August 23, 2011

Trapped by Technology, the Origami Bird Flies Again. ~ Marthe Weyandt

Photo: daniel hedrick

I can imagine it right this very minute.

I am walking past the Apple store the evening before the release of the newest iPad. The crowd, giddy in eager anticipation, winds around the block.

As I make my way through the excitement, enroute to my favorite coffee shop, I pull behind me my old IBM computer and its various accoutrements (keyboard, mouse, a large tower and pile of floppy disks) in a moderately sized red wagon. I resist iPad hysteria like the plague.

Photo: csaila

Call me a Luddite!

Something just seems wrong when we need a social networking site to connect to our next door neighbor; when we’re so busy poking at our virtual koi (but they’re so lifelike!) that a real fish pond no longer excites us.

“Do you see a plug anywhere around here?” I ask two Apple aficionados, cradling new iPads in their hands. They study me as if I’ve just disembarked from a stagecoach and inquired about a hitching post for my horses in these here parts.

“Really, I’d rather use a typewriter, but we all have to make concessions, right?’ I explain.

Already, I fear I have frightened them off. My computer growls like a hungry dinosaur from the Cretaceous Period as it attempts to load up. I have cleared enough space between myself and the other tables that a dinosaur could have swung its head around and hit nary a customer.

As modern Americans, we possess a dazzling variety of communication options—cell phones, unlimited texting, Twitter, Facebook, Facebook chat and I.M.—and so many devices with which to utilize them.

In theory, it seems as if technology would draw people closer—enabling an instantaneous response and eliminating the fretting and the waiting that were associated with reaching out and touching someone in the days of yore. Yet—ironic drum roll, please—many of us end up feeling more ignored, even isolated.

Have these technologies really made our lives better, or even easier?

Photo: Gillian

Or have they just introduced into the picture a host of new anxieties? Who amongst us has not sent an important e-mail or text message and heard nothing but crickets?

Did I get that job I interviewed for last week? Why haven’t I heard anything? Perhaps the company has relocated to Timbuktu?

Is cantankerous Great Uncle Max planning to attend the sixth annual family reunion?  Does he even know how to use the internet?

Was Jeremy from Accounting really sincere when he texted to ask if I would be able to meet him for dinner on Friday?

Sometimes, the most pressing issues in our lives go unanswered, while the junk piles up. While it is, in fact, intriguing to know the whereabouts of a large stockpile of discount Viagra or a reduced-price lawnmower, I would really just like a response to the basics, dammit!

We counteract our solitude by oversharing with an erstwhile captive audience of friends and onlookers the most mundane details of our lives.

Photo: Eliza Adam

Jane Scott is “really looking forward to entering Winky the dog in the dog show this weekend! Go Winky!!”

Jeremy Wilson is “havveeing a graat taeme at thhee parteeey yeaaa,” and has declared his newfound relationship status via Facebook newsfeed.

Poor Jeremy, forced to sheepishly rescind his declaration the next day to an onslaught of helpful ‘hang-in there’s, is not the only victim of irrational exuberance. We’re venturing into new and uncharted etiquette territory with the internet and digital media. There is no Emily Post, no Ann Landers, of the digital era to suggest how we might best treat our fellow human beings when relating to them on our technological devices. We no longer know a proper calligraphy style for the party invitations or when to send a bundt cake.

My predilection for Ludditery has its origins in the time I spent as a Peace Corps volunteer in Madagascar.

During this time, after college, I learned to eschew many technologies simply because they did not exist. In the ten plus years since my return to the States, I have, happily, never recovered from my Ludditery affliction.

My English students taught me how to appreciate the simple things in life—like how to construct a toy guitar from a biscuit tin and rubber bands; an oven from a rickety metal pot, sand and three empty, overturned cans of tomato paste; and a functioning kitchen sink from a plastic washing basin, a hose and several concrete blocks. We spent many a hot weekend afternoon like McGyver, turning water into wine.

Photo: Boggin

Because Madagascar is a land without reliable roads or telephones, this sense of ingenuity also entered into the realm of interpersonal communications. Whenever one needed to exchange words with a friend in a neighboring town, he or she would write a letter, fold it into an origami shape and make arrangements with a bush taxi driver to drop it off on his trip through town. This method had an alarmingly high success rate. (Nothing, incidentally, ever got lost in a spam folder.)

On Wednesday afternoons, a bush plane would arrive, bearing letters, packages and the occasional disoriented passenger from beyond.

From the point when the plane first became visible on the horizon, buzzing like a strange and fabulously unstable insect, I waited with baited breath. Had decorum not prevented me, I would have been right there alongside my ten year-old students—running along the landing path in my polyester teaching dress and platform sandals, screaming, smiling.

It took all of my willpower to refrain from tearing open the letters or packages during the walk home from the post office. In a world without telephones, newspapers or internet, the inky words from friends and family, in faraway places, dripped like gold.

We have become a nation of voyeurs, big on sound bites, short on substance.

I think we reveal more than we ought to and communicate less than we should. I think back to the time when communication was an art form; I remember how my fellow volunteers and I read and lovingly re-read those missives from the other side of the world.

I imagine the Romantic poets with access to unlimited texting.

Lord Byron:  ‘Luv ya 2. Ill luv u 4 eva.  C u l8r!’

Object of Attraction:  ‘Kay, gr8 lol.’

Photo: Alice Fontana

It sure as hell ain’t pretty.

In this day and age, we still chase answers like schoolchildren trailing a bush plane. And sometimes—like that plane during the rainy season, when the landing strip is transformed into the consistency of gooey, microwaved Cheez Wiz, and we watch the plane fly past, madly waving into the air—these answers prove elusive.

I don’t know the answer, but in the meantime, keep a lookout for an origami crane from the next bus passing by your house. It’ll be from me.


Marthe Weyandt is a Pittsburgh-based yoga instructor and freelance writer. She enjoys traveling and spending time in the great outdoors. She is currently learning to play guitar, albeit badly and at frequencies only dogs can hear. She believes in the power of the word, creatively and lovingly rendered, to create positive change in the world. She has a Bachelor’s in English and Religion from Dickinson College and a Master’s in International Affairs from Columbia University. She spent two years as an English instructor with the United States Peace Corps in Madagascar. Check out her work here.

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