Reflections of a ModemJunkie

March, 1998

What hath God Wrought?

by Leonard Grossman

What hath God wrought?
-- Samuel F.B. Morse
The first telegraph message ever sent (1844)
"What hath God Wrought?" With those words Samuel F.B. Morse ushered in the world of telecommunications more than one hundred and fifty years ago.

Buffeted between news of Lewinski and Lipinsky. Drowning in spam. Overloaded with a surfeit of wwws and an overload of dot coms. Indeed. What HAS God wrought? Or have we done it to ourselves?

We have two phone lines, two cell phones, a beeper, an answer service that pages the beeper, modems, Internet connections, BBS connections, online legal search tools, four televisions, countless radios. My wife looks up real estate listings online. I do legal research. The hours from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. are prime time for telemarketers. An uninterrupted dinner is a rarity. And an don't think of sleeping in on a bad day without turning off the phone.

At work I have an Internet connection on my desk. I keep the AP and Reuters news updates in the background, lurking behind WordPerfect, ready to be updated while waiting for someone to answer the phone or instantly checked for the latest from Israel or Iraq between sections of a project.

News is instant. Indeed we are so wired we often get news and gossip before it is news -- before it has happened. We get commentary on events in advance, during and after. And usually we assume something did indeed happen. Just once I would like two minutes of reflection after the State of the Union before the commentators and pundits tell me what to think. I often wonder if it is possible to know what I really think once I have heard the spin.

All of this is not new. But the omnipresence of the telecommunications has changed the way the word operates. Think of the ill fated production Madeleine Albright and her minions attempted to present on CNN for Saddam Hussein's benefit. Think of the pressure of the news media to keep up with the Drudge Report. And an in spite of all of our protestations that we don't care about the President's private sexual conduct, look at how addicted we became to following the latest rumors. Just check the ratings of T.V. newsmagazines and the cable news networks in the wake of Lewinskigate.

(By the way, don't do a search for "Lewinsky" on the Web if you are offended by learning of porno sites. The human imagination is amazing.)

And now it is so easy. I can spread my thoughts or my inanities throughout the world instantly. (Present article excluded, of course.) I can respond to news or mail so easily that often I wish later I had waited.

Over the holidays I went on a wonderful trip to Israel to visit my daughter, Sarah, who is studying there. During that whole trip I only checked my e-mail once. And I survived. On the way home, I stopped in England and even took the time to read a novel. Uninterrupted. Just sitting by the fire with a cup of tea, luxuriating in the power of words on a page to transport me to other worlds. On my return I was restored if also exhausted.

When I returned I found that I had changed. My surfing habits had changed. Oh, I still checked my e-mail to see if there was a note from Sarah. But my surfing time was down... way down. Then the Lewinski story broke. And the showdown in Iraq.

It is hard to tune out when the fate of our political system is involved (I know that's like saying I read Playboy in my youth only for the essays and the fiction). And it is hard to tune out Iraq when I learn that Sarah was issued a gas mask on her return to Israel after her semester break. So I am back online again almost all the time - nervously checking the latest State Department travel warning and waiting for Sarah's new connection from a kibbutz in the Negev.

And sometimes I am really grateful. As I write this news reports from Yahoo indicate the U. N. Secretary General may have reached a deal with Saddam. But late last week my wife and I started getting panicked phone calls from well meaning friends to tell us that the government had ordered Americans to leave Israel. Thank God I could immediately log on and find the State Department's Travel Advisory page and check the actual language. The advisory had indicated that dependants of American government employees and non essential employees who were anxious could leave Kuwait and Israel but stressed that there was no increased reason to believe Israel would be subjected to Iraqi attack. I even learned that I could sign up to a listserve of announcements from the State Department. I printed out a copy of the official report to calm their nerves.

Some times the world we have wrought does offer clarification and comfort as well as confusion and noise. Yes, it is overwhelming. The noise and hype keep us wired. It sometimes seems as if there is no time out. But that is our world today. We can't go back.

(Last week we received a gold foil envelope containing a lovely Valentine's card from Sarah. I have to say that seeing her thoughtful handwritten note warmed our hearts much more than her usual hastily written e-mail missives. But she is off line right now.. Waiting for a hook up in her new location in a kibbutz near Gaza. I can't wait until she gets back online. Still, I wonder how that envelope got here without a stamp.)

Copyright 1998 Leonard Grossman

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