Despite the many ways we are all connected in this wired world of cell phones, e-mail, text messaging, Facebook and Twitter, we are also increasingly out of touch. Or, more to the point, we are only in touch with the privileged few and out of touch with reality.
As a journalist, I constantly find myself trying to figure out how to contact people the newspapers and magazines I write for want me to interview. When I first started writing for publication in the 1960s, it was a fairly simple matter of looking someone up in the phone book. Everyone had a telephone and it was rare (and somehow suspect) when someone had an unlisted number.
Now, as people increasingly abandon land lines for cell phones, and there are no cell phone (or e-mail) directories, I often have to resort to tracking people down through their friends and known associates. If I’m lucky, the go-between will forward my message and I’ll eventually hear back from the person.
On the one hand, the new age of non-disclosure probably protects our privacy, but it also insulates us from the outside world. I’m all in favor of do-not-call lists in order avoid the annoyance of telemarketers, but there is an aspect of a shared public life that gets sacrificed when no one can contact you except people to whom you have given your cell phone number or e-mail address. If you wonder why some polls showed candidates much closer than the results turned out to be, it may simply be that pollsters can only reach old farts with land-line phones.
When I worked at Portland Public Library in the 1970s, we constantly used city directories to research and find people. You could find out who lived where and even what they did for a living. Now such listings would probably be regarded by many people as an invasion of privacy. What is it, I wonder, that we are afraid of? Why are we hiding in plain sight?
I like to think I make it easy for people to contact me. I’m in the phone book, I have an answering machine, my name and picture are on my column, and I don’t mind if the paper gives out my e-mail address. I do not, however, tweet or text and I rarely give out my cell phone number, preferring that only my family call me when I’m not at home. (Can you hear me now? I don’t get cell phone reception at home.)
In an odd way, the access that everyone now has to communications technology, incessantly tweeting, texting, and chatting wherever and whenever, may actually be contributing to a collective bunker mentality if we are only in touch with the like-minded.
In the recent election, we saw a new level of non-communication as many conservative candidates adopted the strategy of refusing to talk to the news media, or only to friendly news media, and in some cases even ducking out of public debates. I guess it’s a lot easier to remain confident in your own fixed ideas if you don’t have to answer for them. I just hope we haven’t elected a bunch of people in this country who are so out of touch that they can’t thoughtfully consider an alternative point of view.