Analog Landscapes

I was out for a walk a few months ago, and I saw my future. It is not pretty. I realized that I'm going to be on of those curmudgeonly old-folk - the kind who, while strolling along a pretty river trail, will raise my fist and shout at the incessant traffic passing by for ruining my daily constitutional.

How do I know this? Because I already am that person.

In the future, I will doubt many of the people in their cars know the path is there. I will watch a nordic walker use the shoulder of the busy roads for her walk instead of the peaceful (but for the noise) path, checking her email and texting all the while. We, in a very short period of time, have come to experience the world in a way Gary Shteyngart, in a recent New Yorker article about wearing Google Glass, describes as being "a curator of my life rather than a participant, a man who could walk through a stunning national park while looking up stunning national parks."

It won't surprise you to hear that I have the same reaction to excessive traffic noise that I do to being digitally connected all the time. I'm not a Luddite. I've had email and internet access (and like them both) for almost 20 years, and yes, I'm on Facebook and Twitter, but suffice it to say that Mark Zuckerberg would say I'm not his ideal customer. I share as little as possible, and don't spend much time on either, because I'd rather be spending that time outside. I, in other words, am fairly certain I can live without it. And yes, I have an iPhone (3GS, which only proves my point), which I like, but don't use very much. I just know I've been born in the wrong era. I would have done well in, say, the 1940s. But there's not much I can do about that, except for not caving to the pressure to be more connected than I want to be.

We just spent a whole month, without gadgets, in a landscape best described as analog.

There was not much there, and that made it beautiful.

There were very few people checking their gadgets where we were, because there were very few people, period.

And possibly those who were not checking their gadgets were not doing so because they were in a beautiful place and had no use for checking their gadgets. Who knows.

Even so, we passed countless (never being used) old, beautiful red telephone boxes, and I wondered if they would still be there five years from now...

The other thing about that landscape was the silence. There was a silence there that I haven't experienced much in the last twenty years. We were in a place that seemed to have been forgotten - no airliners in the sky overhead, not even those passing at a great height.

No garbage dotting the beaches or ditches (and I mean not a scrap). No traffic. It wasn't eerie, or empty. It was a full, remembered stillness, one that we've abandoned, and I'm not sure for what.

Yesterday, I overheard an older man talking to a younger woman, describing his objection to the experience of the screen. It's like standing on the Eiffel Tower to look at Paris, he said. It's not Paris, because the Eiffel Tower is missing. She had no idea what he was talking about, and there was no bridging the gap. And then, a friend of mine who I was discussing this with, described a similar frustration; she once lived on an island off Ireland - an experience she remembers with crystal clarity, even forty years later. There was, she said, "...no hum or buzz of gadgets or machines, just cattle and seabirds and the funny call of corn-crakes. Maybe the guttering sound of a boat engine far away. A tin whistle at dusk. A cough. How do people know who they are anymore in a world of constant noise, of cellphones ringing and texts coming in and the need to be available at every moment?"

When, at the end of our trip, we finally came into a city, what we saw, after a month of seeing no gadgets, could have been considered comic: masses of people looking down at their screens, crashing into each other because no one was making eye contact. (One of them might have been Gary Shteyngart.) It was a scene that a month earlier I wouldn't have even noticed. But now, naïve questions accompanied our culture shock. What was so engrossing on all of those screens? What were they doing all of this rushing around for? Was it really necessary? How much of it was curating, instead of participating? What would happen if we said no to this, or at least yes to less of it?

I know most of us like at least a certain amount of connectedness, and these are all questions we need to answer individually, if only to find our own places in time. But I'm hoping that occasionally choosing for analog doesn't make me a dinosaur, or a Luddite, because it's still in analog places and spaces that I find myself the happiest, and most satisfied. And (paraphrasing Shirley Hazzard), it's so very important to be conscious of the circumstances of your happiness.