It Started With the Telephone.


I once heard an elderly woman speaking about the arrival of telephones in the remote utopian community of Sointula, BC, where she grew up.  (The area had been settled by a group of Fins who rowed over to the village’s location on Malcolm Island in 1901, escaping the brutal drudgery of Nanaimo BC’s coal mines.)  The onset of phones in Sointula meant that no longer did one have to ‘drop by’ to communicate with a neighbour, a little ‘face time’ was no longer necessary.  Something indefinable had changed in her community with the advent of the telephone, mused the woman, wistfully; something was never quite the same.

The use of telegraph wires and Morse code of course preceded that of phones, but it seems to me that the telegram wasn’t guilty of the same social isolation.  It wasn’t in your home for one thing, and there was this other human intermediary involved as well, if only to tap out the dots and dashes that your brief missive was translated into.  The telegraph was almost a ‘public’ utility.

Nope, it was the arrival of phones that effectively began the physical separation of communicating human beings that we now see fully manifest in cyberspace.  Now we are all, in the words of author Sherry Turkle, “alone together” in a virtual world where your physical presence is only periodically, infrequently a part of the communication process.  Now we are all sitting in millions of tiny private theatres, connected, but only electronically, and usually not to our neighbours, maybe even not to our family.

We thought of it as ‘hermetic’ when the process first began evolving back in the 80s, when VHS tapes and ‘home theatre’ set-ups began replacing the social experience of going out to the movie houses.  We may have made slight ‘clucking’ sounds back then, shaking our heads in mild regret at the passing of the communal event, but the truth is I didn’t regret it, certainly not once larger format TV screens began appearing.  I didn’t miss the blaring of ads before the film, nor the people whispering two rows behind me, nor the cell phones chiming in the darkness.  But it’s different now; regardless of my original guilty intent, there is definitely something meaningful that’s missing these days, something to do with community.

The web has undoubtedly increased the number of communities on the planet, but the increase is of course in the number of virtual communities, and with the growing number and strength of web communities has come a steady erosion of real world communities.  The more we are an energetic member of Avaaz, the online activist association, or a regular voter on American Idol, or a frequent updater of our LinkedIn profiles, the less likely it is we are a contributing member of our real-world community, that realm of people just outside our front door.

And there is something qualitatively different about person-to-person communication; we all know this.  The full sonic range of the voice, the subtleties of the body language, the tactile wonder of touch.  It’s the difference between a spectacularly flowing 70 mm Omnimax, helicopter-shot image of a wild Rocky Mountain valley in summer, and actually standing in that valley, the sun on your face and the breeze in your hair, smelling the alpine meadow flowers.  The first is indeed amazing, but the experiential gap between the two is nevertheless vast.

The web can be part of the solution of course. is a remarkable resource for putting people who share an interest—everyone from dog walkers to Spanish speakers to Drupal aficionados—in the same room.  But individually, it’s all just one more reason to disconnect daily, to go for a coffee, a beer or a walk with your friend.

It’s no accident that the words communication and community share so many letters.  In the final, genuine, ‘full-throated’ analysis, the two can both be reduced to electronic words, sounds or images and still be effective, certainly efficient, but they’ll remain digital, as opposed to real.



Fear of Technology

On Galiano Island mobile phone coverage is at best spotty.  Around Sturdies Bay, where the ferry lands, coverage spills over from one of the nearby islands and the tiny graph in the upper corner of my cell phone window shows four bars, but just two kilometres down the road that signal is almost non-existent.  Our cabin lies in a complete dead zone.  A couple of years ago a phone company was proposing to erect a tower on the ridge above our place, but ‘opposition grew’ among the locals.  My neighbour came by, wearing a battered straw cowboy hat, holding a petition opposing the tower.  He knew the phone company claimed the tower would be entirely safe, but he felt they couldn’t be trusted.

At the co-op where I live with my family in Vancouver, there was a similar spate of opposition that arose against the addition of ‘smart meters’ to the building complex’s servercentral-industries-technologyelectrical system.  Those meters would send out a signal, much like a mobile device does, and it was felt by numerous of my neighbours that that signal might be harmful to human health.  According to BC Hydro, the corporation installing the new meters, exposure to radio frequency during the 20-year life span of a smart meter is equivalent to the exposure of a single 30-minute cell phone call, which would suggest that I should be a lot more concerned about the installation of the cell phone tower on Galiano than I should be about the installation of a smart meter in my Vancouver home.  Regardless, my Vancouver neighbours were at least obliquely aware of such safety claims on behalf of BC Hydro, but they were not about to be swayed in their opposition to the meters.  They too brought round a petition.

My neighbours are quite right to not trust the corporate agenda.  As the documentary The Corporation has so nimbly pointed out, that agenda is about one thing and one thing only, to the exclusion of all else—the maximization of profit, and the resultant increase in share price.  That focus is amoral, in effect sociopathic, but then one can hardly expect it to be otherwise.  Corporations exist in a world of other corporations.

And certainly there is no shortage of examples where the corporate agenda had a direct and deleterious effect on human health.  From big mining to big pharma to big finance, corporations have regularly pursued profits at the expense of our collective wellbeing, there’s little doubt of that much.

Thomas Edison himself once opposed the installation of the electrical grid in America.  Go figure I know, a man who was after all the father of the electric lightbulb, but here’s what he said: “…I have always consistently opposed high-tension and alternating systems of electric lighting… not only on account of danger, but because of their general unreliability and unsuitability for any general system of distribution.”*

In 1891, at a village meeting in Bradford, Vermont, there was a contentious vote taken regarding a proposal to purchase an electric light plant for the purpose of replacing the local gas street lamps.  The vote was not in favour.  Here’s what Larry Coffin, President of the Bradford Historical Society, wrote in his blog about the successful opposition at that meeting: “That opposition seems to have come largely from those who disapproved of a government-owned enterprise, although there were those who were just opposed to change.”

The fear of new technology is indeed linked to a more generalized fear of change.  Change, especially when it’s cloaked in the ‘hardwear’ of unfamiliar technology, makes us uneasy, makes us aware that the new, coming situation may well be open to exploitation by others, exploitation which might put us at a disadvantage, or do us harm.

And petitions are rather like referendums, as I’ve written about them elsewhere on this site.  They bring out ‘the opposition’ in us, opposition that comes with the empowerment of opposing, whether it be out of fear, or resentment, or simple contrariness.  We oppose because it makes us feel safer, or more influential, or that we have at least temporarily beaten back the forces that seek to gain advantage upon us.  It’s an attitude that rarely contributes to the greater good, that is rarely healthy.

I didn’t sign either petition.


*Source: Edison, Thomas A. The Dangers of Electric Lighting, North American Review, November, 1889. pp.630, 632, 633.