Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Head Falls Silent in this Middle Age

There was a time when it seemed I had something to say.  But I realize, upon reaching middle age, that I am not as unique and interesting as I once thought.  Or maybe it's just that I'm working a very middle aged, middle class job.  I used to work for small companies and family owned businesses that hung to solvency by their daily deposits.  For a bit I owned one of these businesses myself.

Then there was the hare-brained scheme of several years ago, which was to find a way to make a living from the cabin of a 30 foot sailboat -- or just enough of one that we could call ourselves semi-retired.  Come to think of it, that was a great scheme, actually.  Just a little short on details.   But it made for some great stories.

Now I'm a small piece in a very large corporation, and comfortable there, for all the usual middle-class reasons of security, stability, and health insurance.  The thing about big corporations, though: they tend to discourage their employees from sharing stories of their workday with the internet and the world.

On top of that, I'm not a huge fan of all this web 2.x stuff.  Facebook, Twitter, microblogging, text-message navel gazing.  I could blame my distaste on being a grumpy old man, except it's not just the kids doing it these days, it's the parents and the grandparents.  (I will share this story from work: four folks on break in the employee lounge, eating their meals in silence at the same table, thumbing messages into their phones.  "How cute!" I said.  "It looks like you're all texting each other.")

I liked the static web-sites you could lay out with html in text editors, the wonder of using code to alter layout and style, the puzzle of constructing a consistent navigation system of links.

I was fond of email, but a certain kind of email, longer than 200 words, with punctuation and a certain amount of thought behind it.

And I grew to love a certain kind of blog, the kind that shared a bit of life and story, observation and criticism, and led to lively discussion in the comments.

It seemed, for a bit there, like the internet was going to make the world a more thoughtful, reasoned place.  You could get the resources of a global university, blessed with a vast library and an active population of students and professors, for the cost of a broadband connection.  (Actually, we made do with dial-up until the end of 2006.)  You could save a great deal on postage.  You could come out of a long silence with something to share, and if it was interesting enough, you could put it out into the world confident that someone, at least, would read it.  Like minds reached beyond the silencing limits of old communications to forge connections and build friendships.

Now, it seems we need to fight for our silences.  These kids these days, and their parents, and their grandparents, they're connected non-stop to this abhorrent noise.  (Okay, one more story from work: the employee who had to be disciplined because her face-book status update changed when she was working.  Since she had "friended" several of the managers, one of them called from home to ask just what she was doing logging on to face-book with her cell-phone in the middle of her shift.)  Why have a conversation when you can play a hand-held video game?  Why listen to the people around you if it means you have to take your earbuds out?

Granted, I am the sort of person who cannot abide the background chatter of a television, because it absorbs all thought.  If there's a television on within earshot, my brain is dead to the world.  The Wife, bless her, she accommodates me in this small house by wearing headphones when she wants to watch something I'm not interested in.  I don't know if other people are able to keep their minds active in the face of such chatter, or if they just don't care that they're shutting down when there's something shiny to watch.

But I suspect it's the latter.  This makes it all the more horrifying for me when I read that 98% of iPad users are surfing on their tablets while they watch TV.  How is it possible to be any more distracted?  Or any more absorbed with absolute garbage?

Our attention span has become our country's most precious natural resource, and it seems that Apple and MTV and the rest want to deepwater-drill, strip-mine, and extract it.  See: MTV Developing 'Co-Viewing' Apps for the iPad.

In the face of this kind of noise, what's the point of opening your mouth at all?


  1. I am not middle aged, and I agree wholeheartedly! Admittedly, I am prone to thumb through messages in a waiting room or break room situation to avoid talking to people on an off day. Yet, what ever did happen to striking up a conversation with a co-worker or even a complete stranger? Seems the internet is reserved for that, now. Why bother chatting with someone face to face when you can just wait until they've left to text, i.m. or email them later? So odd.

  2. I personally find texting anoing and only use in real emergency situations. There was this great show on the history channel about vacations in America 1920-1950. oh how I long for those vacations we took as a child. no tech. to connect us constintly. Do we realy hear the babble of the brook or sway of the breeze in the trees? The fondest memory my children have of their lives as youngsters has nothing to do with video (fairly new) tv or being in side. I understand that postage is high so just email me but goodness how many places does one need to be connected? I pulled the pug! No face book myspace twitter etc. for me. once when the children were small I was so fed up my husband came home to find the cord cut off the tv! It is no wonder people not only do not have the grace of conversation but do not know how to talk at all realy, as you said they sit at lunch in silence! I use to be rude not to acknowlege a person now it is rude to speak!

  3. Jeanne - Once I was on vacation with my grandparents at their cottage in the Cascade Mountains in Washington. One of the most beautiful spots on Earth, no electricity, propane gas lamps, outhouse, etc. It was the late 1980s, and I had a digital watch that beeped every hour. When my uncle heard this he took the watch away and told me I could have it back when we went back to the city. "So, how are we going to know what time it is?" I said. "By looking at the Sun," he said. Let me tell you, even in the light of the campfire, the stars up there were something else.