sense of wholeness unshattered by vocal graffiti. For myself, I'm thinking of building a techNOark, with quiet creatures invited aboard two by two to sail away into calmer waters and out of the ever-increasing clamor. Of course there will only be one giraffe onboard, because there is after all only one Digital Giraffe.

c. Corinne Whitaker 2005