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I hate reality TV: it is obviously contrived and scripted in so many ways, and after a long day of actual reality in all its beauty and horror, the last thing I need in the evening or weekend is more of it, contrived or not.

The one type of show I do like is when a family agrees to live as if in another era: as crofters in 19th century Scotland for instance, without power or transportation. Everything has to be done by hand including the raising of food and providing your own entertainment.

(Of course there has to be a camera and sound people and continuity and “best boy” and a gaffer and all the other mysterious roles that you read in the credits. No doubt they take shifts by living at a nice hotel with all modern conveniences nearby. I assume the same is true of any Survivor show. It must create some awkward moments and lots of temptation for bribery to smuggle in candy bars etc.)

This came to mind as I read the “Diary” feature in a recent London Review of Books by Rebecca Solnit. She wasn’t comparing life of today with such extremes as Scotland in the 19th century or some uninhabited island in the South Seas: she was comparing life today with life as it was pre-1995.

This is the first time I have found someone who has the same date in mind as I think about the impact on my own life of the digital age. In the 1980s I was using computers a lot during my research at SFU, but it was all so big and clumsy compared to systems today and very specific to the institution and to my research. The idea of easily accessible and personalized computing was not at all widespread. We worked with a colleague in New Zealand in the 1980s, and all the communication was by snail mail even though we were using one of the biggest computers in Canada to analyze data.

In my case, the realization that the internet was not just a tool for researchers and governments and large organizations came in 1995 when the World Wide Web interface started being used widely enough to create a tipping point. There was no going back, and the progress in the less than 20 years since then has been astonishing.

But what ­was life like when we relied largely on snail mail and the telephone? Well, Solnit believes that, despite all the affordances of modern communications technologies, life has become much faster and much more fragmented, especially because time itself is increasingly chopped up. When there are no large blocks of time left to devote oneself to reading and thinking and engaging, life itself can be poorer in certain ways.

The idea of the weekend has disappeared for me, despite all the struggles of my fore bearers in the 20th century to create time for family and other non-work interests. I have to work at least the equivalent of one day each weekend, and in between I check 3 e-mail accounts and Twitter etc. regularly to keep up. I had 2 colleagues on holiday recently, one in Morocco and one in Florida: no matter, they were on e-mail if I needed them.

Solnit sees hope in the “slow” movement, where people are taking a new interest in the ancient crafts of growing your own food and making stuff from scratch. She sees such movements in the context of the overwhelming forces of governments and corporations as “laughable, but heroic” and “they articulate the value of that world outside electronic chatter and inside a more stately sense of time”.  She could have balanced that with the fact that there are now plenty of examples of ethical and sustainable businesses that do quite well, reflecting a wider interest in getting back to basics. Of course there are still those smug people who will use their large SUVs to pick up their grain-fed, organic turkeys this Thanksgiving…

I did a quick tally of some of the losses and gains of my life before and after 1995. The gains:

  • Being able to Skype with my kids as they work around the world
  • Shopping and banking on-line, both of which I hate in person
  • The jokes: I have one on my office wall of a man at a party with one of those plastic collars you put on dogs to stop them licking their surgical stitches, with the line: “It keeps me from looking at my phone every 2 seconds.”
  • The way technology can initiate what Solnit calls those “dances of democracy” we see breaking out across the world
  • Linking way back in time to lost friends through social media, though there is also emptiness afterwards: if you can’t attend the reunions and actually spend a decent amount of time reconnecting with them in person, what’s the point?

The losses:

  • Spam
  • Serious distress when it doesn’t work

(Example: I wanted to renew a prescription, but my pharmacist told me that I had to register for BC Pharmacare in order for my private provider to cover the cost, even though my earnings disqualify me from any BC Pharmacare benefit. “All you have to do is go online and register and then give your provider your registration number.” OK. Whatever.

So, Sunday morning, 5 am, I am in the mood. I go on to the Pharmacare site and find the right page and there is a checklist: they want my health number (fair enough), my SIN (well, OK), my net taxable income for (wait for it) 2011, and all the same information for my wife. So there I am at 5 am, padding around trying not to wake people, searching through file boxes for our tax returns from 2 years ago, then rummaging through my wife’s purse to get her health card etc…finally, I get it all together and fill in the form online: the usual 2 or 3 error notices because I am hopeless at getting all the boxes filled in correctly and then….SUBMIT!  10 seconds later (it is about 6 am by now and the dog is staring at me, cross-legged, hoping I will let him out) I get the message that the system is down due to routine maintenance….well, of course it is: every IT department does its routine maintenance very early on Sunday morning, specifically to minimize disruption for everyone except me. There was no ability to save all I had input, so I had the whole business to do again later in the day. Do you agree with me that the digital age has introduced all sorts of new levels of complexity that we never had? Not only was life slower before 1995, it was much simpler I am sure. But I digress…back to my list.)

  • Addiction and attention spans: Solnit cites a Boston Globe article on Carnegie Mellon research that students who took exams with their phones on, and were interrupted with texts from the researchers, scored 20% less than those who turned their phones off. Even more shocking is the fact that adults in the work force can only make it to about 11 minutes before checking their phones. And here’s me thinking…11 minutes, who can last that long?
  • Privacy: well, that’s shot
  • Concerts: it’s a nightmare trying to see the stage when all these phone screens are waving about trying to capture the moment, while actually missing it completely of course.
  • People with headphones on, all the time: “an IV drip for noise”, as Solnit calls it. It is spooky walking about with zombies who are aurally out of it.
  • Being less well informed: this may just be me, but  despite being wired and wireless in every possible way, the variety of choices I have allow me not to actually listen to, watch, or read the daily news. I have had it with pretty well any new stream – radio, TV, print or online: it has become a sound nibble world with only expanded headlines for content and the addiction to market share driving everyone to the lowest common denominator. The news is often depressing and numbing, and the way it is presented makes it more so. I’d rather wait 2 or 3 weeks for the often more thoughtful analysis of the “better” magazines.

So, I have weaned myself off of having to know the latest developments. I rise at 5am, and do not turn on the radio: I have about an hour of silence while I eat and read, then my iPod is on shuffle while I exercise, another iPod (also on shuffle) in the car, and then Apple TV at home, so I avoid all advertising and news.

So, why am I listing this as a loss, you ask? Well, because then I have to listen to people who (realizing I am uninformed and am thus an empty vessel longing to be filled) get great satisfaction from haranguing me at length about what they find interesting and newsworthy.

  • (fill in your own)

I write this in between the Fall convocation ceremonies at KPU, and feel silly and petty, having listened to some of the stories of students who have struggled to succeed: my annoyances and mild nostalgia pale in comparison to their issues. But I shall work on my pitch for a new reality TV show:  a family trying to figure out how to live well in the conditions of pre-1995 Canada.

4 Responses

  1. Stephanie Galay says:

    I agree with you on so many levels. I remember my family’s first computer coming into the house sometime between 1991 and 1993. I was highschool, but was not allowed to touch it unless I got permission and I recall my dad having to show me how to work it.

    So much has changed since then and my own children, now in highschool, are connected all the time. They both have cell phones and their own lap tops which they actually require to complete assignments now.

    I estimate (from your picture) that we are about a generation apart, but I too long for the days before technology became an extension of who we are and a neccesity of life.

    My philosophy these days tends to be no news is good news and I am blissfully ignorant of events outside of my own life or those of my closest friends and family. I no longer want to know that there is a sex offender in my neighborhood, or that traffic was tied up for hours because of a shooting, or that populations the world over are rioting and at war. I want to hear of good things for a change.

    I really think it is no wonder that mental illness and depression are on the rise. We have no time to ourselves anymore. I wish I could have brought my children up in a time like I was raised, leaving the house in the morning after breakfast and coming home just before dark or for dinner and talking around the dinner table telling my folks what I had been up to all day.

    Who decided we had to be reachable at all hours of the day anyway???? I think we should take notes from European societies that still celebrate the end of the day or the end of the week and who seem to really treasure human contact the way we had it “pre-1995”.

  2. Alan Davis says:

    Thanks for this. All so true. I think there is a lot of value in the new technologies though: I wouldn’t want to discard them, but look for the right balance.

  3. Robert Wood says:

    If you read the current “gurus” on success in life it is balance in everything that is the secret to coping and indeed flourishing in today’s world.

    For myself I find that working with my hands (e.g. gardening and woodworking) is a way of recharging myself. Not sure if that is anything like going back to 19th century Scotland, but perhaps it is!

    • Alan Davis says:

      I totally agree. And “balance” is a great concept: it reminds me of chemical equilibrium and Le Chatelier’s principle, but that is just me showing off. Basically, when you apply a stress to a situation, the balance shifts to offset that stress, so I think we do that naturally…like gardening or chopping wood…..or are humans losing that inate sensibility as we race towards doomsday?

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