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Thoroughly Un-Modern Me

What do we not do, or do differently, than we did 20, even 10 years ago?

The thought has crossed my mind more than once (a day) as I find myself handling life so very differently than I did as a student, or young adult.

This is hardly new. Surely every generation has watched as the world of their childhood crumbled in the face of modern technology. People born in the early part of the 20th century would have seen travel change from walking and horse-drawn vehicles to automobiles and airplanes, and probably lived to see a man walk on the moon and sailing ships become the toys of rich people.

But when I thought I’d lost my phone the other day I had to laugh: “Lost my phone? Once upon a time it was wired to the house and wasn’t going anywhere!” And then it was “Where’s the extension?” when the phones were wireless – but soon enough you could “beep” the phone from the “base station.”

But think: you don’t carry an appointment book because your calendar, contacts, and daily schedule are on your phone.

Your Fitbit or other wearable device might remind you to work out, take your medications, or keep you company on a daily walk.

Your Bluetooth headset will play music for you and you can shout at Alexa to add bananas to your shopping list or start a timer for the eggs.

You can carry the equivalent of a section of the library with you on your tablet computer, and your Kindle or other reading app will “learn” how fast you read, keep your place, record comments you might have (as well as show you highlights other people have made on passages of a book), and most online “magazines” will tell you how many minutes it will be to read a particular passage.

I talked with a friend the other day about photos – we were commenting that at a moment’s notice we could capture a sunset or a dog being funny, no equipment required, no training, no hours in the darkroom or even with a photo editor, cropping, fixing, adjusting the light. It’s saved – and marked with the date, time and location, instantaneously.

A lot of this is good, and beneficial, and opens us to expanding horizons, new ideas, and frees up time to do other things.

But, utterly butchering a William F. Buckley quote: “Sometimes you just have to stand athwart history and shout hey, wait a minute!”

With any advances, it’s fair to ask the question: what’s the trade-off? What do I lose for what I get?

With just about everything, we’ve gained speed but sacrificed care, thought, planning, detail and determination. We’ve lowered the barriers to entry, but we’ve lowered the barriers to entry (you just have to think about that one). We’ve made enormous strides in medicine and the biological sciences, but as we watch this new virus spread, we have to wonder if tinkering with nature is the
smartest thing we’ve ever done. We’ve increased our access to information enormously, but lost our ability to remember such simple details as phone numbers, directions, and “who played Rhett Butler?” sorts of facts and figures. We can express our opinions across the world with the tap of an “enter” key, but do we listen and consider?

Most alarming to me is one consequence we likely never expected: when we thought about “thought control,” we typically considered limitation to information. Book banning, government censorship, single source news. While some of that is indeed going on, it’s not from a Central Authority that our censorship is likely to spring – it’s other people, empowered by their ability to have their ideas endorsed and amplified through the Internet, who seek to limit our speech and ideas. And whether our “good old days” of trusted sources of information (the encyclopedia, dictionary, text books, and nightly news) may have been a Fool’s Paradise, we nevertheless have even less reason to feel secure in our sources now.

And while we fret about biased news reporting and even edit wars on Wikipedia, we can also be lulled into believing that the band of Citizen Journalists patrolling with cell phones (the catchphrase now isn’t “get your camera out of my face,” but “get your phone out of my face!”) will show us “what really happened,” as we have seen with recent cases, something as simple as a different angle on the same scene show us an utterly different story.

I’m the first to admit that I have embraced technology enthusiastically, and have usually been among the early adopters of much of it. But I am resisting sealing myself off in my online life, airbrushing the signs of time out of all of my photos and carrying a “selfie stick” around with me to capture myself having an impossibly great life while missing the thing I’m showing myself doing, and having conversations with my phone while my friends sit and talk to theirs. I’ve gone back to reading a book at the end of the day rather than checking my phone, and I test my memory at least a few minutes before resorting to Google.

I watched a short video the other day —which I realize is contradicting the very argument I’m making— dedicated to testing those easy and amazing and perfect recipes we see created in triple speed on someone’s YouTube channel. The man making the video wanted to see if you really could make a scrumptious dessert by melting down Gummie Bears (he couldn’t) or whipping ice cream into a light and fluffy frosting for a cake (nope). It was amusing, and it was enlightening.

I concluded: cookbooks are good; if it seems too good to be true it probably is; there’s no need to make everything look perfect and amazing for the Internet; doing something the “old fashioned” way can actually be fun. And it most likely works, too!

Nancy Roberts