"America's been hijacked by technology," I complained into the headset, aware of the irony that I was calling my wife from the United States on a cellphone. I was only a week into my book tour and already homesick for the low-tech life we enjoy in Costa Rica.
Since I had arrived in the US, everyone had been talking -- not to the person next to him, but to someone who wasn't there. In fact, two dear friends first greeted me while speaking into their cellphones. One apologized later, confiding that she often argues with her husband over his habit of walking into the house after work talking on his cell. And then her cellphone interrupted our conversation.
After six years of living as an expatriate in Costa Rica, it's always a trip -- in more ways than one -- to return to my native land. And on this visit I was struck by the extent to which technology has become so bound up with the American experience. It's as if everyone is accompanied by an electronic counterpart, and you can't deal with the flesh-and-blood person without relating to his or her disembodied double.
The first BlackBerry user I noticed seemed to me like an escapee from a mental ward. When a side view afforded me a glimpse of the black and silver clip in his ear, I felt I was in the presence of the Borg. In a way, I was: He seemed to have been assimilated into his technology. Is this the "larger life" that BlackBerry ads promise?
Then there was that e-mail I received from a renowned book critic. To my surprise, the word "and" was spelled "aamnd," and "you" had been reduced to "u." At the bottom it said the message had been sent via a BlackBerry.
Now if words hadn't been my correspondent's stock in trade, I might not have expected good spelling -- which brings me to another point: The particular way we use a technology and the unique way it fits into our lives are as important as the function and features touted by advertisers.
During my visit, I stayed with a friend who wished a pox on his cellphone because it allowed his boss to pester him 24/7. My elderly mother loves hers because she can keep it with her and use it in an emergency. I've heard that many rely on cellphones as a palliative for loneliness or boredom, but perhaps the real cure for these folks would be to start talking to the people around them.
Clearly, the same technology will have a different effect on each of our lives, so we shouldn't assume that we'll be better off with the latest stuff. I know millions are spent in the US to keep the public's attention on what's coming up (iPhones and digital TV), not on what's going down (pagers and PDAs). But if Americans don't start to pay attention to the personal impact of their technologies -- and choose or reject them on that basis - what's going down might just be the quality of their lives.
When I stayed with my cousin in Long Island, his home entertainment center took up most of the living room. As we watched American Idol on his high definition TV, I marveled at the vividness of the picture and sound while simultaneously wondering whether anyone would care to read a book in that room, let alone practice his or her own singing. The massive screen seemed to emit a metamessage: Leave entertainment to the professionals, and be sure to buy the products advertised!
The next afternoon, my cousin's 10-year-old son and his friend hooked up their PlayStations to the TV to play virtual basketball. They pushed around their joysticks expertly, hooting with excitement when they scored for their NBA teams. But what about that basketball hoop mounted outside next to the garage?
I thought back with fondness to our little village in Costa Rica where the children all play outside and people actually drop by your house to tell you things. Though we have cellphones and other technology, the human connection still trumps the cellular one. The world might stream into our living-room TVs, but we spend more time relating directly to our own little corner of it. It's a Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood set in the tropics, I mused. But then I remembered.
If the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) passes in the next few months, our national telecommunications system will be broken up and privatized, and we will probably be inundated with competing cellular phone companies, along with a flood of new electronics. Globalization will run its course, and I may eventually have to write a similar op-ed in Spanish to the citizens of my adopted land. Like the inhabitants of Main Street America 50 years ago, Costa Ricans may not know what they've got till it's gone.