Tantalus revisited: digital age insights from time off line

Jan. 26, 2011

As I write this, I have now been 36 hours without internet access. Due to as yet undiagnosed technical issues, the router

tantalizes with mute, flashing lights but fails to connect. Every so often I will glance at the system with an innocent, child-like hope that a techno-miracle has

occurred, but, alas.

I realize that compared to the need for shelter, food, and clothing, the lack of Internet connectivity may seem like a trifling, first world problem.

"At least we have electricity," an eminently rational voice (i.e., my spouse) chimes in.

In a weird way, that makes it all the more frustrating - like having a race car sitting on blocks.

Here's what I can't do: I can't answer my voluminous email (some of which is actually important); I can't complete several work-related tasks that require Web research; I can't download and edit documents conveniently stored "in the cloud;" I can't complete online banking transactions or pay bills; I can't play online games (which I review for publication) and I can't even play several games stored on the computer that now demand online connectivity for security validation.

If I was teaching one of my online classes at CGCC, I would be unable to read student posts or respond. By the way, "The dog ate my homework" has now become "my Internet connection failed."

Again, the point is not that all - or even, any of these tasks and activities are a matter of life or death (some, however, are legitimately time-sensitive and contractually required); and there are inconvenient alternatives and workarounds to at least some of them.

This bit of an unplanned hiatus from digital connectivity is a simple, unpleasant reminder of how thoroughly the online world has insinuated itself into my life - into all our lives, more or less.

It may be, however, a good time to take stock - review the ledger balance so to speak (once the vision has cleared, the shaking has stopped, and the other withdrawal symptoms have abated a bit).

I have always been a gleefully willing early adopter, from my first little Timex/Sinclair computer (with 8K memory!), to learning BASIC on a Commodore PET, right up to purchasing the recently released iPad.

Without the power and convenience of music software, I would have been much less able to create music and materials for my students.

The online, public domain library is the source for nearly all of the choir's pre-1900 music, and the vast array of material available on iTunes means that I can explore every style, period, and geographical nook and cranny of the musical world.

My love of video gaming has allowed me to keep in practice as a journalist and reviewer.

Thanks almost entirely to Facebook, I was able to organize a 25-year reunion concert that brought back singers to HRV in a moving tribute to the lasting power of a human musical community.

So, the plus side of the technology ledger is, for me, unassailably strong.

A visit to the dark side, though, will offer counters to many of these conveniences.

The sheer amount of visual, auditory, and intellectual stimuli and entertainment opportunities have created a frazzled population (and I can attest to this) with a type of attention deficit disorder that makes reading a book an excruciating exercise in concentration.

We are a now nation of skimmers and samplers and rarely dive deeply into anything.

Given the fact that we have so many ways of communicating - Facebook, Twitter, email, texting - means that no one way is ever reliably effective.

A simple "note home to parents" now must be duplicated in a half dozen online formats, and still there is no guarantee anyone will get the message.

Students rarely read email, and if I turn to Facebook I may be able to communicate, but at the cost - and potential risk - of having to wade through endless banal, embarrassing, gross, or even incriminating status updates.

With every form of entertainment, news, and commentary available on demand, nothing is much valued and our ability to discriminate quality diminishes.

In an "instant gratification" culture, people lose sight of the commitment and dedication that real, lasting success and achievement require.

Surrounding all our technology, of course, is the complex web of environmental, political, and social dues that we pay, from the slave-wage miners who keep our labs supplied with required rare elements to the landfills choked with mountains of castoff electronic amusements.

Even the most Luddite-leaning of us have to concede that, short of a zombie apocalypse, we as a culture are "all in" with technology. It has become the playground and ecological niche of our evolved brains in the same way the natural world is the environment of our animal selves.

This is not to say we can't inhabit that world mindfully, or use technology consciously, or make a point of evaluating our relationship to the digital world now and then. In fact, how we use and relate to technology -and not, if - is really our only meaningful choice.

By and large, technology has enriched my life, increased by productivity, enhanced my creativity, and opened new opportunities for me intellectually and professionally.

But although technology has enhanced my life, it is not my life. If I am uncomfortable with an even slightly protracted break from digital connectivity, it is surely a sign that I have lost sight and touch, not with the online "community," but with myself.

Mark Steighner is a musician, writer, and music director at Hood River Valley High School.

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