Yesterday was Mayday. But, moving right along, tomorrow is Shutdown Day, the holiday during which we’re advised to take a holiday from our computers, televisions, and other electronic communication gadgetry.
Don’t know if I will. I was about to say “Don’t know if I can“—but of course I can. Most definitely I can. Any time I want, I can turn this sucker off. I just choose not to.
One wonders, though. For years I was one of those people who would never, never ever, get hooked on a computer. In fact, as a technically-challenged person, I resisted using one until the late 90s. And I never, never ever, thought I’d spend several hours a day, every day, working online. But of course I do.
The advocates of Shutdown Day claim that computers isolate us more and make it less likely that people will get together in the old-fashioned ways. They think that computers make people more introverted. Those of us who are naturally more extroverted (I consider myself to be one of them, an introverted extrovert or an extroverted introvert) still find ways to get out there and mingle despite all our computer time.
But I have noticed that there’s been a general tendency in the last two decades for people to get together in person less frequently than they used to, and it probably does have something to do with the ease of electronic home entertainment. I first noticed this some time back in the 90s, when the already-meager social offerings in my part of New England began declining precipitously.
Parties became limited to one or two around Christmastime. Dinner out with friends was now somewhat of an occasion, rather than a regular thing. And this decline wasn’t the result of the advent of parenthood; most of our children were in their teen years by then and one might have thought that we adults would be happily enjoying our reclaimed freedom to party. Nor was it sudden poverty; the restaurants in my town were hardly expensive, and most of our get-togethers had been of the pot-luck variety, anyway.
I understood at least part of what was happening one Saturday evening when I went to the local video store to rent a movie. Almost everyone I knew was there prowling the aisles, seeking their solitary (or couple-ary) pleasures. It was then that I realized the videocassette player had been the agent of the death of the party, at least in my crowd.
In the 50s and 60s my parents had socialized in a way that seems frenetic compared to current mores, but I believe they were not atypical for middle-class people of their generation. They either went out or had friends over several times a week, every week.
First there was card-playing night, followed by cake, coffee, and lively conversation. Then there were meetings of several volunteer groups. Once a week for many years a group of couples met in my parents’ pine-paneled basement for ballroom dance lessons, to the tune of the scratchy record player. There were dinner parties and dance parties, small groups and large, several annual balls at the community center, fund-raisers and trips together and golf groups and tennis ladders.
These people were not rich, either. Many of the women didn’t work, but quite a few did. They just liked to get together and have fun, and they appeared to have the leisure to do so. There was little competition for their free time; television had been invented, but even in those pre-VCR days few would have thought to shun a social occasion for a TV show.
Now it’s different. According to Shutdown Day co-founder Rajekar, “[Shutdown Day is] an exercise in spreading awareness, so the first few times it’s going to be a very new experience for people who’ve never been away from their computer, and they will hopefully realize it’s not such a dangerous thing.”
People who’ve never been away from their computer. On reflection, I realize that must be a sizeable proportion of young people. To them, this is the natural state of things, and when I describe my parents’ life I might just just as well be speaking of the Victorians, or maybe even the Romans.
Technology always changes us, and most communications advances have been a double-edged sword in terms of bringing us closer. The much-awaited letter, a thing you could hold in your hand and save as a keepsake, imbued with the scent of the author and written in his/her own hand, has been replaced by the convenient but ephemeral email. The telephone can substitute for the social call, making it easier to bridge geographic distance but allowing us to feel better about moving further away from our loved ones.
And on and on it goes. Why should computers be any different?