My failed disconnection
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!