At my gym last week, I saw an extraordinary scene. A man was working out on a stationary bicycle, reading – a book! Not your ordinary bestseller taken from the rack at a Wal-Mart but an old book, with small script and thin paper. I stopped short of congratulating him for being a survivor of a dying species.
Indeed, many things are dying. In the art museums, I used to buy those lovely cards and envelopes with reproductions of masterworks. But they’re not made any more, because people don’t write letters any more. All you’ll find in museums are postcards.
Of course, like everyone, I write my routine thank-you notes by e-mail. But there are occasions when a more personalized, handwritten letter is required – when you extend your sympathies after a death, for instance; an e-mail is just too coarse for such messages.
I remember the café-terrasses of the last century, filled with people who read newspapers or books. When the person they were waiting for arrived, they quickly folded their newspaper or put their book aside, so they could have a real conversation.
Nowadays, they go on clicking on their BlackBerrys. In restaurants, two couples out of three put their cellphones on the table before sitting down. The digital age has erased elementary politeness. How can you engage in a phone conversation while the person you’re sitting with is reduced to looking at the ceiling? Or maybe she’s busy herself talking on the phone. Why do you even bother to meet?
I’m mesmerized by this new culture. How can all these BlackBerry types have so many friends available on a full-time basis, ready to chat endlessly at any hour of the day? Don’t these people work? When I call my friends, I’m usually greeted by voice mail. How can those students who recently demonstrated in Montreal against a slight raise in university fees afford these costly toys?
Even in a city of high culture such as Paris, the Opera House is planning to reserve a section for those who want to tweet while listening to the music. This need to tweet all the time and everywhere has become a compulsion.
The mere idea of being reduced to 140 characters when you could write so much more on e-mail is bizarre – but, of course, this doesn’t have to do with a love of writing or even with a need to communicate. What it reveals is a pathological incapacity to be alone with our thoughts for more than a few minutes. And this is not counting the criminal behaviour of text messaging while driving – a habit much more dangerous than drinking two glasses of wine before taking the wheel.
In a recent letter to La Presse, a desperate teacher pleaded for a ban on cellphones in the schools. Text messaging, she says, has become the No. 1 enemy of instruction. Students text all the time – in the toilets, in the stairs, in the classroom; they even text to those walking or sitting next to them. This instant, anonymous mode of communication is the perfect vehicle for bullying others and spreading all sorts of vicious rumours.
I’m not totally dysfunctional. I couldn’t live, let alone earn my living, without a computer. I own an iPad, although I don’t use its full capacities. I have a cellphone, but I use it only when I travel or for emergency calls. Am I normal? Maybe not.