Ottawa Citizen

My failed dis­con­nec­tion

- WIL­LIAM WAT­SON Wil­liam Wat­son teaches eco­nom­ics at McGill Univer­sity.

Reg­u­lar read­ers (Hi, Mom!) may re­call me end­ing 2011 with, I had hoped, a clever col­umn called “Only Dis­con­nect.”

It was a take­off on E.M. Forster’s fa­mous dic­tum, “Only con­nect,” which most peo­ple un­der­stand as ad­vice that, in ef­fect, Christ­mas should last all year round, that we should take care to make as many gen­uine per­sonal con­nec­tions as we can dur­ing our short time in this world. In fact, Forster’s mes­sage was that we should each be sure to con­nect the head and heart sides of our per­son­al­ity but, never mind, if we had to choose be­tween th­ese two in­ter­pre­ta­tions (and of course we don’t) the pop­u­lar ver­sion is prob­a­bly bet­ter.

Why “only dis­con­nect” then? The idea was that too many of us are spend­ing too much time in thrall to var­i­ous elec­tronic masters, whether it be wall-to-wall TV cov­er­age of hockey — a prob­lem the NHL and NHLPA have now solved for us — or the var­i­ous gad­gets you see peo­ple bowed rev­er­ently over, their hands joined as if in prayer, the bet­ter to thumb them, whether in the sub­way, walking down the street or, where I see them most, in class, tucked un­der the desk. This is pre­sum­ably in hopes the pro­fes­sor will think his stu­dents’ un­in­ter­rupted gaze down­ward is ei­ther a sign of re­spect for his wis­dom or an un­healthy ob­ses­sion with their laps.

Surely it would be bet­ter, I wrote, to spend more time re­lat­ing to the world in the old-fash­ioned way, non-elec­tron­i­cally, by look­ing around and oc­ca­sion­ally talk­ing di­rectly to real peo­ple, us­ing the ad­mit­tedly an­cient but not al­ways un­sat­is­fac­tory medium of speech.

Then, barely two weeks later, my fam­ily got me an iPad for my birth­day. From the moment I turned it on, my at­tempt at dis­con­nec­tion was doomed.

I don’t mean to sin­gle out the iPad for es­pe­cial praise, though I have in fact drunk the Ap­ple-flavoured Kool-Aid — Ap­ple juice, I guess it is — in buck­ets­ful. (Like many peo­ple I was so im­pressed with Ap­ple prod­ucts when I first switched I was tempted to buy Ap­ple stock but thought $100/share too steep a price.)

For present pur­poses, think of the iPad as merely the archetype of the hand-held tablet com­puter. What a truly won­der-full Con­nec­tor it is!

I don’t use it for all the tricks you see on the ads. I don’t draw or com­pose mu­sic or play the key­board or even Skype on it. I do some­times take pic­tures or movies with it and then marvel at how it au­to­mat­i­cally trans­fers them to my desk­top as soon as it’s in range. I also check my email on it and surf the In­ter­net, of­ten while my wife and I are watch­ing TV and want to re­mind our­selves of what other things a lead­ing char­ac­ter has been in or when the movie came out or who di­rected it.

But what I mainly do on my iPad is very old-fash­ioned. I read. I read news­pa­pers and I read books and I read aca­demic pa­pers for work. In fact, as a re­sult of this new tech­nol­ogy I’d guess I’m read­ing more than ever be­fore. I read the Cit­i­zen and the Na­tional Post, of course, and the Mon­treal Gazette. But I also read the Wall Street Jour­nal and the New York Times (both of which I pay for) and the Washington Post and, also from Mon­treal, La Presse. As a Mon­trealer I’m ashamed to say I never did read La Presse. With two pa­pers al­ready be­ing de­liv­ered to the front door, three seemed a pa­per too far. But La Presse puts a good se­lec­tion of its con­tent on­line and I’m now bet­ter in­formed about Que­bec fran­co­phone opin­ion than I’ve ever been.

But the real rev­e­la­tion/rev­o­lu­tion is books. If I read or hear about a book I think I might be in­ter­ested in, then al­most faster than snap­ping my fin­gers I can check it out on the ma­jor e-book sites (Kobo, Kin­dle and, yes, Ap­ple) and when I find the best price click on my com­puter and it’s down­loaded es­sen­tially in­stantly to the iPad.

For a life­long booka­holic, in­stant ac­cess to sup­ply is a very dan­ger­ous thing. Our house­hold bud­get is now de­cid­edly at risk. But the ebook mer­chants have got an app for that, too.

They give you a sam­ple. They let you do what you would have done in a pa­per-book store, read a bit of the book be­fore you buy it. It’s not quite the same ex­pe­ri­ence: You gen­er­ally can’t read any page you want be­fore de­cid­ing whether to buy. You can usu­ally only read the first cou­ple of dozen. But that’s of­ten enough to dis­cover whether your ini­tial en­thu­si­asm will be sus­tained. My wife doesn’t be­lieve it, but my elec­tronic li­brary in­cludes prob­a­bly 20 books I’ve tried out but de­clined to buy.

De­bate is cur­rently rag­ing among statis­ti­cians about what’s been hap­pen­ing to Cana­dian in­comes and liv­ing stan­dards over the last few decades.

I used to love spend­ing an af­ter­noon in a book­store and, es­pe­cially when I was 17 and se­verely bud­get con­strained, ag­o­niz­ing over which book to buy. (I did use li­braries, too, where it was less a ques­tion of ag­o­niz­ing than wait­ing for some­one else to be fin­ished with a book.)

But walking around with a slim, light ma­chine that, be­sides all the other things it can do, gives me speedy ac­cess to al­most any book I want? I hon­estly don’t know how we cap­ture that ef­fect in our in­dexes of well-be­ing.

So. My at­tempt at dis­con­nec­tion has been a com­plete fail­ure. i Ad­mit it. Happy 2013, ev­ery­one!

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