RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Benefits of a Conversation

Every now and then, digital life in our house goes dead. That means that, for an indeterminate bit of time, there’s no e-mail, googling, or YouTube. The situation is that the Hot Spot box on the wall or, worse, the tower of power over on the interstate, has had some kind of incident. Or maybe there are too many people vying for the internet’s attention. Then, the next day, we’re back.

Now, the careful reader will observe that, in such a digital pinch, we could google on our I-phones, which get their waves from someplace else, but I-phones are expensive and also I’ve heard they use as much electricity as a refrigerator, shunting our google search into carbon for the next generation to deal with.

Besides, it’s that time of sudden e-suspension that fascinates me. When it happens, ideas come to us of things we could have been doing. We have sudden urges to send pictures to the kids, but we can’t send pictures. Nor can we sign petitions asking for repeal of the Monsanto Protection Act. If we had Facebook pages, we’d be unable to update. There is, it seems during that interruption, nothing possible without the internet.

And, so we mourn. We’re angry, to the point of not being able to think. We argue over what could be wrong and who should phone the company. We’re at each other’s throats and full of fatigue. And this anxiety, indecision, frozen state, lasts for as long as we’re not hooked up. I wander around the house, watching myself imitate a woman bereft and, at the same time, thinking how ridiculous this is.

I have many sources of entertainment, but none of them will do as long as the internet is down. I could call a neighbor, play with the dogs, sew a little bit, take a walk or even read a book. I could, in short, enjoy real life on this planet. Instead, I work myself into despair that ends with picking up laundry and magazines, stacking things up, as if I can clean our way back to the good graces of the e-gods.

Our dependence doesn’t come from growing up with this convenience. In fact, we’ve only had internet at home for a couple of years but we’ve become addicts. Then, we elderly baby boomers who are anything but digital natives, are immediately soothed when the signal returns. I can again surf for recipes, the old man listens to fiddle tunes from Iceland. Content at last.

So here’s the dilemma. If it’s so easy to control us—power in, we’re happy, power gone, we’re mad—then how much easier will it be to control the next generation, switch them on and off, those who have grown up with earbuds and I-phones?

At the small college where I teach, students walk to class alone, studying their phones and texting Mom, yes, Mom, to confirm that they made it out of one class and are moving to the next one. Cynical folks would say that social networking, not only with Mom but with friends around the world, is replacing nearby relationships with our own communities. If so, is that good or bad for the future? Maybe the birth rate will go down, which would be good. But maybe people will feel their real friends are on the other side of the planet, minimizing their commitments to home, and that would be bad.

But the digital revolution isn’t all bad by any means: My students probably spend more hours preparing for class. No more inconvenient, late-night trips to the library. Instead, they visit the campus website from the comfort of their rooms and download books that the library has scanned for me or read the blogs I recommend. Studying for class has become a lot like social networking.

This internet use, however, comes at a huge cost to the planet. One estimate is that, as people become more entrapped by their virtual worlds we will need 2 to 3 times the electricity. One group has asked Facebook to “unfriend” coal-based electrical generation.

Power for the future is a question that requires deep conversation, on a community level, and there are other questions equally perplexing. For consumers: What should be done about GMOs in food, which may be producing allergens. For farmers: What should be done about our failing topsoil and the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico?

Deep conversation on a community level is one thing the internet can’t do, and the benefits of conversation—knowing how to frame an argument, how to use facts to prove your point, how to respect opposing points of view and how to create working relationships—are mysteries to kids that express themselves in 140 characters. Other things are equally impossible to get from a screen: knowing how to do things, fix things, build things, improvise solutions for real-life problems and then find better solutions.

So I’m making a list for the next time the internet goes down: Make a pot of coffee. Walk to my neighbor’s. Knock on her door and start the conversation.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. She blogs at Email:

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2013

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