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Electric Cabaret

Michael Bugeja

1st January, 2007

Most of us have a party in our pockets – those digital devices that promised a global village. We found that village, all right, and it is peopled with idiots. Plugged into iPods, chatting into palms, we are lost in techno-torpor enveloping us 24/7 from any locale.

Cell phones purportedly provide a sense of security – that is, when we are paying attention. Of all the gadgets in our digital arsenal, this one above all has undermined community. Only a few years ago, if you approached someone using a cell phone in public, that user would quickly end the call and apologise to the person in his or her interpersonal space. That etiquette soon changed. If interrupted, the cell phone user would apologise to the person on the other end of the cell phone call. More recently even that etiquette has changed – so much so, that interpersonal interaction has been nullified in the process.

A cell phone user now typically ignores any person within earshot. I call this ‘the “it” factor’. Users turn everyone in their presence into inanimate objects, an ‘it’, as if that person does not exist.

Consider the conversations that we overhear as if we were invisible, not really there, standing beside someone using a cell phone in a public place. The ‘it’ factor is all around us. Earlier this year, at the local post office, I overheard a man stating that he and his spouse really shouldn’t be smacking the children because one day the kids might tell their teachers.

Observe parents with children in strollers or in parks. Many no longer interact with those children, introducing them to the community. Instead, parents are on cell phones, ignoring their charges. They are ‘its’, too. When many of us were being reared, parents who did not interact with us in public were either alcoholic or dysfunctional. And even those taught us three words that saved many of us from injury or death: Look both ways.

Children reared by cell phone parents do not look both ways when they step off the kerb. Nobody has informed them of the danger.

That point was driven home graphically earlier this year when the front page of the student newspaper at my university displayed a road sign with the headline ‘Look both ways before crossing’. That passes for front-page news for youth in midwestern America. There have been accidents. More recently, USA Today ran a story on Ball State University in Indiana, titled ‘Most Wired Campus’, noting that even campus buses there are wireless.

I worry about the poor sap with an iPod who steps from the bus into the digital street. Drivers there too are apt to be chatting on cell phones.

A Utah study found that 18- to 25-year olds using cell phones while driving have the motor reflexes of 65- to 74-year-olds not using cell phones. Another study showed that motorists who talk on cell phones are as impaired as drunken drivers with blood alcohol levels of 0.08 – the minimum level that defines illegal drunken driving in most US states.

Worse, many of us use cell phones while driving to and from work, doing business when we should be paying attention to the road. Thanks to the internet highway, we can work at any hour from any location, even as we travel from one place to another.

Spare time is ever sparer in our hightech media age. Far from making life more convenient and work easier, media and technology have blurred boundaries between home and work. Work intrudes on family and family on work. In the name of productivity, employers use email, voice mail and cell phones to interrupt family functions on week nights, weekends and holidays. Children and spouses interrupt business meetings with inquiries about the corner Chinese take-away and what to order, in the name of convenience. Productivity and convenience are banes as often as benefits. Machines that tout them usually obscure interpersonal boundaries, placing people in virtual habitats at odds with
physical habitat.

That defines ‘digital displacement’. Circumstances of displacement vary, but all have these components in common:
• Clash of environments, virtual and real.
• Blurring of work/home or social boundaries.
• Blurring of role and identity.
• Influence on values and priorities.
• Impact of all of these on relationships.

Consciousness and conscience define the human condition. Consciousness tells us we come into this world alone and we leave it alone. Conscience tells us that what is inside me also is inside you.

Life’s message is inherently paradoxical, and we need others to make sense of it. We need to be conscious of how our actions affect others so that we can make meaningful adjustments for future encounters. When conscience and consciousness operate in tandem, we feel whole, grounded – an interesting word, suggesting that those who know where they are, also know who they are. Otherwise, we grow fearful.

Since ancient Rome, governments have circumvented the human condition by entertaining rather than educating the masses. That is what technology was supposed to do – inform and enlighten, empowering individuals to make intelligent choices in the voting booth. In time, we are going to get the governments we deserve. We may already have them.

When will we awaken from this technotorpor and repatriate in communities? What will it take to honour the pre-requisites of conscience, which demand that we love and are loved by others, that we share meaningful relationships with others and contribute to community? How long can we wait for consciousness to account for the consequences of our actions?

It may take a prolonged global disaster, natural or man-made, or horrifically swift pandemic to rouse the conscience and deepen consciousness. Until then we may continue to take each catastrophe in our stride and vicariously dance with the stars, a digital cabaret of them, beckoning us to focus on the decadence at hand, oblivious of horsemen on the horizon.

 

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